Visiting the Orokonui Ecosanctuary
Whilst visiting Dunedin for the World Congress of Herpetology, I was lucky enough to have visited the Orokonui Ecosanctuary. As you can probably guess by the name, it ecological wildlife reserve that has been developed by the Otago Natural History Trust in the Orokonui Valley approximately 20 km to the north of central Dunedin. From the city centre it doesn’t take too long to reach and with a NZ$20 entry fee for self-guided tours, it’s well worth the money as well!
After leaving the confines of the visitor centre, you walk down a path that leads you to the entrance of the Ecosanctuary – with a 8.7 km long stainless steel mesh anti-predator fence. It is designed to keep out the smallest of rodents but despite this, there were traps set throughout Orokonui. There are going to be weak points somewhere that can easily be exploited by mice or rats (unfortunately). Despite this, it felt like we were entering Jurassic Park as we opened the double gate and made our way inside.
Just inside the Ecosanctuary is a enclosure that houses two juvenile tuatara (Sphenodon punctatus), unfortunately it was too cold and windy for them to come out of their burrows, so we never got to see them. In another of the enclosures, there were Otago skinks (Oligosoma otagense) were plentiful – sheltering among the rocks and boulders and basking in the sun. Despite the high winds (which were unprecedented) these guys were still out making the most of it, whilst my hair blew furiously in the gusts. Otago skinks are the largest species of skink found in New Zealand and as you can probably tell from the photo above, they are quite substantial lizards!
Throughout the Ecosanctuary, there were a number of boulders, logs and rock piles that any sun-worshiping reptile would have loved. Fortunately on a couple of these, we were able to find a small number of Southern grass skinks (Oligosoma aff. polychroma). These guys are a lot smaller than the Otago skinks, probably up to 15 cm in size, being about the size of the familiar viviparous lizard (Zootoca vivipara). New Zealand’s legislation regarding it’s wildlife is very strict so everything was taken at a distance using a zoom lens. I’m happy at how my photos came out though, I’ve got a number that I still need to edit and share on social media (when I find the time).
It wasn’t just New Zealand’s endemic reptiles we were after, but their birds too. Luckily we walked past a takahē feeding station just as one came along. I was so engrossed in the skinks that I was completely oblivious to it until one of the rangers pointed it out. My photos don’t do the colours justice but it was great to see one in a semi-wild environment. Unfortunately we didn’t see any kiwis or other endemics such as the kākā but this could easily be explained by the weather and time of day of our visit. Despite this, I had an amazing time getting up close and personal with some New Zealand wildlife and being immersed in nature at the same time!