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A fugitive exotic lizard was captured and removed from Papaitonga Scenic Reserve where it would have preyed on native snails.

Date:  24 May 2017

The native plants and animals of Lake Waiwiri are now safe, after a fugitive Australian water dragon (Physignathus lesuerii) was captured in Papaitonga Scenic Reserve.

The exotic lizard was caught and removed from the reserve on Friday 19 May.

Water dragons are becoming popular pets in New Zealand. It is presumed this animal – a juvenile - was released or escaped from captivity.

Young water dragons are carnivorous. As they grow, they begin to eat plant material.

Powelliphanta tararuaensis.
Powelliphanta tararuaensis: These giant native land snails live amongst the leaf litter at Papaitonga Scenic Reserve
Photo: Steve Pilkington | DOC

Papaitonga Scenic Reserve contains rare plants and wildlife, and fragile habitats. It is home to a population of Powelliphanta – New Zealand’s giant land snails. The water dragon would have been making a meal of them, along with many other native invertebrates.

DOC sprang into action to protect these taonga. Expert lizard handler Michael Kean was employed to capture the water dragon with minimal impact on the environment.

It was caught on a cool evening, snagged from a branch about 3 m up. Michael says, “It was so cold, it had no fight in it.”

The animal had lost an inch or two off the tip of its tail. “The wound has healed over but has not yet begun to grow into new tail.”

Australian water dragon.
Water dragon at Waiwiri two weeks before it was caught
Image: Michael Kean | DOC

Australian water dragon head shot.
Australian water dragon head shot
Image: Michael Kean | DOC

Michael suspects this may have been from a near miss with a rat or cat.

Sue Moore, Senior Ranger Biodiversity for DOC's Manawatu District says pets don’t belong in the wild.

“Letting a pet go in your local reserve might seem like the humane option, but pets aren’t equipped to survive in the wild,” says Sue.

“If they do manage to survive, they may spread diseases and prey on native plants and animals.”

The water dragon was first spotted at Lake Waiwiri in mid-April, sunning itself on a boardwalk.

Water dragons are quite wary of people, and even animals accustomed to human attention will be quick to escape if approached too closely. They drop into the water where they can remain for up to an hour, or disappear into vegetation. This made capturing it a significant challenge for Michael.

“Don't ever release exotic lizards anywhere,” says Michael. “They may prey on endangered species, compete with them for food, or transmit diseases that could wreak havoc on our native lizards, which have no immunity.”

Michael’s advice for lizard owners who are no longer able to care for their pets is to find them a new home.

“Most exotics command a good price, so take it to a pet shop or sell it on Trade Me,” he says. “In much of New Zealand, exotic lizards would quite likely suffer a slow miserable death from cold, or be killed by rats.”


Kelly Hancock, Community Ranger DOC Manawatu
Phone +64 6 350 9670

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