Doc lukewarm on gecko theft claims

EcoGecko Consultants herpetologist Carey Knox says the smuggling of rare jewelled geckos is contributing to their decline. Photo supplied.
EcoGecko Consultants herpetologist Carey Knox says the smuggling of rare jewelled geckos is contributing to their decline. Photo supplied.
Concerns have been raised that freedom campers may be taking Otago Peninsula's rare jewelled geckos.

However, Department of Conservation (Doc) partnerships ranger Craig Wilson said Doc had no evidence to suggest freedom campers were any more likely to be wildlife smugglers than other tourists.

Speaking at a recent meeting of the Otago Peninsula Community Board, David Holdsworth said it was easy for freedom campers to go online and find out where the geckos lived, park their vehicles nearby and steal them.

Until recently, Dr Holdsworth had been a member of the Otago Conservation Board and said there had been ongoing problems with this behaviour all around the region.

Ecogecko Consultants herpetologist Carey Knox said smuggling was a threat to the gecko population and was contributing to declining numbers, although the level of smuggling was unknown.

''It's hard to put numbers to it. We never know how many are being taken,'' he said.

However, gecko numbers declined every summer at the more easily accessible locations. There was a good chance tourists were parking overnight and taking the geckos, he said.

Locals kept an eye out for any suspicious activities and had reported number plates to police, which had led to the arrest of smugglers in the past, he said.

According to Doc, seven foreign tourists have been prosecuted for attempting to smuggle geckos out of New Zealand since 2010. Five of these cases were from Christchurch and two from Dunedin.

Six of the offenders were European, and one Mexican. Occasionally New Zealanders were prosecuted for taking geckos, generally not for exporting to other countries, but to keep as pets (which is also illegal).

The penalties for taking wildlife have recently been increased. Taking protected wildlife for commercial gain can now be punished by a fine of up to $300,000 and a maximum five-year jail term.

Mr Wilson said most of the people prosecuted for stealing geckos were European tourists rather than New Zealand residents.

There were sites on the peninsula that Doc monitored and if a camper van was seen parked there, Doc officers would have a word to its inhabitants, Mr Wilson said.

Otago Peninsula Community Board chairwoman Christine Garey said the board had been concerned about jewelled geckos being taken for a long time.

She was pleased recent legislation had set out harsher penalties.

However, she thought any people driving any vehicle could steal the geckos and assigning blame to freedom campers alone was a bit misleading.

The local community was very ''astute'' at phoning in vehicles parked in suspicious areas, she said.

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