Tuatara face uncertain future

    Tuatara statue at the Southland Museum & Art Gallery. Photo: Janette Gellatly

    MUCH has changed for Henry, Southland’s much-loved centenarian tuatara stud, and his progeny since the Southland Museum & Art Gallery closed last year.

    The highly successful tuatara breeding programme has been halted, their public engagements have been suspended, ownership rights of the Stephens Island Tuatara are being transferred to Iwi and the fate of some, if not all, of Henry’s prized offspring is being decided.

    For more than 50 years the Southland Museum & Art Gallery (SMAG) tuatarium and highly-regarded breeding programme had been a source of pride for the Southland community and provided the museum with a unique point of difference.

    It was a popular attraction for tourists and Southlanders alike, and had contributed to the conservation of the rare reptile, raising the profile of the animal and the region on the national and international stage.

    However, since the museum was closed to the public last year after being deemed an earthquake risk, the future of the tuatara and the programmes run at the tuatarium have been in doubt.

    Lindsay Hazley with a baby tuatara at the Southland Museum and Art Gallery. Photo: Southland Express files

    SMAG manager David Luoni said at present tuatara curator Lindsay Hazley was continuing to care for the tuatara according to best practice.

    “The tuatarium is a specialised, purpose-built facility that caters for the tuataras’ sensitive environmental requirements in an alarmed and monitored building,” he said.

    “The tuatarium remains the best and safest option for the tuatara in our care until a new facility is available.”

    However, when that new facility would be realised was uncertain after the Invercargill City Council decided to defer the Living Dinosaurs Project to 2021/22 to align with the museum’s redevelopment.

    The Living Dinosaurs Project involved developing a joint tuatarium and kakapo breeding facility.

    Documents sourced from the council stated, depending on when the Living Dinosaurs Project would be completed, only three tuatara would need to be retained in the tuatarium solely for viewing purposes – Henry and his girlfriends Lucy and Mildred.

    What would happen to the excess tuatara if this should happen was another uncertainty.

    The national population of tuatara in captivity is about 250 animals, 100 more than was needed.

    Possible new homes in the wild being considered for the surplus tuatara held at Southland Museum were to top up Puangiangi and Whakatere Papanui populations, Tonga Island and Waimarama.

    SMAG board chairwoman Toni Biddle said decisions about the breeding programme and the fate of excess tuatara held at the museum would be made once Memorandum of Understandings between the relevant parties had been finalised.

    Prince Harry holds Henry the tuatara, watched by Invercargill Mayor Tim Shadbolt and Southland Museum & Art Gallery tuatara keeper Lindsay Hazley.

    With the museum’s permit to hold protected species due to expire and Department of Conservation (Doc) recognising Ngati Koata Iwi as guardians of the tuatara, Memorandum of Understandings were being prepared to formally establish a partnership between the parties.

    At present, a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) was being prepared between the Ngati Koata Trust, which owns the tuatara sourced from Stephens Island, and Murihiku Runanga.

    Once finalised, a further MOU would be established between Ngai Tahu and SMAG.

    Ngati Koata Trust cultural manager Louisa Paul said the MOU would be completed when all parties were satisfied. There was no planned completion date for this.

    Ngati Koata Trust is a Nelson-based charitable trust which represents the Ngati Koata people.

    Ngati Koata was being formally recognised as rangatira (owners) of the Stephens Island Tuatara residing at the museum. Stephens Island was within the area belonging to the Iwi.

    Ngai Tahu was being established as kaitiaki (guardians) of them.

    Ms Paul said when the tuatara public engagement programme would be resumed was not the decision of Ngati Koata.

    “This decision can only be made by Southland.”

    Decisions about resuming the breeding programme and the relocation of excess tuatara in captivity at the museum would be made by Ngai Tahu, Ngati Koata, Doc and the captive manager for tuatara, she said.

    “Euthanasia in this context is never an option for Ngati Koata Tuatara.”

    Despite all the uncertainty surrounding the future of the Southland Museum Tuatara, Ngati Koata Trust have given the people of Southland one assurance – “Ngati Koata is committed to having tuatara remain in Southland.”

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