Three ways NZ can save its native geckos

When Fiordland National Park rangers arrived to feed Graham in mid July, they found a crime scene. The padlock to Graham’s terrarium was gone. So was Graham.

Graham the Marlborough green gecko was 30 years old, his home was a terrarium near the entrance to the Department of Conservation’s (DOC) Fiordland National Park Visitor Centre. He had outlived the other gecko in the terrarium and provided the sole reptilian welcome to visitors.

Like 76 percent of New Zealand reptiles, Graham faces the risk of extinction through habitat loss and predators. Poachers are an added pressure to gecko populations.

The theft of a lone gecko may not have rung alarm bells for authorities, but the discovery on August 11 of a duct-taped shut lunchbox with 58 native lizards jammed inside should. Of the geckos and skinks inside, only four were alive.

One theory is the lizards were collected by poachers to be smuggled overseas. Someone panicked and dumped them, or a courier organised to transport them did not show up and the lizards died.

Incidents like this raise questions of what options - from dedicated investigators and harsher penalties, to the controversial idea of commercialising gecko trade - New Zealand has to adopt to protect already at-risk native lizards from further risk.

Fines

These thefts might be the first to make headlines since a spate of poaching court cases from 2009 to 2012, but it is unlikely they are only lizards to go missing since then.

New Zealand herpetologists informally monitoring overseas gecko trading websites believe the poaching did not magically stop after 2012.

What did stop was a cross-agency group dedicated to detecting wildlife smugglers. The Wildlife Enforcement Group consisting of Customs, DOC and Ministry for Primary Industry officers was instrumental in catching poachers until it was disbanded in 2013.

Four years on, no new network is in place and during the void of dedicated resource, no gecko smugglers have been caught.

Massey University senior lecturer Dr Brendan Moyle, who specialises in the economics of illegal wildlife trade, says along with catching poachers, harsh penalties are one way to deter thefts.

A recent amendment to the Wildlife Act increased maximum penalties for poaching from six months' imprisonment and a $100,000 fine to a maximum of five years' imprisonment and a $300,000 fine, but Moyle says the increases may not mean much.

“Historically one of the problems we had with wildlife laws is we’ve sometimes had quite high penalties for wildlife crimes, but judges have tended to give quite light sentences.”

“We have some of the most ancient lizards left on the planet, these are really, really unique and special. No one else has got them, they’re more than just endemic, they’re outstanding examples."

There have been several arrests for gecko poaching in the last decade and sentences, despite judges calling for stiffer penalties, have fallen short of the maximum allowed.

Four cases since 2009 have ended with sentences of between 14 and 18 weeks. Only one smuggler was fined – a sum of $5000. The estimated value of reptiles found on him was $50,000. A poacher caught with geckos valued at $192,000 received 15 weeks' imprisonment and no fine.

“It’s a little different to the Chinese situation where they have minimum sentences which judges can’t go below a certain level. If you’re detected with parts of about three [different types of] Asiatic black bears it means three years in jail, no negotiation.

“The main thing is to make sure the penalties are in excess of the value of the wildlife. You make it punitive.”

Farms

While harsher penalties can act as a deterrent, Moyle said another tool to consider is reducing black-market demand by allowing the legal trade of native geckos.

“It is an option that can be used, hypothetically.

“One of the challenges is New Zealand lizards are slow to breed, they have a slow reproductive rate but that doesn’t stop us commercially breeding other species with slow reproductive rates. Cattle have quite a low reproductive rate.”

While the idea of farming native animals such as weka and geckos raises the spectre of kākāpō kebabs and kiwi as Sunday roasts for some, Moyle points out there are examples which barely raise an eyebrow, such as farmed native mussels.

“I don’t really like that slippery slope argument. The reality is we have used commercial and legal trade in some cases quite successfully. One of the best examples is the crocodilians. Nobody really cares there, because, well, they’re crocodiles.”

There is a precedent for a commercial gecko breeding programme to protect a species.

The New Caledonian crested gecko was thought extinct until being rediscovered in 1994. Following the rediscovery, a small breeding group was created. Now the crested gecko is one of the most popular reptile pets with captive bred crested geckos selling for as little as $80 each. Wild crested geckos are protected. They are listed as vulnerable due to habitat loss to agriculture and an introduced ant pest, but they are not poached thanks to the booming pet trade.

The New Caledonian crested gecko was thought extinct until it was rediscovered in 1994. Photo: Pixabay

Moyle does not think there is a risk of the focus being taken off conserving wild populations if a commercial trade is successful.

“In fact, what often happens is, once something seems valuable, governments become a bit better at protecting them. You could also have things like royalty payments.”

He also thinks issues of a small gene pool causing defects could be managed with a regulated breeding programme.

“What’s the greatest risk? Is it losing lots of geckos to illegal trade? Perhaps the smaller risk is something on the genetic side. Losing a whole animal is a complete loss of all those genes. If you’re breeding, a lot of those genes are still being perpetuated.”

Independent herpetologist Dr Marieke Lettink has looked into the idea of farming geckos.

“If you’ve got animals that mature quite quickly and have a reasonable clutch size then that might be a goer.”

This is not the case for New Zealand’s green and jewelled geckos, which take a long time to reach maturity and have a low rate of breeding compared to geckos like the New Caledonian crested gecko.

Lettink completed population modelling for the female jewelled gecko, a favourite of poachers because of its bright colour and markings.

For a breeder starting out with 20 females it would take 10 years to breed 140 females – a number so low it would be unlikely to satisfy demand and reduce poaching.

She says for the Marlborough green gecko, like Graham, the numbers are even worse as their fertility rate is lower than the jewelled gecko.

Understanding the biology of wildlife to assess whether they’ll be suitable for farming is key, says Lettink.

“If we wanted to halt biodiversity loss in New Zealand we are not spending nearly enough.”

“The farming argument, I’ve seen it being run before.

“They say we can increase the breeding rate and the assumption is just based on things like we’ll give them extra supplementary food or we’ll put them in a warm place and they’ll grow faster. For most of our green geckos you’re looking at three to four years before they can breed. And then after that they can still only have two babies at best a year. You can’t change those things.”

Captive breeding to create an insurance population also has issues. The slow reproduction rate means it takes a long time to create a population and a captive upbringing can be poor preparation for a future in the wild.

Captive-bred animals have no experience evading predators, and captivity can affect their physical abilities.

Lettink said captive-bred Otago skinks were tested alongside wild skinks for skills such as running speed. The captive skinks were slower than their wild counterparts.

Funds

With enforcement lacking, poaching sentences below a punitive amount and a reproduction rate unable to satisfy black-market demand, the future of geckos relies on protection.

DOC, tasked with protecting New Zealand’s wildlife, including 3000 species at risk of extinction, faces the prospect of making do with less funding than it had 10 years ago.

In real terms, their 2017 funding is $31 million less than it was in 2007. A one-off $76 million boost recently given by the government is earmarked for tourism infrastructure not wildlife protection.

Even the additional funding to achieve the goal of a predator-free New Zealand by 2050 is unlikely to be a Hail Mary for at-risk species. On top of the current $70 million already spent annually on predator control, the government now has $28 million set aside for four years, and $7 million per year after that. The amount barely makes a dent in the $32 billion it would cost to rid New Zealand entirely of predators, as estimated in a New Zealand Journal of Ecology article.

DOC’s Draft Threatened Species Strategy, released in May, includes plans to manage only 600 of New Zealand’s 3000 at-risk species by 2030. In practice, this may mean management tools such as translocation, predator control or breeding programmes. It is unlikely to extend to measures such as security guards or CCTV to protect wild populations from poaching. For the 2400 species not managed, the clock ticks.

Moyle said extinction would be a serious biodiversity loss.

“We have some of the most ancient lizards left on the planet, these are really, really unique and special. No one else has got them, they’re more than just endemic, they’re outstanding examples. You know that’s a very valid reason to keep them around.

“If we wanted to halt biodiversity loss in New Zealand we are not spending nearly enough.”

Time too, is not on Graham’s side. Lettink says his future might be grim. At 30, Graham is no spring chicken. If Graham survives the initial theft, his dotage may be unpleasant.

“It depends on where he ends up. New Zealand geckos are relatively cold adapted and what lots of people overseas do is have indoor cages, they have geckos as pets and they have heat lamps and little cages. A lot of the captive situations like that are too warm for our geckos.”

The biggest risk is the conditions he could be subjected to while being transported.

“If he has to go through a transit period it might end quite badly for him.”

Since publication the Department of Conservation has let us know their funding has increased in real terms since 2008. Details are available here.

Anyone with information regarding the lizard thefts can contact DOC on 0800 DOC HOT (0800 362 468).

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