Lizard-hunters win conservation award

Rod Morris (left) and Tony Jewell on Adelaide Saddle, Fiordland, in 2007 when Mr Jewell found the...
Rod Morris (left) and Tony Jewell on Adelaide Saddle, Fiordland, in 2007 when Mr Jewell found the Barrier Knob skink. Jinty MacTavish (behind left) was filming her very first documentary Geckos Rock. Photo by Julia Kelbling.
Lizard-finding friends Tony Jewell and Rod Morris are enthusiastic about skinks and geckos. Wanaka reporter Marjorie Cook speaks to the pair whose endeavours won them the 2009 Inland Otago Conservation Award at a ceremony in Cromwell last night.

New Zealand lizard hunters Tony Jewell and Rod Morris rate discovering the Sinbad skink as one of their most special finds.

Mr Morris (58), a wildlife photographer and writer from Dunedin who works on contract for Natural History New Zealand, found the first alpine gecko in Fiordland in 1974 during a kakapo-finding expedition.

However, he says his pioneering discovery has well and truly been overtaken by Mr Jewell (33), of Ranfurly.

The pair met several years ago while on lizard-finding field missions and are now friends and collaborators.

"Tony does all the discovering... He thinks like a lizard. I have been in the field with him on two occasions when he's discovered new species and he is intuitive," Mr Morris said.

Mr Jewell cannot pin down exactly when he started looking for lizards but says having a science teacher father and older brothers who were fascinated by creepie-crawlies may have influenced him.

"By 3 or 4 years old, I was already intrigued by frogs," he said.

Mr Jewell is a self-taught natural history specialist and has never been to university.

He was raised at Riverton and lived for about a year in Wellington after leaving high school, but returned to Invercargill for eight years before moving to Central Otago.

He has worked on various contracts for the Department of Conservation, but for now feels he has had enough of living on a shoestring and is working at a Ranfurly petrol station.

He moved to Ranfurly from Cromwell about two and a-half years ago.

When Mr Jewell found the pygmy gecko recently, Mr Morris thought they were the babies of bigger geckos under the same rock.

However, Mr Jewell could show the tiny animals were mature adults and so a new species was identified.

Mr Morris says his proudest moment was being with Mr Jewell in 2004 when he found the bright green and orange Sinbad skink in Fiordland's Sinbad Gully.

Mr Jewell also rates the Sinbad skink as a special find, because it was the most beautiful lizard he has seen and in such an awkward place.

"I am not trying to talk it up because I found it, but as much as the habitat I found it in... It lives on a very imposing rock wall. The habitat alone makes it difficult to study the animal. I think that's the animal that was the most impressive in terms of appearance and habitat," Mr Jewell said.

Dunedin natural history science communicator Jinty MacTavish was also there when the Sinbad skink was found and went on to make a film called Geckos Rock, which screened at the Wild South International Film Festival at Wanaka in April.

Mr Jewell and Mr Morris started lobbying authorities to do predator control in Sinbad Gully and were thrilled when the Fiordland Conservation Trust made a joint announcement with funding partner Redboats last month that a predator-proof mainland island would go ahead.

Last year, the pair produced a field guide of New Zealand reptiles and amphibians, which has been listed by their nominee Andrew Penniket, of the the Otago Conservation Board, as another reason why they should be considered for the conservation award.

But Mr Penniket, who lives in Wanaka, believes their work on the jewelled gecko particularly deserves recognition.

The jewelled gecko was scientifically described in the 1950s and was once found easily throughout the South.

It is now in serious decline but still lives in pockets on Otago Peninsula, near Mr Morris's home, and on Codfish Island in Southland, in Aoraki-Mt Cook National Park and on Banks Peninsula.

For reasons unknown, it seems to have completely disappeared from Central Otago in the past 10-15 years.

Mr Morris describes the jewelled gecko as "a beautiful green lizard with diamond shaped patches on its back - the Kermit the frog of the reptile world".

He surmises scrubby bush clearances and predatory mice have contributed to the jewelled gecko's decline.

The pair worked with University of Otago masters student Rosi Muller, of Germany, to develop new techniques to locate the jewelled gecko.

A small reserve on Otago Peninsula was also tidied up in the hope the gecko would return, with Otago University masters student Carey Knox tracking what happened to the booming house mice population.

Mr Morris says if the jewelled gecko returns now the mice population is smaller, it would clinch his predator theory.

Mr Jewell agrees predators are causing the demise of the jewelled geckos and wonders whether the arrival of predatory magpies in the southern parts of New Zealand from the 1970s is a factor.

"In a number of areas, particularly Western Otago and around Lake Wakatipu and Te Anau, there used to be reports of jewelled geckos but basically there has been nothing since the late 1970s. It all sort of fits together," Mr Jewell said.

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