Tokay geckos have been used in traditional Chinese medicine for hundreds of years, and consequently, have long been traded, both legally and illegally. Demand for the geckos skyrocketed in international markets in 2009 following rumours that derivatives of the species could cure HIV/AIDS.
The Ugly Truth Behind The Wildlife Trade
Tokay geckos are arboreal, nocturnal lizards that live in Southeast Asia. While there is some demand for them as pets, the real demand is for their use in traditional Asian medicines—everything from aphrodisiacs to energy drinks to treatments for diabetes, cancer, and HIV/AIDS.
There’s no proof whatsoever of their efficacy in any of these uses, but that appears to be of little concern to those who purchase gecko-laden products and potions. The animals are captured, gutted, stretched, dried on sticks in kilns, and exported throughout Asia.
Various arguments have been made that support captive breeding programs, arguing that it relieves pressure on endangered species by providing an alternative source for trade. However, a report by Traffic, called Adding Up the Numbers: An Investigation into Commercial Breeding of Tokay Geckos in Indonesia, demonstrates that the opposite is true. Rather, it finds that wild-caught Tokay geckos are regularly laundered through Indonesia’s captive-breeding facilities on a massive scale, to the great detriment of the species.
Many people believe that captive breeding is a good thing (and in some circumstances that may be true). But in many cases, captive breeding operations pose a serious threat to the conservation of a species because they’re not actually breeding a particular animal, but laundering huge volumes of wild-caught animals through an existing ‘captive breeding’ facility. In short, much of the international trade in captive-bred animals is a scam. In countries where enforcement levels are low, and capacity or policies to regulate captive-breeding facilities are weak, there’s a huge financial incentive and a very low risk for captive-breeding facilities to capture animals from the wild and to export them as being captive bred.
Economically speaking, breeding animals requires huge investments and ongoing costs—housing the animals, caring for them, feeding them, etc. Where laundering is rife, a legitimate breeder would have no chance of competing with those laundering wild-caught animals. It is clearly much more financially-friendly to simply pay villagers a few cents per gecko to collect them, and to subsequently launder the geckos through a ‘legitimate’ captive breeding centre. Thus, the dilemma for many legitimate captive breeders becomes: participate in the laundering of wild-caught animals, or go out of business.
Unfortunately, Tokay geckos aren’t listed in the appendices of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), therefore, international trade isn’t regulated. To help put an end to Tokay gecko laundering, wildlife conservationists strongly recommend that the species should be listed in Appendix II of CITES, which would put in place a mechanism through which the trade could be monitored and regulated. To do so is in the interest of conservation and sustainable trade.
Additionally, everything possible must be done to strongly urge Indonesia, and other Tokay gecko range countries, to immediately list the Tokay gecko in Appendix III of CITES and to propose a stronger listing, in Appendix II.
While Tokay geckos are widespread in Asia, and few, if any, species could stand this level of illegal trade. It’s only a matter of time before the Tokay gecko becomes yet another species on the long, and ever growing list of species threatened with extinction.