Rod Morris

Sinbad Gully

The last mainland kakapo were found in this damp and secluded Fiordland valley in the 1970s, but recently a slew of other new animals has been discovered in its upper reaches. This photograph was taken after rain during the search for kakapo.

Written by       Photographed by Rod Morris

Climbers call this 200 m high face at the head of the Sinbad “Shadowland” because surrounding faces put it in shade for most of the day. Overhangs mean the rock is often dry, another attraction for climbers. Lizards and weta live on the face—but so do mice.

December 1, 1877. Ven­turing northwards from Thompson Sound at 5.5 knots, 34-year-old Scotsman Donald Sutherland—soldier, sailor and prospector—slipped into Milford Sound. Immediately finding sign of Maori, this veteran of the New Zealand Wars prudently hauled up his little sailing boat in the isolated safety of an island at the mouth of the Arthur River.

Maori often visited Milford Sound, which they called Piopiotahi (“First Piopio”, a piopio being what Pakeha ornithologists called a New Zealand thrush), to collect pounamu (jade/greenstone). However, they had no permanent settlement there, whereas Sutherland was to dedicate the rest of his life to settling, exploring and exploiting that adventurer’s wonderland.

Early exploration of the Milford area revealed many grand sights, including Mi­tre Peak, Bowen Falls and the 580 m-high Sutherland Falls, as well as the rich supply of pounamu. When he first gazed down a long dark valley that called to his mind Sinbad the Sailor’s Valley of Diamonds, perhaps Suther­land had high hopes of finding precious stones there; at any rate, he named the watery place Sinbad Gully. Flanked by impossibly steep glacier-cut mountain walls, not least of which is Mitre Peak, the valley floor was a boulder-strewn jumble of dense rainforest and bubbling waterways. Unfortunately, the Sinbad failed to deliver up any diamonds; however, little though Sutherland was to know, it would eventually prove to be an abode of fantastical reptiles and birds—an attribute it did share with the Valley of Diamonds.

March 17, 2004, and a Jet-Ranger helicop­ter descended the narrow chute of the Sinbad. Three intrepid naturalists marvelled at the landscape of the little isolated alpine basin into which they were being delivered. To the east, the basin dropped away almost vertically into the main, lowland section of the Sinbad, a long narrow gully visible from Milford Sound vil­lage. To the north, west and south, rocky ram­parts rose abruptly, culminating, towards the southwest corner, in a bare, slightly overhang­ing rock wall 200 m high known to climbers as Shadowland.

The previous year rock climbers Craig Jef­fries and Paul Rogers had sighted a gecko about 150 m up the Shadowland climb. When they reported this to DOC, it immediately drew the attention of herpetologist Mandy Tocher. “In over 100 years of scientific exploration only a single specimen of gecko has been collected from Fiordland,” she subsequently told me. “And the notion of a gecko living 150 m up a vertical rock wall was totally novel. This was such a significant record we just had to follow it up.”

The single specimen of Fiordland gecko that Mandy was referring to was a baby, but even so it was obviously different from any previously known species. In March 1974, young Wildlife Service trainee Rod Morris was with a team of people studying kakapo in the Esperance val­ley, near Milford Sound. Staying at the derelict Esperance Hut (since removed), which sat on an elevated terrace amid lush subalpine shrubs just below the De Lambert Falls, Rod set out one morning for a nearby kakapo garden, or lek—a male bird’s display area. To his consider­able surprise, he spotted a tiny gecko perched among wet foliage a metre above the ground.

Despite its uniquely short tail, bold chevron markings and mustard-yellow blotches, it was the gecko’s behaviour rather than its appear­ance that aroused Rod’s curiosity.

“Geckos are mostly nocturnal, and only emerge in daylight to bask in the sun,” he ex­plained when he recalled the occasion for me. “This was an overcast day with light drizzle and no hint of sun, yet this gecko was right out in the open, in the tips of a snow totara shrub, as if it were foraging.”

He wisely collected the specimen, the first of a species new to science. Known as the cascade gecko—a reference to the waterfall-rich land­scape in which it was found—it is just one of many New Zealand geckos that have yet to be formally described and named.

A specimen of the as-yet-unnamed cascade gecko from Sinbad Gully. These geckos are unusual in that they forage by day, even in damp and overcast conditions.
A specimen of the as-yet-unnamed cascade gecko from Sinbad Gully. These geckos are unusual in that they forage by day, even in damp and overcast conditions.

Driven by the combined intrigue of the cascade gecko and the mysterious Shadowland sighting, Mandy, Rod and I were now deter­mined to find geckos in Sinbad Gully—all the more so after a failed attempt, the latest of several, to find more geckos in the Esperance.

It was a bright sunny day, warm with no wind, and our spirits were high. We were all eager to get on, so lunch could wait. Ten min­utes of turning over loose rocks on the gully floor revealed little of interest. Then, on lifting yet another nondescript rock, I came face to face with what appeared to be two striking new animal species. The first presented itself in the shape of a pair of ground weta (genus Hemian­drus). At 45 mm long, these were substantially larger than any previously documented species. Being beautifully coloured, with narrow bands of cream and black round the abdomen and further decorated with rust-coloured blotches, they have since been given the tentative name superb ground weta. The second new species, just centimetres from the weta, was a shiny little skink.

Being a herpetologist, I was well aware that, like geckos, skinks were notoriously elu­sive in Fiordland. In fact, despite a number of reported sightings in the latter half of the 20th century, not one had ever been collected from above the tree line. The scientific im­portance of this find was therefore immediate. Was it a variant of one of New Zealand’s 40+ known skink species, perhaps the Fiordland skink (Oligosoma acrinasum), which lives on the south-western coast? The Fiordland skink is black with tiny green flecks and a mottled grey-black belly. This Sinbad skink was also black, but had larger and more regular green spots on its back, pinkish-grey blotches on its sides and a vivid orange-pink belly. It certainly looked like a new species.

As we continued our search, time and again we were amazed at the creatures we encoun­tered. Among them was yet another new kind of ground weta, since named the red-saddle ground weta. This grows to over 30 mm in length and is decorated in a brilliant livery of shiny black and red, with clean white bands on its abdomen.

It soon became apparent that we had stum­bled on a very special location, a kind of lost world where a larger-than-life fauna went to evolutionary extremes to eke out a living in a larger-than-life landscape. And this lost world was just round the corner from one of New Zealand’s most popular sightseeing, trekking and climbing destinations, in the harsh climate of the Fiordland alpine zone.


Sinbad gully first came to promi­nence as one of the last natural out­posts of kakapo (Strigops habroptilus). When a small but determined group of Wildlife Service personnel sought out the Sinbad’s flightless night parrots in the 1970s, they found a sorry sight. The last few birds, all males, were clinging on to survival among nar­row tongues of subalpine vegetation on rock walls around the head of the lower gully. The birds couldn’t quite make it over the lip of these walls; had they done so, they might have been able to struggle on among the boulder fields and shrublands in the lower end of the alpine basin where there were apparently few if any introduced predators.

Relicts these birds might have been, but studying them still yielded remarkable insights into kakapo behaviour and ecology. It was here that Rod Morris and Don Merton first pho­tographed a kakapo in the wild booming and performing a mating display, virtually at their feet, and later climbing onto their shoulders to engage in further misguided attempts at affection. One bird took up residence under a small hide the researchers had erected to make nocturnal observations from. It would rou­tinely call in on them to satisfy its considerable curiosity. Such utter naivety towards mammals is tragic; one marvels that kakapo managed to hold on for as long as they did under the op­pression of cats and mustelids.

Other birds known or presumed to have lived in the Sinbad, but now absent, include brown teal, saddleback, yellowhead, orange-fronted and red-crowned parakeets, bush wren, piopio and kokako. Short-tailed and long-tailed bats were also once Sinbad inhabitants. Surviv­ing birds include bellbird, tui, morepork, kere­ru, fantail, rifleman, grey warbler, brown creep­er, South Island robin, South Island tomtit and possibly yellow-crowned parakeet. Clinging on, but only just, are New Zealand falcon, kaka, blue duck, weka and kiwi (northern tokoeka).

The slender mahogany skink is another new species discovered on the rock faces of the upper Sinbad.
The slender mahogany skink is another new species discovered on the rock faces of the upper Sinbad.
This species of giant harvestman (Megalopsalis fabulosa) has a small body but a leg span of up to 15 cm. While it is not restricted to the Sinbad, it is quite common there.
This species of giant harvestman (Megalopsalis fabulosa) has a small body but a leg span of up to 15 cm. While it is not restricted to the Sinbad, it is quite common there.

Visitors to the Sinbad’s alpine basin are routinely welcomed by three inquisitive birds­ weka, kea and rock wren. The weka, of which there appear to be two breeding pairs, show no fear and will check out both people and tents, although not in the expectation of food. Like­wise the kea will swoop in for a cursory inspec­tion, and may even try pulling an unattended tent apart, as kea are wont to do, but they ex­hibit caution in the presence of people.

Rock wrens are delightful creatures and of­fer a warm sense of companionship to any lone naturalist scrambling among the boulder fields. The little green birds prefer hopping to fly­ing, and keep in contact with one another by issuing a quiet, high-pitched “cheep” and rest­lessly bobbing up and down to make themselves visible. My fondest memory of a rock wren in the Sinbad is a particularly friendly male who hopped in and out of, and all over, a small rock pile, only a metre away, as I was trying to pho­tograph it. I’m not sure he was able to figure out what I was doing, but his trust and curiosity seemed to me a silent plea, and his soft chirps a sad lament on the losing battle the native inhabitants of the Sinbad are waging against exotic invaders. Rock wrens have long since vanished from the lower parts of the valley, and the last few to survive higher up are about to come face to face with the cold, hard efficiency of predatory mammals.


On that 2004 visit to the Sinbad we found not a trace of geckos. In March 2007, Rod and I returned with herpetologist Trent Bell, three rock climbers and two students of natural-his­tory film-making from Otago University. We found the alpine basin unusually dry. A long spell of fine weather had left little moisture on the vegetation and none at all on the rocks, while temperatures were still low enough to limit snow melt on the peaks above, so the nor­mally reliable waterfalls and their ethereal mists were failing. This meant we were able to scale safely the lower sections of the rock walls.

Lizards turned up almost immediately. First came three beautifully coloured examples of what appeared to be cascade geckos, two be­neath loose rocks and one in a crevice. Rock climbers in the Sinbad have reported these lizards out by day among tussocks and other vegetation, and I have since observed such be­haviour by cascade geckos on Barrier Knob, 21 km north-east of the Sinbad.

Climbing a steep bluff, about 20 m above the floor of the basin, I came to an overhang from which a dense patch of herbs and snow tussocks protruded. In pursuit of cave weta, which would jump out of crevices and vegeta­tion en masse if anyone approached and rain down on them, I gave the vegetation a light shake. Sure enough, out poured the weta—and with them came a large skink. It dropped to a ledge below and hid among some small rocks, where I easily captured it.

It was a second example of the species I’d discovered three years earlier. The bright green across its back was more extensive than on the original specimen, making it even more strik­ing in appearance and a true gem among New Zealand lizards. Related skinks have since been found on Barrier Knob, and an unlabelled mu­seum specimen is believed to have come from Students Peak, 22 km to the south-east (see New Zealand Geographic, Issue 74). But the popula­tions in these different places have their own characteristic colour patterns and scale features and almost certainly represent separate species. The Sinbad skink is unique.

Contrary to appearances, these ‘70s kakapo hunters were not carrying supermarket trolleys but cages in which to secure their elusive quarry.
Contrary to appearances, these ‘70s kakapo hunters were not carrying supermarket trolleys but cages in which to secure their elusive quarry.

The following day Trent Bell returned to the site in hope of finding further specimens. Instead he came face to face with yet another lizard species, this one a little brown skink that also appeared to be new to science. After care­fully stalking it as it scuttled about on a near-vertical rock face, to which he himself had to cling, Trent was able to catch it. Coloured dark brown with only traces of the prominent “rac­ing stripes” that adorn many of its relatives, this rather gracile lizard was also distinct in having deeply etched scales and a blackish throat. It has been tentatively called the mahogany skink after its wood-like colouring.

But lizards are only a small component of the Sinbad fauna. Essentially limited to rock walls, where their sparse numbers are sustained by a copious supply of cave weta, they are apex pred­ators that do not themselves support other na­tive organisms apart from a few parasites. The real workhorses of the Sinbad’s alpine fauna are the invertebrates, including weta, caterpillars, flies, beetles, worms and slugs.

The slugs—of an as yet unnamed genus and species found across the wider alpine zone of northern Fiordland—present a considerable spectacle. Coloured olive green with a bright-yellow head, and etched with a pattern like the veins of a leaf, these 12 cm-long molluscs abound in the Sinbad like nowhere else. They are in the vegetation, along stream margins, in boulder fields and right up the rock walls. So damp is the Sinbad’s alpine basin that even on a sunny day they don’t have to worry about drying out; they don’t even bother to shelter properly, but simply seek out a patch of shade. When reaching out for their next handhold, rock-climbers sometimes get a handful of slime-oozing slug.

Another large and slimy invertebrate that revels in the Sinbad’s inordinately wet climate is an earthworm. Its length—20 cm—is noth­ing unusual, but being comparable in girth to a person’s finger it makes quite a chunky morsel, and is much sought after by the local weka. The worm is also phenomenally abundant, being found under almost any rock in the alpine zone. Coloured flesh pink, it will throw off a rain­bow-like spectrum of metallic blues and greens from its glossy skin when it catches the light. A similar worm was once collected from Resolu­tion Island, and others have been sighted in the Murchison Mountains. Their identity remains shrouded in the fogs of taxonomic uncertainty.

Earthworms are one of the least known groups of New Zealand invertebrates, yet by most measures—biomass, ecological role, indirect economic importance and sheer num­bers—are among the country’s most important organisms. Certainly these iridescent behe­moths of the invertebrate world are a dominant faunal element in the Sinbad. But how many species there are, and how they compare with their relatives from other parts of Fiordland, remains unknown.

On sunny days an assortment of moths and flies flit among the Sinbad’s alpine flowers. Copper butterflies perch on giant buttercups, cicadas chirp merrily among hebes, tussocks and boulder fields, and delicate spiders’ webs twinkle in the sun like gossamer.

Butterbur was found in the Sinbad in a silver beech tree in February 1975.
Butterbur was found in the Sinbad in a silver beech tree in February 1975.

Weta are omnivorous and browse on a vari­ety of leafy plants as well as dead, and in some cases living, invertebrates. The superb and red-saddle ground weta are the largest insects yet recorded in the Sinbad, and both have powerful mandibles that can take chunks out of the stoutest leaf. As soon as the last glow of daylight has faded, they scramble out of their earthen burrows, jaws gaping to fend off any threat. Superb ground weta are most at home among ground-level herbs such as pohuehue (Muehlenbeckia axillaris), whereas the more agile red-saddle ground weta can be found climbing in elevated foliage, particularly bush lilies (Aste­lia spp.). More nimble still is the spotted ground weta (Hemiandrus maculifrons), which grows to a delicate 17 mm in length and can be found by night in all manner of herbs and shrubs.

Cave weta, also nocturnal foragers, are im­mensely diverse and abundant in rain-soaked Fiordland. Many species resemble the smaller varieties of ground weta, except they have thicker antennae and a more hunch-backed pro­file. By day, they take up communal residence in existing crevices and holes, unlike ground weta, which dig their solitary burrows. Many lowland cave weta shun light and inhabit only the darkest locations, including caves, hollow tree trunks and deep crevices. In contrast, some alpine species stay close to the entrance of a retreat throughout the day, adopting a safety-­in-numbers survival strategy. At the approach of a potential threat, they leap out in their multitudes to bound and tumble away in a con­fusing swarm. The alpine zone of Sinbad Gully supports at least five species of cave weta, and others almost certainly await discovery.

Among the other numerous invertebrates that reveal themselves after dark is a green spotted egg-laying peripatus. Large, black pill-millipedes graze on the moss-strewn rocks. Sheet-web spiders (with a leg span of 6 cm) keep a silent vigil, poised upside-down beneath their horizontal webs ready to thrust their fangs into any insect that blunders too close. Two species of giant harvestman (with a leg span of more than 15 cm) stalk prey among stream-side rocks and caverns. Prowling for weta and am­phipods are large black ground beetles of the genus Mecodema. A plethora of caterpillars of all shapes, sizes and colours march up the stalks of grasses and herbs to begin their nightly feast.

By day a smaller suite of cryptic but deter­mined wildlife emerges. It is not uncommon to see mating pairs of spear-grass weevils, each animal some 20 mm in length, clambering among the dagger-like shafts of Aciphylla leaves.

Large, black, wingless stoneflies scale wet rock faces and tussocks. Little, grey jumping spiders blend perfectly with the rocks on which they hunt, stalking and leaping on the unsuspect­ing flies that land to sunbathe. Shield bugs lurk among native Celmisia daisies. Various small earthworms sidle among the damp vegetation even on sunny days.

But there are some conspicuous, and pre­sumably natural, absences. Grasshoppers, crickets and stick insects, all of which abound in many parts of the South Island uplands, have apparently never made it to the Sinbad, at least not to the alpine zone. Nor have giant (Dein­acrida) or tree (Hemideina) weta. Perhaps most surprisingly, given the very wet climate, snails are few in both number and diversity. Undoubt­edly some have so far escaped discovery, but to date the valley seems to be home to just two or three tiny and inconspicuous species.


Sadly,this rich fauna is under threat. In 1890, possums were liberated in Sinbad Gully by the Southland Ac­climatisation Society. So cold and wet was the climate that at first they struggled to survive. A population established itself low down near the sound, but the remorselessly sodden conditions prevented it from spreading further up the gully. In 1975, a thorough bo­tanical survey of kakapo habitat near the upper tree line found no evidence of possums, while Rod, Mandy and I found no evidence of pos­sums in the alpine zone in 2004 either.

Alarmingly, in 2007 possum sign was every­where. Severely browsed ferns and fresh pos­sum scats were plain to see throughout the most thickly vegetated areas, as well as up on the rock faces where the skinks lived. After more than a century of confinement to the lower reaches of the gully, possums are now spreading upwards. Something has changed. The vora­cious mammals are proliferating in conditions that only a few decades ago were beyond the limits of their physiological adaptability. So dramatic has been their advance from coastal forest to alpine herb field that it cannot be put down to the subtle touches of global warming or local climate fluctuations. The Sinbad pos­sums are successfully adapting to an environ­ment harsher than that to which they have so far been used, albeit one with abundant and di­verse grazing opportunities coupled with a rich supply of supplementary animal protein.

Mice, too, have found a smorgasbord of treats to satisfy their omnivorous appetites. There are no historical data with which to track the progress of these little rodents in the Sinbad. However, in 2007, climbers on Shadowland complained that mice had pillaged the food they had taken up with them. And now that mice have gained a foothold in the alpine zone it is a fair bet that stoats will follow, if they are not there already.

Possums and other pests long ago laid waste to the fauna of the lower Sinbad, but they have only adapted to the cold upper levels—where a wide range of animals survive—in the last three years. Mitre Peak is visible above the true left of the valley.
Possums and other pests long ago laid waste to the fauna of the lower Sinbad, but they have only adapted to the cold upper levels—where a wide range of animals survive—in the last three years. Mitre Peak is visible above the true left of the valley.

The natural wonderland of the Sinbad’s alpine basin, so recently discovered, appears already to be on the threshold of trouble. Once stoats become established, it is likely that the terrestrial birdlife (the rock wren and weka) will fail. Both mice and stoats have proven them­selves serious predators of lizards and would place great pressure on the already sparse lizard populations of the Sinbad. Almost certainly the larger species (the cascade gecko and Sinbad skink) would suffer a heart-breaking reduction in abundance, and given the basin’s knife-edge terrain and climate we have no idea how much pressure they can take.

Worryingly, the lizard species most simi­lar to the Sinbad skink and its relatives, the Fiordland skink of the south-western coast, has proven highly vulnerable to introduced preda­tors: it has been virtually eliminated from the mainland. But whereas the Fiordland skink is able to persist on the numerous islands of southern Fiordland, the northern coast is bereft of this kind of isolated sanctuary.

Studies in alpine habitat further south in Fiordland have shown that stoats can take a heavy toll on large ground weta. It is doubt­ful that the very large superb ground weta would survive colonisation by stoats. Even the red-saddle ground weta, still large and sparse in occurrence, could be in danger. Mice, too, can take a heavy toll on lizards and weta, and possums undoubtedly add further pressure, through both competition for food and direct predation.


Sinbad gully has all the makings of a spectacular and unique conserva­tion project: a refuge, stretching from coastline to high alpine peaks, for northern Fiordland’s remarkable native fauna and flora; an educational destination with guid­ed nature walks and unrivalled opportunities to see rare wildlife in its natural habitat; ex­traordinary natural history in an extraordinary landscape, epitomised by the grandeur of Mitre Peak; and a top destination for rock climbers.

Biologists have a vision for the Sinbad: that it be made a “mainland island” preserve in which exotic predators are either eradicated (feasible in the case of possums, rats, cats and possibly stoats) or kept at inconsequentially low numbers (as would have to be the approach with mice). The existing fauna and flora would be left alone to flourish, and locally extinguished species would be reintroduced.

The plan is simple. The Sinbad is already largely enclosed by an essentially predator-proof barrier in the form of high, precipitous alpine ridges. Only the mouth of the gully is traversable, and even here the sea greatly limits predator access. The only way in lies through mere slivers of forested land up the steep moun­tain faces to either side. If incoming pests were intercepted along these narrow access routes, the interior of the gully, once pests already there had been eradicated, would be free of in­truders.


The concept of managing the Sinbad catchment as a safe haven was first proposed in 1975 by Don Merton, who recognised it as a “natural mainland island” and sought to maintain it as such. Clearly, its natural physical barriers were, at that time, still sufficient to provide a final refuge for such Fiordland denizens as kakapo, giant ground weta and lizards. Although Mer­ton has advocated the idea ever since, he has had no support until now.

Apart from its outstanding wildlife values and potential, three other factors bolster the case for the Sinbad being managed as a main­land island. Firstly, the dearth of offshore islands of any practicable size in northern Fiordland, which means the wildlife in this part of New Zealand—a region of considerable sig­nificance in terms of biological uniqueness and diversity—is completely at the mercy of intro­duced predators and browsers. The Sinbad is a good representative of northern Fiordland, with the added bonus of having a number of its own unique species.

Secondly, unlike any offshore island, the Sinbad is a natural habitat of the kakapo, now extinct throughout its natural range. It also offers a greater variety of altitudinal zones and botanical associations than is usual on an island, and, most importantly, it is home to masting plants that might trigger kakapo breeding more frequently and sustain it more effectively, than most island plant life. Cer­tainly, historical accounts indicate that kakapo bred more frequently on the Fiordland main­land than they do on the islands where they are currently held.

Thirdly, and crucially, the Sinbad’s prox­imity to Milford Sound village would ensure easy and inexpensive access for biologists, conservation workers and guided tourists. At the same time, its isolation across the waters of Milford Sound would limit the number of casual visitors.

Funding for mammal control, which would need to be permanently sustained, could come from the unfaltering stream of tourists—over one million every year—that Milford Sound draws. A unique tourist attraction—for ex­ample, a guided nature walk through a forest teeming with birdlife, including iconic native species such as kiwi and kakapo—could be cre­ated within the rehabilitated Sinbad, and the profits directed towards the gully’s upkeep.

The 45 mm long giant ground weta (Hemiandrus superba) is just one of several handsome new wetas to be discovered in the Sinbad, and this 12 cm undescribed slug is unusually abundant in the moist valley.
The 45 mm long giant ground weta (Hemiandrus superba) is just one of several handsome new wetas to be discovered in the Sinbad, and this 12 cm undescribed slug is unusually abundant in the moist valley.

Sinbad Gully is the ultimate destination for rock climbers. The eleven-pitch Shadowland climb is a legend. The wall’s dry face, ideal rock surface and challenging 200 m height make it the quintessential New Zealand climbing experience, requiring the highest technical skills while remaining an enjoyable and (being dry) comparatively safe experience. Because it was rock climbers who first gave biologists reason to explore the Sinbad’s alpine zone, there is a strong feeling among those involved that no matter how the gully is managed, climbers should be welcome to experience Shadowland.

If a mainland island were created in the Sinbad, a degree of natural-historical enhancement would be desirable. There is a long list of spe­cies not currently found there that would be eli­gible for reintroduction, a measure that would be of obvious benefit to the species themselves, as they would gain a new and secure home, as well as increase the attraction of the place to potential visitors.

Many islands around southern New Zealand have now been declared pest-free and are in the process of being rehabilitated. So why should the species being transferred to these also be moved to a mainland preserve? The Sinbad would have one major advantage over all islands with respect to faunal transfers: diversity of ecology and climate. Its forests, shrublands and alpine vegetation are extensive and species-rich and there is also a climate gradient from the relative mildness of the lowlands to the freez­ing cold of the ice-clad peaks. There is much greater scope in the Sinbad for species to move about and settle into just the right niche.

Obvious candidates for translocation include kakapo, saddlebacks, yellowheads, red-crowned and orange-fronted parakeets and brown teal. Yellow-crowned parakeets would qualify if they are indeed now absent. Takahe are a tempting possibility too, but there may be insufficient tussock to sustain a viable population. Short-and long-tailed bats, Fiordland skinks, giant weta (Deinacrida pluvialis), tree weta (Hemideina crassidens), Milford boulder butterflies (Boul­daria ianthina), flax weevils (Anagotus fairburni), Cleddau fern weevils (Megacolabus sp.) and large varieties of land snail (Powelliphanta, Rhytida and Wainuia spp.) would warrant serious con­sideration should further faunal surveys in the lowlands confirm their absence. Native frogs (Leiopelma spp.) are a more audacious considera­tion since none now survives south of Cook Strait although they did once extend into this region: if a population were re-established in Fiordland, it would be a true milestone for the southern conservation movement.

Several recent discoveries in the wider Milford area further highlight the lesson we have learnt from the Sinbad about the value of continued biological exploration: that right under our collective noses large and spectacular new species can, and still do, elude detection. Take the following three examples. In 2004, a striking new ground weta, replete with unique webbed spines, was discovered in the Esperance valley and is still known from only a single specimen. In 2005, the large Barrier Knob skink, a cousin of the Sinbad skink but patterned with small cream flecks and a white belly, was discovered at over 1600 m, above an ice shelf in the Dar-ran Mountains, and is known from just four individuals. And in 2007, the largest kind of fern weevil—of genus Megacolabus, almost extinct on the South Island—was discov­ered near the western portal of the Homer Tunnel, and, like the weta, is known from just a single indi­vidual. Clearly, Fiordland still has plenty of magic up its sleeve.

The beautiful new Sinbad skink (Oligosoma sp.) has a green back with orange blotches on its underside.
The beautiful new Sinbad skink (Oligosoma sp.) has a green back with orange blotches on its underside.

It is likely that other biodiver­sity hot spots await discovery and exploration in Fiordland. While some of these may have their own unique species and pressing conservation concerns, it is likely that such sites are now few and far between. The Sinbad has very spe­cific geographical and climatic features that have acted to restrict the advance of mammals, whereas most parts of Fiordland do not, and con­sequently their faunas are already depleted. The Cleddau valley, for example, has lost a host of bird species and, with the demise of the large alpine giant weta (Deinacrida pluvialis), at least one insect species.

The Sinbad may well be the last great mainland refuge where numerous rare, and even unique, species bide their time, oblivious to the ad­vancing wave of introduced mammals that, if left unchecked, will soon sweep them away. It provides a glimpse of old Fiordland, of a richer and more exciting—and more func­tional—Fiordland. Alluring as they may be, Fiordland’s dense rainforest and heavy veils of mist give a false impression of vibrant natu­ral harmony. It is only our ignorance of what Fiordland should be that allows us to fall for this masquerade.

If biological gems like the Sinbad skink and the superb ground weta are to survive, and if the kakapo is to be returned to the most spec­tacular part of its natural range, we need to take immediate action. The path to halting the destruction of what remains in the Sinbad and rehabilitating its lowland fauna is not an espe­cially difficult or expensive one given today’s technology and know-how. We simply cannot continue to allow national-park status and ma­jestic scenery to lull us into complacency. Sinbad Gully could become our most spectacular wildlife haven—but only if we act promptly.

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