For the sake of a lizard | Green

The gem-like colours of the tiny Union Island gecko — a lizard found only on one small island in the Grenadines — are why it’s so highly coveted by the exotic pet trade. As Erline Andrews reports, hopes for the endangered gecko’s survival depend on new conservation efforts, and a push for eco-tourism

  • Photo by Matthijs Kuijpers/Alamy Stock Photo
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The number of known animal species on Earth is around 1.5 million, yet that’s likely to be only a fraction of the numerous kinds of creatures humans share this planet with. Hundreds of new species are discovered every year.

Many undiscovered species are in largely undisturbed and unexplored parts of the world, like the forest overlooking serene Chatham Bay on Union Island, one of the chain of tiny islands that make up the Grenadines and form one country with St Vincent. Union Island is home to about three thousand people, and is known for its pristine beaches, which draw yachties and water sports enthusiasts. Chatham Bay in particular is a popular destination for celebrities — Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey, and Ed Sheeran, among them. 

In 2005, Roman Catholic priest Mark Da Silva and fisherman Matthew Harvey, both naturalists, were exploring the Chatham Bay forest when they came upon a tiny gecko — a kind of lizard — whose skin bore a dazzling array of colors, the most prominent being emerald and ruby. But until Da Silva brought it to the attention of a couple of herpetologists visiting St Vincent, the gecko had not been noted and named by modern scientists. Found nowhere else but that fifty-hectare patch of forest above Chatham Bay, it’s even rarer than the precious stones it resembles — current estimates put its population at fewer than ten thousand.

And just as with gems, the gecko’s rarity created a human demand for it — a demand that put the species at risk. 

The exotic pet trade is a multi-billion-dollar industry, some of it legal but much of it illegal, as species are plucked from the wild to meet a growing demand that’s fed in part by social media, where people show off and sell animals.

“As soon as a demand is created for a rare species, it can disappear very quickly,” says Chris Shepherd, executive director of the British Columbia–based organisation Monitor, which keeps track and advocates on behalf of endangered species that may be overlooked by other organisations and the media. 

A survey conducted by Shepherd and colleagues between 2014 and 2018 found a single Union Island gecko — typically not longer than three centimetres — going for as much as US$750 in the online market. They were being advertised for sale from locations in Europe. Most of the ads came from Germany, the location of possibly the world’s biggest reptile trade fair, Terraristika, held three times a year in the city of Hamm.

Removing the gecko from its habitat without a permit is illegal under Vincentian law. The government has only ever granted one such permit: to the two scientists who first documented the gecko’s existence, giving it the scientific name Gonatodes daudini.

But the same year the gecko — also known as the Grenadines clawed gecko — was discovered, a road was built that allowed access to the forest. Poachers caused further disruption to the species’ habitat by turning over rocks and logs. By 2011, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which compiles a list of threatened species, declared the Union Island gecko “critically endangered.” “Additional pressure on this rare and attractive gecko from commercial exploitation could have a dramatic effect on the population,” the IUCN concluded.

In 2015, conservation NGO Flora and Fauna International got involved, and brought together a team of local and international conservationists. After consulting Union Island residents and the relevant state authorities, the group drafted a plan to protect the gecko that was accepted by the Vincentian government.

Wardens began patrolling in 2017, and the first poaching arrest — of a Union Island resident — was made that year. The St Vincent government requested that the gecko receive protection under Appendix 1 of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which would ban all trade of the gecko. The request was granted.

“More than a third of the proposals at this CITES summit relate to amphibians and reptiles threatened by the exotic pet industry,” National Geographic reported on its website. “Amphibians and reptiles are often popular as pets for their attractive colouring or rarity.”

Reptiles are among the most threatened species on Earth. One in five are endangered, according to one study. But they’re not the kind of animal that draws people’s sympathy. “If you ask anybody to name five endangered species they’re going to talk about elephants, tigers, orangutans, sea turtles, and lions,” says Shepherd. “There are so many species of reptiles that are becoming extinct because of the illegal trade that nobody knows about.”

Other than the gecko, the pink rhino iguana — a unique form of the more common green iguana — is found only on Union Island, and may also be threatened. The situation is the same for other reptile species across the Caribbean. In 2017, the IUCN found that more than half of the 376 reptile species it had assessed in the Caribbean were threatened with extinction, and many of them were being traded internationally.

“A lot of reptile enthusiasts really love the Caribbean,” says Matthijs Kuijpers, a Dutch photographer who has captured images of more than two thousand reptiles around the world. The gecko is one of about seventy of the world’s most endangered reptiles which Kuijpers compiled in his book, Cold Instinct.

“Everything is unique,” he says, explaining collectors’ fascination with Caribbean reptiles. “All of the islands, because of the isolation, developed their own niche of animals. People [in the Caribbean] should be really proud of it and not take it for granted.”

The CITES listing and the warden patrols are major steps, but conservationists are aiming for one more: to have the Union Island gecko’s home declared a wildlife reserve, and therefore protected from further human encroachment. Plans to develop the surrounding area with housing and agriculture (the land has already been cleared), plus the expansion of tourist facilities at Chatham Bay, and the predatory goats, cats, dogs, and rats that come with human habitation, all pose a threat to the gecko.

“We don’t want development to stop happening per se, but we would like a certain amount, if not most, of the forest protected,” says Louise Mitchell, the executive director of the St Vincent and the Grenadines Environment Fund, which has played a key role in conservation efforts. “Whatever development comes, it has to fit in with the environment. There’s no sense protecting the gecko without protecting its habitat.”

And protecting the gecko and its habitat can bring its own commercial advantages. “Since we’ve been installed there, we’ve seen so many visitors who have come to hike,” says Roseman Adams, a tour guide and environmental activist on Union Island who’s also a volunteer warden patrolling the Chatham Bay forest. He works alongside three paid wardens. “We have taken them on guided tours there. They are very much appreciative of what’s been done. They encourage us. They want to know ways in which they can assist us.”

Adams is working with other conservationists and government officials to see how the gecko can be used to promote tourism on the island. “We’ll create a mascot of the gecko. My guess is that it will eventually become the icon of the island,” says Adams. “There’s a lot for the island and the community to benefit from its protection.”