Touring tuatara stop over in Wellington
Hundreds of tuatara were flown to new homes on the mainland today after a stopover at Wellington Airport.
The precious cargo were collected from Takapourewa (Stephens Island) in the Marlborough Sounds during the past four days by the Conservation Department and volunteers from local iwi Ngati Koata.
Carriane Boyd, 28, of Nelson, said capturing the 222 tuatara was ''pretty amazing''.
''It's a once-in-a-lifetime experience.''
Ngati Koata believe tuatara to be the kaitiaki (guardians) of the stream of knowledge because of their longevity - some live to 100 years - and their third eye, Samara Davis, 24, said.
Both were accompanying 60 of the cold-blooded creatures to Dunedin, where they would be released at the Orokonui Ecosanctuary later today.
This is by far the furthest south that tuatara have been free to roam in a century.
It is hoped that relocating the prehistoric reptiles will enable them to grow bigger, because half of the 60,000 tuatara estimated to be alive in New Zealand are on Takapourewa island, Ms Davis said.
''Because the island is overpopulated the tuatara won't grow to their full capacity. They've come to a point where the males will even hunt the juveniles.''
It was the largest and most complex tuatara relocation ever undertaken and was a massive step towards repopulating tuatara into parts of the country where their ancestors lived prior to predation and habitat loss.
They survive naturally on about 30 islands - the equivalent of just 0.5 per cent of their former territory.
They became extinct on the mainland by the late 1700s due to pests and habitat changes. Each tuatara was microchipped before being flown by helicopter to Wellington today.
Each one was encased with a cardboard tube that had wet tissue at the end to keep them cold and moist.
They were piled into about 20 mesh bags and accompanied by Ngati Koata members on Air New Zealand flights to Dunedin, Gisborne and Hamilton today.
The bags were strapped into seats next to passengers.
Each year Air New Zealand helps the Conservation Department relocate dozens of species around the country, chief executive Rob Fyfe said.
''Tuatara are not jetsetters by nature, in fact they don't generally travel more than about 20 metres from their burrows over the where they hatch during the entire course of their lives.''
Whangaokeno Island off the East Coast
Cape Sanctuary in Hawke's Bay
Young Nicks Head Sanctuary near Gisborne
Maungatautari in Central Waikato.
Orokonui Ecosanctuary, near Dunedin
The Dominion Post