Are zoos inadvertently complicit in wildlife trade? The case of a rare Borneo lizard

Should zoos display legally protected species that have been smuggled out of their range countries? A new study suggests that a pause and rethink may be needed, as it reports that accredited zoos have acquired a rare and legally protected reptile, the earless monitor lizard endemic to Borneo, without any evidence that the animals were legally exported.

The earless monitor lizard occurs only on the island of Borneo and has been described as a “miniature Godzilla” and “the Holy Grail of Herpetology.” Discovered by western scientists almost 150 years ago, for most of this period the species was known largely from pickled specimens in natural history collections, and wasn’t recorded from the wild for decades. In the 1970s, the three countries that make up Borneo – Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei – added it to their protected species lists. This means that the species can neither be legally traded within these countries, nor legally exported out of them.

Earless monitor lizard. Photo by Chien C. Lee, Wild Borneo.

Despite legal protection and lack of export permissions, reptile enthusiasts and unscrupulous traders have long been smuggling small numbers of earless monitor lizards out of Indonesia and Malaysia, eventually bringing them to Europe. This greatly accelerated in 2012, when the species’ rediscovery was announced in a scientific journal. In 2016, all 183 countries that are signatory to the Convention on international trade in endangered species agreed to regulate global trade in earless monitor lizards in order to limit the negative effects of smuggling on wild populations. Agreed export numbers were set at zero.

Enforcing the laws has proven to be challenging, however, and to date only two smuggling attempts have been thwarted. In both cases, German smugglers were apprehended at Indonesian airports while attempting to move respectively eight and seventeen earless monitor lizards out of the country.

The first zoo that proudly announced it had obtained earless monitor lizards was Japan’s iZoo in 2013. This zoo is not accredited, and the ways in which the animals were obtained remain questionable. In Europe, the first zoos to openly display earless monitor lizards were located in Hungary, Austria and the Czech Republic. The animals were obtained from what zoos referred to as “private individuals” or “dedicated hobby breeders”, and, in one instance, from iZoo. Just like in Japan, how these animals ended up in Europe is questionable, but perhaps not illegal – and it is evident that no export permits were ever issued.

In recent years, more and more zoos in Europe, and since the beginning of this year also in the United States, have started displaying earless monitor lizards. Some cases were part of zoo exchanges, others were obtained from private individuals, and a handful were placed in zoos by authorities after they were seized, but it is clear that many were at one point illegally exported out of Indonesia, Malaysia or Brunei, or were illegally imported into non-range countries.

The acquisition of these protected lizards by zoos is neither in line with the intentions of national laws of their countries of origin, nor with international wildlife trade regulations. Moreover, it is diametrically opposed to the commitments the international zoo community has made to address illegal wildlife trade.

“To me, the current situation concerning the purchasing and proudly displaying of earless monitor lizards by accredited zoos can be compared with a road safety organisation posting online videos of its CEO doing wheelies on a motorbike and then adding that it was done on a private road where neither wearing a helmet nor having a driver’s licence is required,” said Vincent Nijman of the Oxford Wildlife Trade Research Group, author of the study that was published in the open-access journal Nature Conservation. “Both may be legal in a technical sense, but the optics are not good.”

“Modern, scientifically managed zoos are increasingly organising themselves with set ethical values and binding standards which go beyond national legislation on conservation and sustainability, but, unfortunately, this still only counts for a small proportion of zoos worldwide,” said Dr Chris R. Shepherd, Executive Director of Monitor Research Conservation Society. “Zoos that continue to obtain animals that have been illegally acquired, directly or indirectly, are often fuelling the illegal wildlife trade, supporting organised crime networks and possibly contributing to the decline in some species.”

Seven years ago, the price for a single earless monitor lizard was in the order of EUR 8,000 to 10,000 , so any zoo or hobbyist wanting to have one or more pairs had to make a serious financial commitment. These high prices put a restriction on the number of people that wanted to acquire them and could afford them. It probably also gave potential buyers a tacit reminder that the trade was illicit. In recent years, however, prices have come down, to less than EUR 1,000. Now that earless monitor lizards are more affordable, and with accredited zoos giving a sense of legitimacy, Nijman is concerned that it might become more and more acceptable to keep these rare animals as pets.

“When I grew up in the 1970s, it was still perfectly acceptable for what we now see as accredited zoos to regularly buy rare and globally threatened birds, mammals and reptiles from commercial animal traders. Few questions were asked about the legitimacy of this animal trade. This has dramatically changed for the better, and now many of the animals we see in zoos today have been bred in captivity, either in the zoo itself, or in partner zoos”, Nijman said. He added that in many ways zoos are a force for good in the global challenge to preserve species and conserve habitats. “It is imperative that these efforts are genuinely adopted by all in the zoo community, and, when there is doubt about the legitimacy of animals in trade, that a cautionary approach is adopted.”

Original source:

Nijman V (2021) Zoos consenting to the illegal wildlife trade – the earless monitor lizard as a case study. Nature Conservation 44: 69-79. https://doi.org/10.3897/natureconservation.44.65124

Tiger geckos in Vietnam could be the next species sold into extinction, shows a new survey

The endemic reptiles are already proposed to be listed by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora

While proper information about the conservation status of tiger gecko species is largely missing, these Asian lizards are already particularly vulnerable to extinction, as most of them have extremely restricted distribution. Furthermore, they have been facing severe declines over the last two decades, mostly due to overcollection for the international exotic pet market. Such is the case of the Cat Ba Tiger Gecko, whose tiny populations can only be found on Cat Ba Island and a few islands in the Ha Long Bay (Vietnam).

In their study, a Vietnamese-German research team, led by PhD candidate Hai Ngoc Ngo of the Vietnam National Museum of Nature in Hanoi, provide an overview of the evidence for domestic and international trade in tiger gecko species and update the information about the abundance and threats impacting the subpopulations of the Vietnamese Cat Ba Tiger Gecko in Ha Long Bay.

By presenting both direct and online observations, interviews and existing knowledge, the scientists point out that strict conservation measures and regulations are urgently needed for the protection and monitoring of all tiger geckos. The research article is published in the open-access journal Nature Conservation.

Cat Ba tiger gecko (Goniurosaurus catbaensis) in its natural habitat. Photo by Hai Ngoc Ngo.

Tiger geckos are a genus (Goniurosaurus) of 19 species native to Vietnam, China and Japan. Many of them can only be found within a single locality, mountain range or archipelago. They live in small, disjunct populations, where the population from Ha Long Bay is estimated at about 120 individuals. Due to demands in the international pet trade in the last two decades, as well as habitat destruction, some species are already considered extinct at the localities where they had originally been discovered.

However, it was not until very recently that some species of these geckos received attention from the regulatory institutions in their home countries, leading to the prohibition of their collection without a permit. Only eight tiger geckos have so far had their species conservation status assessed for the IUCN Red List. Not surprisingly, all of them were classified as either Vulnerable, Endangered or Critically Endangered. Nevertheless, none is currently listed by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which could be the only efficient and reliable method to monitor, regulate and police the trade of the species on a global scale.

“Tiger geckos are neither sufficiently protected by law nor part of conservation programmes, due to the lack of substantial knowledge on the species conservation status and probably due to the general lack of public as well as political interest in biodiversity conservation,” they explain. “To date, exact impacts of trade on the species cannot be identified, as data of legal trade are only recorded for species listed in the CITES Appendices”.

During their survey, the researchers tracked local traders in possession of wild-caught tiger geckos representing all five Vietnamese species en route to foreign exotic pet markets, mainly in the United States, the European Union and Japan. The species were also frequently found to be sold in local pet shops in Vietnam, as well as being offered via various online platforms and social media networks like Facebook.

Having spoken to local dealers in Vietnam, the team found the animals were traded via long and complex chains, beginning from local villagers living within the species’ distribution range, who catch the geckos and sell them to dealers for as little as US$4 – 5 per individual. Then, a lizard either ends up at a local shop with a US$7 – 25 price tag or is either transported by boat or by train to Thailand or Indonesia, from where it is flown to the major overseas markets and sold for anywhere between US$100 and 2,000, depending on its rarity. However, many of these delicate wild animals do not arrive alive at their final destination, as their travels include lengthy trips in overfilled boxes under poor conditions with no food and water.

Indeed, although the researchers reported a large quantity of tiger geckos labelled as captive-bred in Europe, it turns out that their availability is far from enough to meet the current demands.

In conclusion, the team provides a list of several recommendations intended to improve the conservation of the Asian geckos: (1) inclusion of all tiger geckos in the Appendices of CITES; (2) assessment of each species for the IUCN Red List; (3) concealment of any currently unknown localities; and (4) improvement/establishment of coordinated ex-situ breeding programmes for all species.

Signboard handed over to the Ha Long Bay Management Department to point to the threats and conservation need of the Cat Ba tiger gecko in English and Vietnamese languages.

The inclusion of all tiger gecko species from China and Vietnam in CITES Appendix II was recently proposed jointly by the European Union, China and Vietnam and is to be decided upon at the Conference of the parties (CoP18) in May-June 2019, held in Sri Lanka.

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Original source:

Ngo HN, Nguyen TQ, Phan TQ, van Schingen M, Ziegler T (2019) A case study on trade in threatened Tiger Geckos (Goniurosaurus) in Vietnam including updated information on the abundance of the Endangered G. catbaensisNature Conservation 33: 1-19. https://doi.org/10.3897/natureconservation.32.33590

Two new lizards with ‘heroic past’ discovered in the Chilean Andes

Two new species of lizards have been discovered in the Andean highlands of Southern Chile. Collected from areas of heroic past, both small reptiles were named after courageous tribal chiefs who have once fought against colonial Spaniards in the Arauco war. The study, conducted by a team of Chilean scientists, is published in the open access journal ZooKeys.

Jaime Troncoso-Palacios from Universidad de Chile and his team found both new species near a lake in a pre-Andean zone among deciduous vegetation. Following the examination of the collected specimens and further analysis of their mitochondrial DNA, performed by Dr. Alvaro A. Elorza from Universidad Andres Bello, Chile, the scientists concluded that they belong to species unknown to science.

One of the species, called Liolaemus janequeoae, or, Janequeo`s Lizard, is distinct for being smaller than its relatives, measuring a maximum of roughly 7 centimeters at length, as well as having no pattern on its back. Both features are quite striking for the group of lizards it belongs to. The only contrasting coloration for the species are several white scales appearing on the upper side in males. Otherwise, the species are predominantly light brown with pearly whitish down side of the body.

In the local Lonko tribe’s history, Janequeo was a prominent chief, who lost her partner during the Arauco war, after he was caught and tortured to death by the colonial Spaniards. She is said to have had a leading role in the Battle of Fort Puchunqui. Coincidentally, the new species was discovered where the war once took place, in the Araucanía Region.

The second new species, called Liolaemus leftrarui, or Leftraru`s Lizard, was collected from the same locality, hence it also received a heroic name honoured in the Arauco war. It is called after the most prominent Mapuche tribal chief. According to the stories, he was taken by the Kingdom of Chile’s Governor at the age of 11 to become his servant. There, however, he learned the military strategy of the Spanish, managed to escape and joined his people in the war. Later, not only did he kill his former master, but also won the most remarkable victories over the Spaniards.figure2-blog

The Leftraru`s Lizard is a large species of about 8 centimeters in length, characterised with absent precloacal pores, a common feature for its lizard group, save few. On the upper side of its body there are also unusual light blue dots. Overall, its colour is brown splashed with dark brown spots. Apart from the blue scattered scales on the back, there is also a bit of green on its head, limbs and tail. At the rear it becomes yellowish.

In conclusion, the authors note that the lizard fauna of Chile has been mistakenly assumed to be quite scarce up until recently. Yet, their latest discovery, along with several other new species, described in recent years, could be a clear sign that, “some populations under study could be described as new species in the future”.

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Original source:

Troncoso-Palacios J, Diaz HA, Puas GI, Riveros-Riffo E, Elorza AA (2016) Two new Liolaemus lizards from the Andean highlands of Southern Chile (Squamata, Iguania, Liolaemidae). ZooKeys 632: 121-146. https://doi.org/10.3897/zookeys.632.9528