Lonely Planet Writer

South Africa's endangered lizard could be saved by this genius plan

They are one of the most beautiful of lizards and their unusual sun-gazing habits have made them a prime target for the illegal global pet trade. A university however, has come up with a novel CSI-style technique to help combat the selling of the Sungazer, a dragon-like lizard that lives only in the Highveld regions of South Africa.

One of South Africa’s endangered Sungazer lizards. Image by Wits University, South Africa

The lizards have faced the twin threat of habitat destruction and poaching over recent years and their natural habitat now extends to only a few hundred square kilometres. The Sungazers are considered a vulnerable species and supposedly strict rules are in place to stop them being traded for thousands of dollars each. Only the “grandchildren” of wild animals are meant to be traded but suspicions persist that lizards are being taken from their natural habitat.

A university has come up with a unique way to protect the lizards. Image by Wits University, South Africa

Shivan Parusnath of Wits University said the Sungazer population had declined by more than a third over the last decade. He said: “the rich and arable Highveld grasslands that the Sungazers inhabit is, unfortunately for the species, also the perfect soil for crop production.” Because they occupy such a specific habitat, that makes it virtually impossible to breed Sungazers in captivity fuelling the illegal trade.

Over the past ten years, he said around eighty Sungazers had been exported from South Africa with a permit even though it was highly unlikely they were captive bred. “These are just the animals we know about, and the real number leaving the country annually might be much higher,” said Parusnath. “There was recently a case of a suitcase … being intercepted in Schiphol airport in Amsterdam – and this containing about 15 live Sungazers.”

DNA-testing will be used to prevent illegal selling of these endangered animals. Image by Wits University, South Africa

Help may be at hand however, through developing and testing DNA microsatellite markers for the lizards like those that would be used to test human parentage. It is hoped these tests could be used on Sungazers to find out for definite whether lizards were bred in captivity or taken from the wild. Parusnath said: “this will make a huge difference to the illegal trade in the species … this study can also serve as an example of how laundering of wild-caught animals can be stopped, as Sungazers are not the only species falling victim to this loophole in the pet trade.”