When JRR Tolkien completed his sketch “Death of Smaug” for The Hobbit in the early 1930s‚ he was illustrating a work of fiction. But it turns out he was being prophetic‚ too.
Tolkien‚ born in Bloemfontein in 1892‚ spent his first three years in the Free State where sungazer lizards — reputed to have been his inspiration for the dragon Smaug — are now under threat of extinction.
The spiky 20cm lizards‚ which look into the sun as they bask‚ are in rapid decline thanks to farming and the global pet trade.
“There was recently a case of a suitcase from South Africa being intercepted in Schiphol airport in Amsterdam containing about 15 live sungazers‚ said Shivan Parusnath‚ a PhD student at Wits University‚ who conducted a conservation assessment of the species for his Master’s research.
He found that numbers had declined by more than a third over the last decade‚ and that just under half of the sungazers’ tiny habitat in the Free State and Mpumalanga had been irreversibly transformed by humans‚ mainly for farming.
Parusnath estimates there are 680‚000 sungazers left‚ but since they mature slowly‚ have small litters and reproduce only every few years‚ he recommends that Smaug giganteus remains classified “vulnerable” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
“The rich and arable Highveld grasslands that the sungazers inhabit is‚ unfortunately for the species‚ also the perfect soil for crop production. This leaves the species prone to danger when humans plough the land for crops‚” he said in the Journal for Nature Conservation.
Those that survive can sell for thousands of dollars in Japan‚ Germany and the US. Permits to catch them are virtually impossible to obtain‚ and possession of a sungazer without a permit can attract a prison sentence of up to 20 years or a R5-million fine.
But poachers were still plundering the population. And because of their specific climatic niche‚ it is virtually impossible to breed them in captivity. “[They] likely do not even enter the process of producing sperm and eggs without the correct cooling and warming periods that they experience seasonally in the wild‚” said Parusnath.
“On top of that‚ sungazers seem to have a very complex social structure‚ so keeping them in random combinations in a metre-long glass tank is not going to be very productive in terms of getting them to reproduce.”
Parusnath is developing and testing methods similar to those used in human parentage tests to establish the genetic relatedness of sungazers in different populations. These will either prove or disprove claims that animals for sale in the pet trade were bred in captivity before trading permits are granted.
“This will make a huge difference to the illegal trade in the species‚ since there are strong suspicions that wild-caught sungazers have been laundered and sold as captive-bred with permits for decades‚” he said.