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.


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

Guardian ants: How far does the protection of a plant-ant species to its specific host go?

Seemingly helpless against their much more lively natural enemies, plants have actually come up with a wide range of defences. In the present research, published in the open-access Journal of Hymenoptera Research, Dr. Adriana Sanchez, Universidad del Rosario, Colombia, and Edwin Bellota, Texas A&M University, USA, focus on the mutualistic relationship developed between a specific Neotropical knotweed and an ant species. During a series of ant-exclusion experiments the scientists observed and subsequently reported an aggressive and highly protective behaviour.

In order to assess the extent of protection these plant-ants provide their exclusive host with, the researchers compared the percentage of herbivory between control plants and experimental ones, which had their resident ants removed. The unambiguous results showed a 15-fold increase in the herbivory in the latter group, which kept on growing even further as the time progressed.

Normally, the studied ants patrol their hosts during both day and night at temperatures sometimes as low as 13C. Every time they found a herbivore, they were seen to attack it aggressively by biting and stinging.

“When an ant encountered a caterpillar, a worker approached and detected it with its antennae, and then recruited more workers. Typically more than 10 workers were recruited around the intruder in less than five minutes,” shared their observations the researchers. “Several workers harassed the herbivore by stinging or biting, until it dropped off the plant. The caterpillars usually hung by a silk thread and attempted to move back onto the plant. However, individuals of Pseudomyrmex continued to chase them until they dropped again. This cycle was repeated several times.”

While patrolling, they were noticed to remove any found debris from the top of the leaves. When they failed to find any signs of mosses, fungi or lichens on the sampled saplings, the scientists suggested that the ants not only protect their host from herbivores, but also from various disease-causing agents.

Plant vitality, growth and reproduction are seriously threatened by herbivores such as, in the case of the hereby studied knotweed, Triplaris americana, caterpillars and grasshoppers. Fighting for their life, plants use structural defenses, toxins, digestibility-reducing compounds, or mutualistic relationship with the enemies of their herbivores.

The herein researched Neotropical plant have found its way of survival through becoming the only host to the ant species Pseudomyrmex dendroicus, characterised with remarkable eyes, light brown body and potent venom, injected through a well-developed sting. In its turn, the knotweed shelters their entire colony in its hollow stems while another symbiont, scale insects, feeds them with the sugary sticky liquid it secrets on digesting plant sap.


Original source:

Sanchez A, Bellota E (2015) Protection against herbivory in the mutualism betweenPseudomyrmex dendroicus (Formicidae) and Triplaris americana(Polygonaceae). Journal of Hymenoptera Research 46: 71-83. doi: 10.3897/JHR.46.5518.

Counting stars: Illegal trade of Indian star tortoises is a far graver issue

Patterned with star-like figures on their shells, Indian star tortoises can be found in private homes across Asia, where they are commonly kept as pets. One can also see them in religious temples, praised as the living incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu. How did they get there? Suspicious of a large-scale illegal international trade of these tortoises that could in fact pose a grave threat to the survival of the Indian Star tortoise, a team of researchers, led by Dr. Neil D’Cruze from Wildlife Conservation Research Unit, University of Oxford, and World Animal Protection, London, spent 17 months investigating the case focusing on India and Thailand. They have their study published in the open-access journal Nature Conservation.

The present study established that at least 55,000 Indian star tortoise individuals are being poached over the span of a year from a single trade hub in India. Helped by a number of herpetologists and wildlife enforcement officials, the researchers have tracked signals about how sophisticated criminal gangs are exploiting “legal loopholes” and people alike, taking advantage of rural communities and urban consumers in India and other Asian countries.

“We were shocked at the sheer scale of the illegal trade in tortoises and the cruelty inflicted upon them,” comments Dr. Neil D’Cruze. “Over 15 years ago wildlife experts warned that the domestic trade in Indian star tortoises needed to be contained before it could become established as an organised international criminal operation.”

“Unfortunately, it seems that our worst nightmare has come true – sophisticated criminal gangs are exploiting both impoverished rural communities and urban consumers alike,” he also added. “Neither group is fully aware how their actions are threatening the welfare and conservation of these tortoises.”

Although deemed of “Least Concern” on the IUCN Red List when last formally assessed back in 2000, the Indian star tortoise and its increasing illegal poaching and trading can easily lead to a serious risk of the species’ extinction. Other dangers of such unregulated activities include the introduction of invasive species and diseases.

Having spent a year among a rural hunter-gatherer community, researchers established the collection of at least 55,000 juvenile wild Indian star tortoises between January and December 2014. This is already between three and six times more than the last such record dating from about ten years ago.

Collectors tend to poach juvenile tortoises, but it is not rare for them to also catch adults. Based on the individual’s age and health, the tortoises are later sold to vendors at a price of between 50 and 300 Indian Rupees (INR), or between 1 and 5 USD, per animal. “Therefore, we conservatively estimate (assuming no mortalities) that the collector engagement in this illegal operation has a collective annual value of up to 16,500,000 INR (263,000 USD) for their impoverished communities,” comment the researchers.

Consumers seek the Indian star tortoise for either exotic pets or spiritual purposes. With their star-like radiating yellow patterns splashed with black on their shells, not only is this tortoise species an attractive animal, but it was also found to be considered as a good omen among the locals in the Indian state of Gujarat. During their survey, the researchers found over a hundred hatchlings in a single urban household. However, their owner claimed that none of them was kept with commercial intent, although some of the tortoises were meant for close friends and relatives.

On the other hand, there was a case where the researchers came across a Shiva temple hosting a total of eleven Indian star tortoises. Temple representatives there confirmed that the tortoise is believed to represent an incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu, one of the three central gods in the religion, recognised as the preserver and protector of the universe.

In India vendors do not show the reptiles in public, but they are made available upon a special request. If paid for in advance, a vendor can also supply a larger quantity of the animals at a price ranging from 1,000 to 3,000 INR (15 to 50 USD) per animal. The researchers managed to see seven captive tortoises in private, including six juveniles and one adult, all in visibly poor health. Disturbingly, in order to reach these vendors, the collected tortoise are usually wrapped in cloths and packed into suitcases. Covered by a ‘mask’ of legal produce such as fruit and vegetables, they are transported to the ‘trade hubs’. They are also smuggled abroad to satisfy consumer demand among the growing middle classes in countries such as Thailand and China.

“Despite being protected in India since the 1970’s, legal ‘loopholes’ in other Asian countries such as Thailand and China appear to undermine India’s enforcement efforts,” explains Mr. Gajender Sharma, India’s Director at World Animal Protection, “They are smuggled out of the country in confined spaces, it’s clear there is little or no concern about the welfare of these reptiles.”

“World Animal Protection is concerned about the suffering that these tortoises endure,” he further notes. “We are dealing with an organised international criminal operation which requires an equally organised international approach to combat it.”

As a result of their study, the authors conclude that more research into both the illegal trafficking of Indian star tortoise and its effects as well as the consumer demand is urgently needed in order to assess, address and subsequently tackle the issue.


Original source:

D’Cruze N, Singh B, Morrison T, Schmidt-Burbach J, Macdonald DW, Mookerjee A (2015) A star attraction: The illegal trade in Indian Star Tortoises. Nature Conservation 13: 1-19. doi:10.3897/natureconservation.13.5625