‘Spectacular’ native geckoes being poached and sold on black market as most at-risk reptiles named

Rare Australian geckoes and lizards found are being poached and sold on the black market, scientists warn, as they call for more action to protect endangered reptiles.

Research led by the by the Threatened Species Recovery Hub and published today in the Pacific Conservation Biology journal identified the top 20 Australian reptiles most at risk of becoming extinct in the next two decades.

They include the Victorian grassland earless dragon, the Fassifern blind snake, and the Arnhem Land gorges skink.

More than half of the animals are found in Queensland and many are not protected under Federal or state legislation.

Monash University associate professor David Chapple said the snakes, geckoes and lizards face a range of serious threats, including land clearing, climate change and poaching.

“There’s been several instances where people have been caught collecting these species and they’ve been seen turning up on online marketplaces for sale,” Dr Chapple said.

A gecko with pale pink skin and reddish-brown markings splayed and alert on red earth.
The Lake Disappointment ground gecko is found in Western Australia.(Supplied: Brad Maryan)

Black market geckoes

One potential target for poachers is the highly-camouflaged Cape Melville leaf-tailed gecko, which is found in isolated rainforests in Far North Queensland.

The species ranks ninth on the Threatened Species Recovery Hub’s list of threatened reptiles.

A man wearing a head torch examines a gecko sitting in his hand on a pitch-black night.
Conrad Hoskin says rare native geckoes are under increasing threat from climate change, land clearing and poaching.(Supplied: Tim Lamman)

James Cook University biologist Conrad Hoskin, who discovered the species in 2013, said its exquisite appearance and rareness made it highly desirable to collectors.

“They’re big and spectacular, they’re very poorly known, they’re very rare — they’re definitely desirable for keeping,” he said.

“When you’re dealing with a species that have very small population size and a very localised area, even taking 20 or 30 animals can have a very significant impact on the population.”

The issue came to light in July when a variety of native lizards were found hidden in rice cookers destined for China, packaged without food or water to be sold on the black market.

‘Cryptic’ species not protected by law

Dr Chapple said while rare snakes and lizards were popular among collectors, there was a general lack of awareness about the threats they faced.

“I think the general public has a greater affinity with birds and mammals,” he said.

“Lizards and snakes are generally very cryptic and hidden in the environment, and you really have to go out of your way to search for them.”

A map of Australia showing the locations of endangered reptiles.
Environmental scientists say Queensland is home to more than half the country’s reptiles at highest risk of extinction.(Supplied: Threatened Species Recovery Hub)

He said half of the species most at risk of extinction were not listed as endangered or critically endangered under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act.

“There is still a lag from getting them from the international conservation ranking to being protected under Australian law,” he said.

“That’s partly a consequence of a lack of funding being devoted to many of these species, because they often occur in very remote and inaccessible places.”

He said scientists were still coming to grips with the exact number of reptile species native to Australia.

“It’s very hard to identify the conservation action for species when you don’t even know if they exist or where they occur,” he said.

Dr Chapple said more funding for research and monitoring of reptiles was needed.

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