Are zoos inadvertently complicit in wildlife trade? The case of a rare Borneo lizard

Monday, 21 June 2021

Earless monitor lizard

Should zoos display legally protected species that have been smuggled out of their native countries? New research led by Oxford Brookes University has found that accredited zoos have acquired a rare and legally protected reptile, the earless monitor lizard - native to Borneo - without any evidence that the animals were legally exported.

‘Miniature Godzilla’ is on protected species lists

The earless monitor lizard lives in the wild only on the island of Borneo and has been described as a ‘miniature Godzilla’. Discovered by western scientists almost 150 years ago, it wasn’t recorded in the wild for many decades. In the 1970s it was added to the protected species lists in the countries that make up Borneo - Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei - which means it can’t be legally traded or exported. 


Despite this protection, reptile enthusiasts and unscrupulous traders have been smuggling small numbers of earless monitor lizards out of Indonesia and Malaysia, bringing them to Europe. This accelerated in 2012, when the species’ rediscovery was announced in a scientific journal. In 2016, 183 countries that signed the Convention on international trade in endangered species agreed to regulate global trade in earless monitor lizards, to limit the impact of smuggling on wild populations. Agreed export numbers were set at zero.

Zoos have obtained earless monitor lizards

However in 2013, a zoo in Japan announced that it had obtained earless monitor lizards. In Europe, the first zoos to openly display earless monitor lizards were located in Hungary, Austria and the Czech Republic, obtained from what zoos referred to as “private individuals” or “dedicated hobby breeders”. How these animals ended up in Japan and Europe is questionable, but perhaps not illegal - and no export permits were ever issued.


In recent years more zoos in Europe and the United States have started displaying earless monitor lizards. Some animals were part of zoo exchanges, others obtained from private individuals, and a handful were placed in zoos by authorities after they were seized. But it is likely that many were at one point illegally exported out of Indonesia, Malaysia or Brunei, or were illegally imported into non-native countries.


Acquisition undermines commitments to address illegal wildlife trade

The acquisition of these protected lizards by zoos is not in line with the intentions of their national laws of their countries of origin, nor with international wildlife trade regulations. Moreover, it is diametrically opposed to the commitments the international zoo community has made to address illegal wildlife trade.


“To me, the current situation concerning the purchase and display of earless monitor lizards by accredited zoos can be compared with a road safety organisation posting online videos of its CEO doing wheelies on a motorbike and then adding that it was done on a private road where neither wearing a helmet nor having a driver’s licence is required,” said Vincent Nijman, Professor in Anthropology at Oxford Brookes University, author of the study. “Both may be legal in a technical sense, but the optics are not good.”


"Modern, scientifically managed zoos are increasingly organising themselves with set ethical values and binding standards which go beyond national legislation on conservation and sustainability, but, unfortunately, this still only counts for a small proportion of zoos worldwide," said Dr Chris R. Shepherd, Executive Director of Monitor Research Conservation Society. "Zoos that continue to obtain animals that have been illegally acquired, directly or indirectly, are often fuelling the illegal wildlife trade, supporting organised crime networks and possibly contributing to the decline in some species."


Zoos need a cautionary approach

Seven years ago, the price for a single earless monitor lizard was in the order of EUR 8,000 to 10,000 but in recent years prices have come down, to less than EUR 1,000. Now that earless monitor lizards are more affordable, and with accredited zoos giving a sense of legitimacy, experts are concerned that it could become more acceptable to keep these rare animals as pets.


“When I grew up in the 1970s, it was still perfectly acceptable for what we now see as accredited zoos to regularly buy rare and globally threatened birds, mammals and reptiles from commercial animal traders. Few questions were asked about the legitimacy of this animal trade. This has dramatically changed for the better, and now many of the animals we see in zoos today have been bred in captivity, either in the zoo itself, or in partner zoos”, Nijman said. He added that in many ways zoos are a force for good in the global challenge to preserve species and conserve habitats. “It is imperative that these efforts are genuinely adopted by all in the zoo community, and, when there is doubt about the legitimacy of animals in trade, that a cautionary approach is adopted.”


The research Zoos consenting to the illegal wildlife trade – the earless monitor lizard as a case study was published in Nature Conservation.

Image of an earless monitor lizard by Chien C. Lee.