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Malaysia goes to battle for Godzilla-like lizard

A bizarre-looking monitor lizard found only on the island of Borneo is in urgent need of international protection from the black-market trade in wildlife involving Japan and other countries, according to documents submitted by Malaysia ahead of a major conference on wildlife trade.

In Japan, where a pair once sold for S$39,558, the lizards became popular after being featured on the cover of a reptile hobbyist magazine. Photo: Traffic

In Japan, where a pair once sold for S$39,558, the lizards became popular after being featured on the cover of a reptile hobbyist magazine. Photo: Traffic

A bizarre-looking monitor lizard found only on the island of Borneo is in urgent need of international protection from the black-market trade in wildlife involving Japan and other countries, according to documents submitted by Malaysia ahead of a major conference on wildlife trade.

Malaysia’s proposal to totally ban commercial trade in the Bornean earless monitor, by listing it on Appendix 1 of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, or Cites, is set to be taken up in late September when delegates from the convention’s 182 parties meet in South Africa.

The species, described as a “holy grail” for reptile collectors because of its rarity, uniqueness and Godzilla-like appearance, is in a “precarious” situation in the wild and there is “strong justification” to totally ban international trade in it, the supporting document says.

“The impact of trade is inferred to be great,” it says, noting that earless monitors are increasingly turning up for sale in countries like Japan and Germany, which are among the most lucrative markets for exotic pets and illegally obtained wildlife.

In Japan, where a pair once sold for ¥3 million (S$39,558), the lizards became popular several years after being featured on the cover of a reptile hobbyist magazine. Nowadays, individuals sell for less than ¥300,000, reflecting their increased availability.

First described in 1877, this poorly understood species, whose scientific name is Lanthanotus borneensis, is unique among monitors in several ways and could well be closely related to snakes. As its common name implies, it lacks external ear openings although it is capable of hearing. Its lower eyelid has a transparent window, protecting the eye while enabling it to see when closed — likely an adaptation for living below ground. It also has the rare ability to swallow food while underwater.

Averaging less than 50cm in length, these orange-brown, small-eyed, short-limbed creatures have rows of beadlike scales running from the head down the back, long claws, a prehensile tail and a forked tongue to help them “smell” their environment.

For decades, the secretive and nocturnal species had eluded scientists in Borneo — shared by Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei, all of which ban collection — and commercial trade was not an issue. But the situation changed after the “rediscovery” of the species was announced in 2012, resulting in a groundswell of interest not only among reptile enthusiasts, but also unscrupulous collectors.

Shortly thereafter, dozens of earless monitors were offered for sale by European traders to hardcore hobbyists willing to shell out thousands of dollars. Over a 17-month period beginning in May 2014, investigators documented the online sale of nearly 100 of them from 35 different dealers in 11 countries.

The lizards “are being actively targeted by a small but prolific group of collectors/traders who use trusted couriers to collect and smuggle individual reptiles out of Borneo,” the Malaysian document says. In October 2015, a German smuggler was caught with eight earless monitors under his trousers after Jakarta airport security officers were alerted by the distressed animals’ squeaks, according to local media, while last March, 17 specimens were seized from another German at an airport in Borneo.

Some hobbyists who keep and attempt to breed the monitors suggest they are not necessarily rare in the wild, just rarely seen, and that rampant deforestation by the palm-oil industry in Borneo is a far greater threat than collection for the reptile trade. “If they weren’t collected, they would likely go extinct,” argued one such person in an online discussion forum.

The prospective Cites listing of the species has drawn attention to iZoo, a reptile park in Japan’s Shizuoka Prefecture that features earless monitors and now faces accusations that it exploited legal loopholes to obtain them.

The private zoo, which two years ago announced the “world’s first captive reproduction” of this species, insists its monitors were acquired legally and it is being unfairly demonised despite working to conserve the species.

It says it acquired its first two monitors in April 2013 from a Japanese animal dealer, which marked the first time this species had been imported to Japan, and later imported several more from Malaysia and Austria “through required procedures”. However, since neither Indonesia nor Malaysia has ever reported legal export of the species, the sourcing of iZoo’s breeding animals is questionable, according to Traffic, a wildlife trade watchdog of the WWF and the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

“Earless monitor lizards existing outside range countries have all been obtained illegally. Parent stock has been illegally obtained, stolen from range countries, and therefore, by extension, the offspring of these animals are illegally sourced,” it said in a report on illicit trade in the lizards.

Traffic urged governments in importing countries to respect the laws of Indonesia and Malaysia by disallowing the import, ownership and trade of earless monitors to prevent depletion of the few remaining populations.

According to Ms Keiko Wakao of Traffic (Japan), Japan unfortunately lacks a law akin to the Lacey Act of the United States, which bans the import of illegally obtained, nationally protected species.“The market for exotic pets is expanding in Japan, but many people here don’t realise how the pet trade may threaten wildlife,” Ms Wakao said. “We need to make greater efforts to raise awareness, while also urging the government to set regulations,” she said.

Of the world’s more than 70 species of monitor — which include the Komodo dragon, the world’s largest lizard — the earless monitor is the only one not protected by Cites.

Conservationists hope that an Appendix I listing would not only ban commercial trade in the species and result in higher fines for violators, but increase public awareness and national conservation measures to ward off its extinction in the wild. Some fear, however, that it could paradoxically make these enigmatic lizards even more desirable and valuable, increasing the likelihood of exploitation and rendering the species even rarer. KYODO NEWS

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