After spending two years rummaging through thousands of rocks in search of the Cupola gecko, New Zealand lizard expert Ben Barr had begun to wonder, “Will I ever find this thing?”
But this month, in Nelson Lakes National Park atop the South Island, he lifted another stone and there it was. “I was totally euphoric. I was over the moon. I could not believe it. Screaming and screaming, it was amazing. Almost cry.”
Conservationists are celebrating the rediscovery as “incredibly significant,” with the elusive reptile not seen for over a decade, and only twice.
The Cupola gecko was first documented in 1968, in thickets above Cupola Hut in the Travers Range. Almost 40 years after that first sighting, one was seen in another part of Nelson Lakes National Park in 2007.
But with no confirmation of its survival since then, the New Zealand Department of Conservation (DOC) had classified the species as “data poor”, meaning that it was simply not possible to say whether or not it survived.
Barr, a Whangārei-based herpetologist and scientific advisor to the DOC’s Lizard Technical Advisory Group, had led the charge to find it, leading three approximately week-long trips to Nelson Lakes since 2019.
Others have undertaken more without success. “People have been searching for a long time,” Barr said.
On his expedition earlier this month, he managed to find not just one gecko, but four. “It had been a great accumulation: I have spent a lot of time looking for it: hours, hours, hours, days, months and years … It was very similar to having a baby, the euphoria.”
‘An incredibly significant discovery’
So rarely glimpsed was the Cupola gecko, Barr didn’t know exactly what he was looking for. “No one really knew exactly what it looks like, no scientist had ever held and examined it… It has always been an enigma, it is talked about in dark alleys like: ‘Is it still there? Who knows?'”
After wrapping up his last trip in 2019 empty-handed, Barr was deeply concerned that the species was already extinct, preyed upon by rodents. “You feel like you’re competing with pests because they’re on the job 24/7 … I was pretty eager to try and find the last one before a rat did.”
But with funding from the DOC’s biodiversity fund that had targeted endangered and data-poor species, Barr was able to persevere and succeed. It says its success reflects the importance of dedicating resources to flora and fauna that may already be lost. “This thing is really on the brink of extinction, so we have to try to find it as soon as possible.”
“It’s an incredibly significant discovery,” said Jo Monks, scientific advisor to the DOC’s biodiversity group. “There have been many, many trips by highly qualified and respected herpetologists since  and no one has found them again until this summer.
“Having some animals on hand is really exciting.”
Bolstered by confirmation that individual Cupola geckos survive, DOC is now working with local iwi to intensify efforts to find more so that the species can be better understood and protected.
Once the extent of its distribution is known, Monks says, it can be reclassified from bad data. “I have high hopes.”
Although the DOC has a history of rescuing endangered birds, much less is known about how to retrieve reptiles, and a high proportion of endemic New Zealand gecko and skink species are threatened or at risk.
Monks says the biodiversity funding allocated in the 2018 budget has been key to improving outcomes for lesser known and “less attractive” species. Barr had been awarded $ 15,000 (£ 7,600) over four years to hunt the Cupola gecko.
“It’s not a lot of money, yet we’ve made massive profit and insight … and the same story is true for other data-deficient species.”
The Okarito gecko was also rediscovered, after decades without being sighted, on the west coast of the South Island last year.
“There are so many places in the country where herpetologists just haven’t been, and you have to be there with a project dedicated to lizards,” Monks said. “It is very easy to pass these important populations, I have done it.”
On this most recent trip, Barr also found another gecko that genetic testing may reveal is a previously undiscovered species. “It shows that there are still many mysteries to be found, and we are not going to find them sitting in offices.
“We have to invest in finding these data-deficient species and also put a little effort into finding the ones that we don’t yet know about.”
In the meantime, its success will spur those awaiting further recoveries and revelations from the New Zealand rainforest.
Barr says his main motive, searching the bush for a long-lost lizard, had been to save the species from extinction. “But I’m not going to lie, the thrill of finding it, the dopamine hit, is quite satisfying.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism