DNA tracking might save the South African sungazer

The endangered sungazer lizard of South Africa has not had an easy fight for survival. Between shrinking habitats and the threat of poachers, sungazer numbers have dwindled dramatically. However, researchers at Wits University in Johannesburg might have come up with a way to protect them.

The sungazer (Smaug giganteus), also known as the giant girdled lizard already lives in a fairly small habitat of only a few hundred square kilometres. This situation has become much worse, however, as farming development and increased industrialisation spread into its territory in the Highveld. This can wipe out entire colonies of the insect-eating lizards virtually overnight but it isn’t the only threat they face. Because these armoured lizards are so rare and difficult to breed in captivity, they’re incredibly valuable targets for poachers.

The South African Sungazer (Smaug Giganteus). (Photo copyright Johan Marais)
The South African Sungazer (Smaug Giganteus). (Photo copyright Johan Marais)

CITES, (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) has clear regulations for exporting vulnerable species like the sungazer. One of these regulations only permits the international trade of second-generation captive species. It is strange, then, that traders regularly sell sungazers in Europe, despite virtually no successful instances of sungazers being born in captivity. While is there is the threat of a hefty prison sentence for illegally trading sungazers, the majority of those exporting the lizards do so with all appropriate paperwork. Many people believe that this cannot possibly be legitimate and that wild sungazers are being smuggled out of South Africa under false pretences. Some of those people are researchers at Johannesburg’s Wits University, and they have a plan.

Saving the sungazer with paternity tests.

Shivan Parusnath is one of those researchers. He states that the sungazer population has fallen by more than 33% in the past 10 years. His cleverly titled paper on the subject, (The Desolation of Smaug) does acknowledge the conflict caused by the sungazer’s ideal habitat also being premium land for farming. However, Shivan also highlights the incredibly suspicious numbers of sungazers leaving the country, all with the correct paperwork. But there is something which can be done. Using many of the same techniques for human paternity tests, researchers have identified a method for identifying specific DNA markers. This process should allow authorities to prove for certain whether exported sungazers come from the wild or not.

Sungazer lizard

Time will tell whether or not this will help prevent the decimation of the sungazer population. Individual sungazers are worth a few thousand dollars to the right buyer. However, with increased security measures like this and prison sentences of 20 years for smugglers, this might be enough of a deterrent to give the lizards a fighting chance.

Ronan Daly

Ronan Daly is a staff writer for My Good Planet who specialises in Technology and Science. With a Masters Degree in English, and over a decade's experience as a teacher and writer, Ronan has brought a breezy, learned style to My Good Planet, making occasionally complex material accessible and understandable to all.

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