‘Holy Grail’ Of Lizards – Borneo Earless Lizards Look Like Something From The Medieval Era But Are Sadly Threatened By Illegal Traders

‘Holy Grail’ Of Lizards – Borneo Earless Lizards Look Like Something From The Medieval Era But Are Sadly Threatened By Illegal Traders

Reptiles aren’t the typical cute cuddly pets. Yet, these scaly animals have a distinct charm about them that is undeniable. The Borneo earless lizard is one such reptile, but with the threat of extinction hanging over it like a dark cloud, there’s not much left to be seen.

Borneo Island

Very few places on earth can compete with the incredible island of Borneo, Malaysia. From unique wildlife to a thick forest filled with all things nature, the island is truly a beauty to behold. 

The South-East Asian Island is tucked in between three countries: Malaysia, Indonesia, and Brunei. The difficulties associated with navigating through the natural terrain are a contributing factor to the relatively low population of people living in Borneo. 

Borneo has one of the most biologically diverse ecosystems in the world. It is home to numerous animal species of varying conservation status. [1] The Borneo earless lizard is one such occupant of Borneo Island.

The Borneo earless lizard

Not many people know anything about this lizard. This is due to its elusive and quiet nature. With the scientific name Lanthanotus borneensis, it is found only on the island of Borneo. Heck, it doesn’t even have any other member in its family, Lanthanotidae

This lizard is called earless because it lacks any external ears. Irrespective of that, it could pass for a dragon except it’s only 20 centimeters large. Sometimes referred to as a “living fossil”, the earless lizard is well suited to a subterranean lifestyle. Its adaptation and morphology are similar to that of a 70-million-year-old fossil from Mongolia hence the living fossil designation.

These incredible creatures are not deaf, they hear just fine without having a visible ear. Also, they love water so much so that they could stay underwater for hours and only come up for a breath now and then. They also spend a lot of time on the riverbed but have tails that can grip rocks so they don’t get carried away by the current.

As for their behavior, as described above, these little creatures are elusive. Perhaps this is because of their shy nature, or maybe because they are nocturnal. Either way, you are not going to run into one easily, even if you go to the Borneo Island. However, if you do see them, keep in mind that while they are easygoing and docile, they can give a mean bite if they feel threatened. [2]

Conservation status of the earless lizards

The rare lizard is very popular amongst illegal pet traders because of its distinct features; the blue eyes and earless appearance. It’s sold for as much as $6,000 or $8,000. These “reptile lovers” who import the lizard into the United States smuggle them out of Borneo with trusted couriers, and illegally bring them into the United States. 

Not just the United States, according to Dr. Chris Shepherd, Traffic Southeast Asia Regional Director, the demand is also massive in Europe, Japan, and Hong Kong. This situation has gotten so bad that Malaysia is putting in efforts to make all international trade of these reptiles illegal. The lizard has been placed under Appendix 1 of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). [3]

These people are still able to get their hands on these lizards

If you’re wondering how that is possible, here goes… They are exploring a small window-loophole in the laws against illegal trade of these reptiles. The lizards are not to be collected in the wild or exported out of their country of origin. However, they can be bought and sold in Europe. 

They trade the lizards at a “reptile fair”. The fair is a massive one with several traders and hunters posing as visitors and blending in with the other thousands of visitors at the convention site. This is only going to lead to their extinction in the long run.

Sandra Altherr of Pro Wildlife, a German conservation group, said, “The trading of nationally protected species may only be a small part of the reptile business, but it could easily drive highly threatened species to extinction. Some of these creatures have already been confined to tiny areas of territory in their native lands.” [4]

There are consequences for taking these animals 

But like all cases of poaching, the fear of punishments hardly ever deters them from committing the crime. Having any of these lizards, even the offspring (as far as the parents were illegally obtained) comes with the penalty of a year in prison and a fine of $1,600 in Brunei to five years in prison and $8,600 fine in Indonesia. 

Also, the lizards are seized and are meant to be returned into the wild. This is because if there’s going to be any hope for their survival, then maintaining a healthy population in Borneo is very important.

It’s not all sad news 

These lizards are often regarded as the “Holy Grail” of the lizard species because of how rare they are, appear to be fighting back against the illegal traders. Last year, the Prague zoo revealed five newborn earless lizards. They are part of a European breeding program that strives to increase their numbers and thus, their chances of surviving.

Hopefully, they are successful and these creatures survive. Surely, we cannot lose “dragons” or something akin to them a second time. 

References:

  1. About Borneo“. The Borneo Project. 2020.
  2. Earless monitor lizards look like cartoon dinosaurs“. Australian Geographic. 2019.
  3. Earless lizard ‘loved’ to death“. The Star. 2016.
  4. Lizard traffickers exploit legal loopholes to trade at world’s biggest fair.” The Guardian. 2015.
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