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| Last Updated:: 04/07/2017

Endangered geckos used in Chinese medicine are poached in northeasten India and 'sold on the international market for up to Rs 70 lakh'











Poachers in northeastern states of India have found a lucrative business in selling an endangered species of lizards, wildlife campaigners have warned. The area is already known for being a hub of tiger, rhino and elephant body parts trafficking - but poachers now appear to have moved onto the rare tokay gecko. 




Each one - usually 40 centimeter long and weighing up to 200gm - is said to carry a multi-million price tag in the international market. 




According to security agencies and wildlife officers working in the northeastern states, hundreds of locals are now selling tokay geckos to international wildlife traffickers, who smuggle them to centers of Chinese medicine across Asia. 




The endangered lizard, which has been used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat conditions including cancer, asthma and diabetes, is in great demand in some Asian countries for its reported medicinal values. 




Although wildlife experts and environmentalists say there is no scientific proof to substantiate the claims of medicinal benefits, the nocturnal tokay gecko has become hot property and a mature gecko can easily fetch up to Rs 70 lakh. 




The revelation came after officers of Indian Paramilitary force Sashastra Seema Bal (SSB) rescued seven tokay geckos, which are known as 'keko saap' in local parlance in the northeast. 




Geckos are listed in Schedule III of the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, as a 'highly endangered animal'. 




Taking action, officers arrested Anil lama, resident of Assam from Jalpaiguri. 'The man confessed that he was planning to sell lizards to an international racket of smugglers at the price of around Rs 4.90 crore. The tokay gecko has a great demand in the international smuggling market,' said a senior SSB official. 




The SSB personnel later handed over the arrested smuggler and returned the reptile to the forest official of Hamilton Range. 




Tilottama Verma, chief of the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau (WCCB), told Mail Today that in the recent past security agencies have done many rescue operations. A sensitisation program of border forces has also helped in recognising the species and tracking the trading routes. 




According to intelligence, the price for each living gecko reaches over Rs 70-80 lakh depending upon size and weight. This makes the animal too vulnerable and on many occasions, low weight geckos are thought to have been injected with mercury to make them heavier despite the metallic chemical killing the animal within couple of days. 




While native to Asia and some Pacific Islands, the species has also been found in northeast India, Bhutan, Nepal, and Bangladesh, throughout Southeast Asia, including the Philippines and Indonesia, and to western New Guinea in Melanesia. 




Its native habitat is rainforest, where it lives on trees and cliffs, and it also frequently adapts to rural human habitations, roaming walls and ceilings at night in search of insect prey. It is an invasive species in the Florida Keys and increasing urbanisation is reducing its range. 




Experts say local tribes are poaching the endangered lizard and then handing them over to middle men or transporters who then smuggle them to international criminals through porous Indian borders. It is a challenge for security agencies to track trafficking of small reptiles as boarders are not fenced and there is daily trade among the locals. Sniffer dogs of SSB have an important role in checking illegal smuggling of lizards. 




Lourembam Biswajeet, who heads the People for Animals (PFA) organisation in the Manipur capital Imphal, says that the geckos are trapped in different parts of Manipur, before they are sent out along the network to traffickers in Myanmar and further transported to Thailand. 




'Local tribes are raiding the hilly forests of Manipur that have an abundant populace of the lizard species. We have managed to rescue 85 tokay geckos in past,' Biswajit told Mail Today. 




Geckos have now become an important subject of study in space research and studies are conducted to replicate the unique adhesive ability of its feet. This can help in capturing free floating uncontrollable space debris which threaten the expensive spacecraft and satellites. 




Additionally, there is ongoing research to use the gecko's adhesive characteristic to develop medical tape to substitute post operative suturing, stapling or even pasting for wound closures.  This can ensure better cosmetic appearance and health of the skin with a less visible scar. 




While the overall volume of the gecko trade is not clearly known, last year, global wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC estimated that Indonesia alone had been exporting 1.2 million dried tokay geckos annually and that in recent years Taiwan has imported 15 million geckos from different countries. 




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. Now, to meet international demand, gecko trappers from India, Nepal and Bangladesh have joined the trafficking chain. 




According to wildlife experts, the trappers are active in the Indian states of Manipur, Mizoram, Assam, West Bengal, Bihar, Jharkhand and Odisha, among others.