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Model’s plea to save our skinks

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Mitchell Robinson (Photograph by Nadia Hall)

When Mitchell Robinson was 15 his parents gave him a leopard gecko.

They bought him the unusual gift after watching him devour books on reptiles.

The 23-year-old admits that it’s a “weird” fascination.

His dream is to become a herpetologist, the study of amphibians and reptiles, and his blossoming modelling career has been an unlikely source of traction — the opportunity to travel helps him to pursue his passion.

“Modelling has allowed me to go to some of the most exotic places in the world,” he said.

“I can actually film and write about reptiles, get some amazing photographs and get some new information on critically endangered species, so it’s turned into a little obsession.”

Mr Robinson, who breeds geckos and has an estimated 120 in his collection, has spent time in Haiti, Aruba, Panama, Mauritius and Reunion among other locations in the past year.

A trip to Bermuda has him on the lookout for lizards — particularly the endangered Bermuda rock skink, our only endemic terrestrial vertebrate.

He estimates that there are 400 left on the island.

“The plestiodon longirostris, or Bermuda skink, is the only endemic reptile sharing its sparse land with a swarm of invasive species,” he said.

“It holds high importance as a window into Bermuda’s evolutionary past. Also being an unwilling ambassador to all reptiles, this species is the most critically endangered lizard in the world.

“It is a global example of the effect human colonisation, environmental pressures and invasive species have on such a small delicate species living and relaying on a specialised ecosystem.”

Mr Robinson, from Acworth, Georgia, started modelling six years ago and landed a campaign for L’Oreal last month. While on island, he shot a fashion editorial with local company Gemini Photography.

“I flew to New York and instantly hit it off with one of their top agencies and moved there within a week,” said Mr Robinson, who is represented by New York Model Management.

“Acworth is a small town in North Georgia, so the opposite of New York. It was a complete culture shock.”

He is grateful for the “lenience” afforded him by his agency. He said: “They’re so into the nature aspect of me because they want models who do interesting things and aren’t just about fashion.

“They find it hilarious that I like to go to these places and photograph and write about animals because they have no one else trying to do that.

“They support me fully, which is amazing.”

His photographs have been published by National Geographic and he has articles on Haiti and Reunion coming out next month in Reptiles Magazine, a publication he has been contributing to since he was a teenager.

His talent for spotting the creatures is remarkable.

“Sometimes I scare myself,” he said. “Calling myself a born naturalist, I have a keen sense to pick out anomalies in nature. Small variations in patterns mean an object is obscuring the pattern. Applying this to reptiles whose abilities to blend in to their environment is incredible — I can quickly pick them out after scanning an area.

“People I’ve tried to teach in the past find it astonishing as even from a great distance I can spot a camouflaged gecko.

“It’s like a small cult. There are groups and groups of people who are just fascinated in certain species and genus.

“Mine is more Madagascar, that’s why I was in Mauritius and Reunion, but I’m trying to branch out.”

He trekked the length of Spittal Pond in Smith’s after researching the reptile before his trip and speaking to local experts at the Bermuda Aquarium, Museum and Zoo.

He said he expected to see the skinks sunning themselves on the rocks, fairly close to the water’s edge.

“Everything I’ve read says that this is the ideal location for the skinks,” he said.

It proved to be the proverbial needle in a haystack on an island overrun with anoles.

“The anoles swarming the island are seen as a threat, but less of a threat as the cane toads, feral and domestic cats and rats,” he explained, adding that the Warwick lizard and the skink don’t compete for food.

“The four introduced anole species on the island pose the greatest threat to hatchling and juvenile skinks by predation. Skinks prefer rocky coastal areas, which isn’t the ideal environment for an anole, but anoles commonly have been seen foregoing on the ground in skink habitat.

“This is alarming as the population needs no further pressure.”

He said a major contributor to the declining skink population was humans and trash.

“Bottles, cans and other containers are an unfortunate trap to the skink,” he said. “Unlike the anoles that swarm Bermuda, the skink’s claws are of no use to the lizard if it gets trapped inside a slick glass bottle.

“Fortunately, sanctuaries like Nonsuch Island are a Noah’s ark for the Bermuda skink.

“Bermuda’s Parks Department has an ongoing effort to restore the natural endemic flora on the island, creating a safe haven for the skink population.

“Humans have been the cause of many extinctions throughout history.

“Even seeming insignificant in the grand picture, this lizard should not be yet another example of humans driving a species to eternity.

“With our advancements in technology and knowledge in the environment it would be shame to have this lizard go extinct, especially in the year 2016.

“If Bermuda’s Parks Department can reverse the downward trend in population size and help this skink make a modest recovery, Bermuda would become a role model to the other islands of the world facing similar issues.”

Mitchell Robinson (Photograph by Nadia Hall)
Nature lover: Mitchell Robinson, who wants to be a herpetologist, estimates there are about 400 skinks left in Bermuda (Photograph by Nadia Hall)