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The Union Island Gecko (Gonatodes daudini)

Updated: May 29, 2023


Tiny Lizard a Conservation Success Story


Union Island is a small island (about 9 km 2 ) in the Caribbean Ocean. In one tiny part of it, a remnant of dry forest of about 50 hectares, or approximately 123 acres, there lives a critically endangered lizard, the Union Island Gecko (Gonatodes daudini), also known as the clawed gecko. It was only recognized as a new species in 2005, when first found in the Water Rock Reserve on the north slope of Mt. Taboi, about 120 meters above sea level. It happens to be hyper-cute not only for its minute size, but bright colors that can change, chameleon-like, arranged in intricate patterns.


This lovely little lizard, small enough to sit in a child’s finger with room to spare, provides

conservationists with one more argument in a fight against powerful criminal cartels and unscrupulous destroyers of…well, such wonderful creatures as Union Island Geckos.

Probably the best guess to date is that the international legal trade in wildlife has been estimated to draw in $220 billion U.S. per year (Ground-breaking report draws first overall picture of global wildlife trade | CITES), including products – animals and plants and their parts or derivatives— from fisheries and timber cutting.


While there is obviously no way to know the real value of illegal trade in wildlife, it has been identified as one of the world’s primary criminal enterprise (The illegal wildlife trade is a biodiversity apocalypse | Canadian Geographic). Interpol has pegged its best guess estimate of the value of the Illegal trade in wildlife at $20 billion U.S. per year (https://www.interpol.int/en/Crimes/Environmental-crime/Wildlife-crime). Whatever the number, the two together equal a huge amount of profit from wild animals and plants, often dead, generated to fuel a powerful international lobby.


As diverse as the interests and actions of wildlife traders, legal and illegal, are, they have a common enemy in conservationists seeking to protect common species of animal and plant species from reaching endangered status, and to prevent those wild animal and plant species that are endangered, from becoming extinct, thus lost to us and future generations forever.


Among the more common of stratagems is the dissemination of opinions favorable to a given goal, but not necessarily applicable in all instances. We constantly hear the argument that the value of the animal or plant guarantees its protection by local people, as a “resource”. Why wipe out that which generates income?


As is true of many recently discovered species of herptiles (the collective term for reptiles and amphibians) from about as soon as it was known to exist, there was a value placed on the gecko’s tiny head, and it began to show up for sale overseas. It has happened before. The discovery of a significant number of previously unknown herptile in Vietnam clearly illustrated that the exotic pet trade would seek to exploit such animals even before anything about their population status was known (see, for example: Endemic Vietnamese reptiles in commercial trade - ScienceDirect ).


It is in the economic interest of investors to maximize returns on investment even though the “resource”– rare and exotic animals sought by collectors – is wiped out in the process. Profits can always be invested elsewhere. There are only a very few instances where the value of the “resource” has promoted local populations of a given species are not over-exploited.

Two major moves that can be made to protect a species from international exploitation. The first is through direct, domestic protection – legislation – not always easy to have enacted or enforced. The second is through an Appendix I listing under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora (CITES). Both moves have been enacted on behalf of rare herptiles, world-wide, including the Union Island Gecko. If a species is so listed no international trade for “primarily commercial” purposes is allowed.


And that brings us to the second argument made against conservationists. The charge is that most conservationists come from “developed”, richer nations, and how dare they impose their values, their priorities, upon the less financially supported residents of smaller, poorer, “developing” nations who need to profit from their own, local resources. Charges of “conservation colonialism” are made.


But those “resources” are of no value if they are eliminated. It is the local population of Union Island that wants their unique gecko protected (https://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-64026176). Whether we are talking about attractive but little known herptiles, or elephants or whales or bluefin tuna or rare timber or orchids, the fact is that the cause of its endangerment is its monetary value to the outside world. There may be other threats, most particularly resulting from loss of habitat or local exploitation, but what most threatens a species like the Union Island Gecko is its value to herptile collectors; what most protects it is the people of Union Island, determined to save their unique gift, a tiny, beautifully patterned lizard at home where it evolved and belongs.


Starting just five years ago, Union Island residents, trained as wardens, have been keeping continual watch over the dense forest where their little gecko lives, mostly unseen. Their searches for poachers are coordinated with both international conservation organizations and with the forestry department of the government of St. Vincent and the Grenadines. It appears that the entire population of the gecko has gone from 10,000 when the program started, to around 18,000 – six geckos for every human resident! The community has saved this tiny creature, and that is a powerful and welcome good news conservation story.


And it gets better. The protection extends to the forest itself, and many rare species of animals and plants it contains, including a local race of the Green Iguana and other herptiles (Plight of the iguana – Tackling the illegal trade in rare Caribbean reptiles - Fauna & Flora International (fauna-flora.org)).


The Caribbean has probably lost more endemic herptiles, along with other species, including birds (https://dbpedia.org/page/Category:Extinct_birds_of_the_Caribbean) but a tiny gecko and its human neighbors on Union Island have proven that it need not be that way. Greed is the enemy; pride in local, unique, native fauna and flora provides effective protection against the accelerating rates of extinction sadly unequaled in the history of humanity.


Barry MacKay

Director, Animal Alliance of Canada

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