/ 23 June 2017

Desperate 11th-hour bid to rescue little dragon ‘Smaug’

Red alert: Factors like habitat loss
Red alert: Factors like habitat loss

They’re extremely rare, the razor-sharp spikes on their backs and tails make them look like dragons and they fetch a small fortune on the black market.

South Africa’s sungazer lizard — known for seeming to stare at the sun — is under severe threat, despite steps to curb the illicit exporting of specimens caught in the wild.

Unique to the Free State and parts of Mpumalanga, sungazer colonies have been devastated for decades by habitat loss and the degradation of the pristine grassland they inhabit because of farming, mining, roadworks, power stations and dams.

But the dragonlike lizards, which can grow up to 38cm long, face other threats. They are prized internationally as pets and sought after locally to make love potions and for use in traditional medicines.

A proliferation of adverts on social media for sungazers reflects the extent of the international trade in the species known to biologists as Smaug giganteus, named after JRR Tolkien’s dragon in The Hobbit.

“People in places like Japan, Europe and the US [United States] are paying ridiculous amounts for them just to keep them in glass tanks for bragging rights,’’ says Shivan Parusnath, a PhD student at the University of the Witwatersrand who has created genetic markers for wild sungazers to help to conserve them.

“If you search [for] them on Instagram, you’ll see lots of people with their pet sungazers … I started a Facebook page for people who want to know about the species and share pictures of them. But pretty much everybody who joins does so because they want to know where to buy one. They think I’m a breeder or something,’’ Parusnath said.

Last year, a passenger was arrested at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport travelling from South Africa to Germany with 19 sungazers in his luggage.

Potions made from their body parts are sold on traditional markets in places such as Johannesburg and Durban. Among the many beliefs is that the potions will allow men to have multiple partners if it’s spirited into their wives’ food.

“Kids in the Free State, impoverished people, catch sungazers and sell them to sangomas just as a way of getting something to eat, which is sad,’’ Parusnath says.

Using population modelling, Parusnath, who surveyed more than 100 sungazer populations for his master’s degree research, conservatively estimates that about 680 000 adults have survived the onslaught of infrastructure, farming and poaching in recent decades.

Their habitat has shrunk dramatically — by about two-thirds between 1978, when a large-scale survey was previously done, to about 1 100km2 today.

“In Mpumalanga, for instance, they used to be found in Standerton. We went to Standerton, visited the farms and they’re not there any more,’’ he says.

The picture is particularly bleak when you consider that female sungazers, which don’t lay eggs, only give birth every few years and do not produce many offspring.

Sungazers have long been flagged as vulnerable on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red Data list of threatened species and placed on Cites Appendix 2, outlawing their trade unless they are bred in captivity. They are also listed nationally as a threatened and protected species, along with animals such as rhinos.

Parusnath says sungazer births in captivity are extremely rare, so the only conclusion is that large numbers of wild-caught reptiles have been “laundered’’ using valid Cites (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) permits issued by officials who don’t know any better.

DNA of wild sungazers dries up export trade

The rules of the game are shifting with a legislative change, which will stop reptile traders from exporting sungazers caught in the wild.

A sungazer working group, set up in 2011 by the Endangered Wildlife Trust’s Ian Little, is briefed regularly on permit applications, farming activity, mining applications and the like, and its recommendations are shaping policy.

The working group comprises researchers, officials from the department of environmental affairs, the South African National Biodiversity Institute, the Green Scorpions and the National Zoological Gardens.

An important byproduct of Shivan Parusnath’s PhD research, which is studying the effect of people on the genetic health of sungazer -populations, was the creation of DNA markers for the lizards in the wild.

He collected more than 500 genetic samples from 80 locations in the Free State and Mpumalanga and the markers are already being used by officials from the National Zoological Gardens to vet permit applications.

Permits to export captive reptiles are now granted only if DNA tests (at a cost of R500 a creature, paid for by a reptile park or facility) can prove a second-generation genetic link between captive specimens.

Legislation to formalise this protocol is expected to be gazetted soon but instructions to enforce it have been circulated to environmental affairs officers in the provinces, and the issuing of export permits has dried up.

“In the interim, there is no legal trade in wild-caught sungazers,’’ according to Little.

Sentences for wildlife crimes usually carry a maximum jail term of 10 years or a R10-million fine.

Little says there have been prosecutions for the smuggling of the lizards for muti but few, if any, for illegally trading them for export: “Personally I haven’t heard of a single prosecution in five years of working with sungazers and other reptiles,’’ says Little.