Te Nukuao Wellington Zoo has embarked on a crucial local conservation programme
dedicated to breeding Whitaker’s Skinks for release.

Whitaker’s Skinks are now presumed locally extinct in Te Whanganui a Tara Wellington. A population is held in human care to ensure the species’ survival as predators in their wild habitats continue to jeopardize their chances to breed and grow. 

“The Whitaker’s Skink Recovery Programme is a key example of how a progressive zoo can be the best place for conservation projects to thrive, especially in a circumstance where breeding in human care is our best chance to save the population and eventually restore the animals to the wild”, says Dr Ox Lennon, Conservation Manager at Te Nukuao Wellington Zoo. 

“We have the expertise and resources to help make this conservation programme a success. Looking after these animals at the Zoo is a crucial step to ensure that if they do become extinct in the wild, all is not lost. This work to protect Aotearoa’s taonga is only made possible through collaboration with the Department of Conservation, a private holder, Iwi groups, and a private conservation organisation”.  

“The Zoo will bring a scientific approach to the programme to really unleash the data and increase our understanding of this species. It’s very exciting”, says Brent Tandy, Senior Ranger Biodiversity at the Department of Conservation.   

Te Nukuao Wellington Zoo is currently home to 1/6th of the Whitaker’s Skinks in human care. The Skinks are being cared for at our state-of-the-art reptile facility, Te Piringa Iti, where our Ectotherms and Birds team provide care for the nine juvenile Skinks. The Skinks are cared for in climate-controlled habitats where they will be given all they need to grow quickly and healthily, increasing their chances of living a long life and eventually breeding.  

“While these Skinks are in our care, we’re collecting data on their diet, activity patterns, and environmental preferences. This monitoring will provide invaluable insights into how we can help these populations to thrive once they’re ready to be restored to their wild habitats”, says Joel Knight, Team Leader of Ectotherms and Birds.  

“The addition of the Zoo to the Whitaker’s Skink Recovery team will hugely expand the management of the Programme”, says the private holder who wishes to remain unnamed.  

“The Zoo’s participation brings powerful resources and professional personnel who will enhance the ongoing efforts to save the Whitaker’s Skink”. 

Whitaker’s Skinks are classified as ‘Threatened – Nationally Endangered' by the New Zealand Threat Classification System. The Skinks used to be widespread across the North Island before human settlement, habitat disruption, and introduced predators reduced them to only two locations – Pukerua Bay and the Coromandel Peninsula.   

Pukerua Bay is the only known local habitat for Whitaker’s Skinks, but the area isn’t safe for Whitaker’s Skinks while habitat threats remain an issue. The predator control and fencing measures necessary to preserve Pukerua Bay as a sanctuary for Whitaker’s Skinks aren’t in place yet, which is why the insurance population at Te Nukuao Wellington Zoo, at the private conservation reserve, and with the private holder, is critical for the species’ survival.  


About Whitaker’s Skinks  

Whitaker’s Skinks used to live in widespread populations throughout the North Island.  

Through the introduction of new predators and habitat change at the hands of humans, the species’ numbers have steadily declined. By the time the species was discovered, they were only living in two known locations: Pukerua Bay and on two islands in the Coromandel, though there is some question as to how different the Coromandel populations are from the Wellington population genetically. 

Aside from Te Nukuao Wellington Zoo, where 1/6th of the Wellington Whitaker’s Skinks population is held, the remaining skinks reside at a private conservation reserve and with a private holder in the Wellington region. As the breeding programme continues, the Zoo will take on more individuals from these two locations. 

The population that used to live in larger numbers in Pukerua Bay was studied for several years and it was known that the Skinks living there were vulnerable and declining. To protect the Skinks, the grazing animals at Pukerua Bay were removed. The unforeseen result was large amounts of grass growing, leading to additional grass seed which attracted many mice. Mice pose a great danger to Lizards, and their arrival hastened the decline of Whitaker’s Skinks in Pukerua Bay. This was the reason a breeding programme was started, so that the population could be safeguarded in human care and eventually restored to the wild.