Auckland Zoo's mission to save awakōpaka skinks hits sex-based snag

Auckland Zoo is at the heart of plans to conserve a critically endangered species of skink that was only discovered a decade ago.

Fewer than 20 awakōpaka skinks are known to inhabit the Homer Saddle in Fiordland.

In an effort to breed a "safety net" population, conservationists located five of them and took them to Auckland Zoo - but there's one small snag.

"There is a slight hitch: of the five individuals we got, four of them are definitely male and the smallest individual we suspect to be male," said Dave Laux, Auckland Zoo's Ectotherms Team Leader.

To locate the skinks, Laux and Department of Conservation (DoC) staff - with the help of Ngāi Tahu - worked their fingers to the bone, searching under rocks.

"It was a very, very long week. It was physically, emotionally and mentally demanding," said Laux.

He added the five skinks are "thriving in our care. They're feeding, they're shedding, they're doing absolutely everything we could ask them to do and we're learning so much about them as we go."

But with what appears to be a male-only collection now at Auckland Zoo, it looks like the team will be going back in spring to hunt for a female.

"I'd be lying if there wasn't a whisper of frustration that we didn't get the necessary outcome on the first trip," said Laux.

The odds haven't been in their favour but there's still hope that one day boy skink meets girl skink to save the species.