Marlborough Sounds Conservation Department staff helped establish the first wild tuatara population on the South Island since the late 1700s yesterday.
Staff caught 44 tuatara from Stephens Island, at the northernmost tip of the Sounds, and took them by helicopter to Wellington where they were put on an Air New Zealand plane and flown to the Orokonui Ecosanctuary, in Dunedin.
They will be the first wild tuatara population to live on the mainland since the introduction of Polynesian rats led to their extinction.
The 44 were part of a wider transfer of 260 tuatara from the island to eco-sanctuaries around the country, including in Waikato, Hawke's Bay and two in Gisborne.
Department community relations manager Siobain Browning, of Picton, said the transfer was an historic move for one of the world's rarest reptiles.
"Most of New Zealand's wildlife is unique, but this is on a whole different scale," she said.
Tuatara are commonly dubbed "living fossils" as the Stephens Island species, Sphenodon Punctatus, can trace its ancestry back more than 200 million years.
"It's amazing, the Sounds population is now supplying the rest of the country. Some of these [ecosanctuary] projects, when they started, their dream would have been to get tuatara."
Ngati Koata representative Louisa Paul oversaw the transfer as the iwi is the island's kaitiaki (guardians).
Orokonui Ecosanctuary general manager Chris Baillie said establishing the wildlife reserve was a five-year process and finally getting a wild tuatara population was a fantastic result.
The 307-hectare sanctuary set up a predator-proof fence in 2007 and provided a sustainable environment for the reptiles to thrive in which included basking spots such as rocky outcrops without too much vegetation to block the sun, appropriate soil for burrowing, and natural food sources, she said.
More than 3000 children visit the reserve each year but the wild tuatara, two of which will end up in a display area, will be left alone for at least one year to "settle in and disperse". The sanctuary is already home to captive tuatara.
The Otago Natural History Trust developed the ecosanctuary as a mainland island wildlife reserve with support from the Conservation Department, University of Otago, Otago Museum and Kati Huirapa Runaka ki Puketeraki.
Stephens Island holds the largest tuatara colony in New Zealand, with about 30,000.
- The Marlborough Express