Bogus claims that it can cure HIV/AIDS and cancer have placed the tokay gecko under threat.
Carrying a backpack on his back and a stick in his hand, Lalpu is wading through the tall grass atop a forested hill. He hears a “ge-cko” croaking call, and stops. He’s sure that at least one gecko is hiding in the stump of the tree in front of him.
Lalpu signals to his assistant, who quickly loads a syringe with petrol and hands it over. Lalpu approaches the stump and injects the petrol through a crack. Within a couple of minutes, a 25-cm blue-grey tokay gecko (Gekko gecko), its body covered with orange spots, jumps out. In a flash, Lalpu grabs the nocturnal lizard by its head, places it inside a cloth pouch and slips it into his backpack.
Lalpu, a Simte tribesman who refuses to reveal his surname, explains the process to The Diplomat: “To escape the pungent smell of the petrol inside, it comes out of the crack. If forced out of its hiding place in the daytime this way, a tokay gecko is often frightened or confused. To catch it is very easy, then.”
“Sometimes we also use fire and smoke to drive the geckos out from inside rock and tree holes. Often, to catch one gecko, we have to stay on the hunt for up to a week. But we get paid very well by the Burmese traders.”
Lalpu used to sell wood for fires in the town of Churachandpur, in the northeast Indian border state of Manipur. But for the past two years he has been engaged in the secret business of trapping tokay geckos and selling them to animal smugglers.
International wildlife traffickers seek fully-grown geckos, which can reach more than 40 cm in length. Lalpu said that trapping the adult geckos, which are smarter about hiding and more aggressive, is difficult and so he mostly catches younger ones. He also buys geckos from other trappers.
In all, Lalpu reckons he has trapped about 70 young geckos and bought another 50 at a cost of 2,000 to 3,000 rupees ($33 to $49) each. He keeps the geckos at home for a few weeks until they are fully grown, and then sells them at 7,000 to 10,000 rupees each.
“In two years I have earned more than 600,000 rupees – six times more than I could have made as a wood-cutter,” he says.
A Busy Trade
Poachers have long trafficked tiger body parts and rhino horns to Chinese medicine preparers in east Asian countries. Now, hundreds of Indian trappers like Lalpu are selling tokay geckos to international wildlife traffickers, who smuggle them to centers of Chinese medicine across Asia.
Tokay geckos have been used in traditional Chinese medicine for hundreds of years to treat cancer, asthma, diabetes, skin disorders and a range of ailments. They are also popular as pets. As such, they have long been traded, both legally and illegally. In many Asian countries tokay wine or whiskey is consumed as an aphrodisiac or as an energy drink.
However, demand for the geckos skyrocketed in international markets in 2009 following rumors that derivatives of the species could cure HIV/AIDS. Classified ads in newspapers, online sites and elsewhere began extolling the benefits of gecko tongue and other internal organs. Although there is no scientific evidence to support the claim, would-be patients flocked to traditional medicine specialists. The result was a surge in gecko poaching.
While the overall volume of the gecko trade is not clearly known, last year, global wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC estimated that Indonesia alone was exporting 1.2 million dried tokay geckos annually and that in recent years Taiwan has imported 15 million geckos from different countries. In 2011, a shipment of around 1.2 million dried tokay geckos, illegally harvested in Java, was intercepted en route to Hong Kong.
Last year, TRAFFIC also warned that the wild population of the tokay gecko in Southeast Asia was in grave danger, as it is hunted to meet demand in China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Vietnam and other Asian countries.
The habitat of the tokay gecko ranges from India, Nepal and Bangladesh to Indonesia, Philippines and New Guinea. Poaching of the gecko in the wild first became widespread in Southeast Asia.
Now, to meet international demand, gecko trappers from India, Nepal and Bangladesh have joined the trafficking chain. According to Indian wildlife experts, the trappers are active in the Indian states of Manipur, Mizoram, Assam, West Bengal, Bihar, Jharkhand and Odisha, among others.
Lourembam Biswajeet, who heads the People for Animals (PFA) organization in the Manipur capital Imphal, says that the geckos trapped in different parts of India land in Manipur, before they are sent out along the network to traffickers in Myanmar.
Speaking with The Diplomat, Biswajeet explains the supply chain. “From Myanmar the geckos are trafficked to Thailand, from where dried tokay meat is exported to other countries for use in traditional medicine, we have heard from some Burmese sources. But indeed there is a possibility that they are also being sent to other Southeast Asian countries.”
“The gecko population has dwindled in Myanmar and Thailand after years of rampant poaching there. Now, the Burmese wildlife traffickers have their eyes on India where the animals are still in abundance.”
Following pressure from wildlife rights activists last year, the tokay gecko was added to the species protected under India’s Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972. However, that hasn’t deterred the poachers, to the concern of wildlife protection agencies.
A crackdown by agencies in several Indian states has led to the arrest of more than 300 gecko traffickers in the past year. More than 1,000 geckos have been confiscated in India during this period and released back into the wild.
“The seizure of tokay geckos and arrest of traffickers are continuing at an alarmingly high frequency in this state, pointing to the fact that the poaching of the animal is on the increase in the region,” says Chief Wildlife Warden of West Bengal Ujjwal Bhattacharyya.
“Tokay geckos help control population of pests and provide food for larger snakes. The loss of the geckos poses a threat to the eco system.”
The wildlife warden called for the tokay gecko to be protected under CITES, the international convention on endangered species.
“All countries within the range of the geckos in Asia should act in solidarity to protect the tokay gecko by introducing legislation at the national level, before it becomes extinct,” he says.
Shaikh Azizur Rahman is a Calcutta-based journalist.