Geckos imperiled as demand from China drives brisk illegal trade in Northeast India

The Third Pole
A massive demand from China is driving the capture and traficking of geckos from India’s northeastern states, with some trafickers even setting up illegal breeding centres.

By Mubina Akhtar

The lizard remained stationary, stuck in the glue. It was difficult to ascertain whether it was dead or alive.

A team from the Assam State Zoo had rescued the Tokay Gecko from the premises of a bank in Guwahati, the state capital. Glue had been sprayed on the floor of a plastic basket. Cockroaches and grasshoppers were used as baits.

The bank staff told the rescue team that the gecko had fallen into a glue trap meant for rodents.

The rescuers did not believe the explanation. They know that the online market in illegal wildlife trade has expanded to include all species of nocturnal Asian lizards, including the Tokay Gecko.

"We rescue a number of them every month from illegal traders and it falls on us to collect live cockroaches and grasshoppers to feed them daily," said a zoo attendant.

The gecko's plight

The Tokay Gecko (Gekko gecko) €" from the Gekkonidae family €" is a fairly common nocturnal lizard, with its habitat ranging eastwards from Nepal all the way to New Guinea, including India's northeastern states and West Bengal, as well as adjoining countries like Bhutan, Bangladesh, and areas of Southeast Asia. It lives on trees in rainforests and eats insects. Since insects are attracted by lights, the gecko often follows its prey to villages.

Now, with gecko prices shooting up in the illegal online market, this habit of getting close to humans has turned fatal for the Tokay Gecko and its cousins, the Golden Gecko (Gekko badenii) and the Assamese Day Gecko (Cnemaspis assamensis).

In 2014, the gecko was listed in Schedule Four of India's Wildlife (Protection) Act of 1972. This meant there could be a three-year jail term for someone convicted of hunting and smuggling geckos. And in late 2018, the Assam State Biodiversity Board included the Tokay Gecko and the Assamese Day Gecko in a new list of threatened species.

However, Jayanta Kumar Das, honorary Wildlife Warden of Udalguri district on the Assam-Bhutan border, said, "Legal protection for the gecko remains inadequate as long as it is remains outside the IUCN's red list."

Das, who has recused a number of geckos from would-be smugglers, said, "The state forest department as well as the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau have failed miserably to curb the trade. Most violators of the act go unpunished. As a result, trafficking of these so-called lesser wildlife has soared in recent years." An additional problem is that many of the forest staff are unfamiliar with the creature they have to protect, and have to be trained to recognise it first, rescue it later.

"The craze has reached such a level that there are now illegal gecko breeding centres operating in the state, on the Assam-Arunachal border," said a Wildlife Crime Control Bureau official at the local office.

There are now hundreds of cases across India's north-eastern states where people have been found to be selling Tokay Geckos to wildlife traffickers, who smuggle them to Chinese medicine hubs across Asia €" mainly Nepal and Myanmar.

Neighbouring Bhutan is reported to have curbed the trafficking in geckos to a large extent. Sonam Wangdi, a forest official in the Bhutan government, told thethirdpole.net that locals found in possession of any nocturnal Asian lizard were fined heavily, and this has slowed down the trade.

The lure

A young man who had once been arrested for being part of a gecko trafficking ring said, "Experts use a syringe and suck out of the gecko a fluid that resembles blood. The fluid is supposedly used in China in the treatment of cancer. Buyers are willing to pay any price if they are sure that the fluid has come from a Tokay Gecko." The man spoke on condition of anonymity.

There is no scientific proof of any supposed curative property of the body fluids of a Tokay Gecko, or any other gecko.

However, scientists are studying these nocturnal lizards for the chemical composition of the glue that enables the animals to stick to almost any surface and hang upside down if necessary. There have been attempts to see if this can be used as a superglue to capture space debris that threaten spacecrafts and satellites. There are also studies to check if this glue can be used to hasten the closing of wounds after surgery.

All this means there is a demand for the Tokay Gecko and other geckos from laboratories as well, and they are being caught in larger numbers than ever before.

The Third Pole is a multilingual platform dedicated to promoting information and discussion about the Himalayan watershed and the rivers that originate there. This report was originally published on thethirdpole.net and has been reproduced here with permission.

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