Greedy for Geckos The use of Geckos in Traditional Medicine, Illegal Trade, and the Pet Industry

By Natalie Sell | October 17, 2019

As I was feeding my leopard gecko and watching her miss a mealworm for the 11th time, I started to wonder how these animals could survive in the wild. I have to admit, my leopard gecko is not the most intelligent of my pets. She has sprinted straight off the edge of the table on multiple occasions, and continues to try to do so every time we take her out. She also runs toward my cats and dog, but will wave her tail at the salt shaker, which is apparently the number one threat. Leopard geckos wave their tails to get predators to focus on the tail instead of the gecko itself, which can drop the tail off and make a quick getaway while the predator is distracted. My leopard gecko threatens to sever her own tail at the terrifying sight of the salt shaker far more often than is necessary. It is because of these behaviors that I began to wonder: how do leopard geckos survive? Where do they live? Are all geckos like this, or is mine just unusually stupid?

Leopard geckos are increasing in popularity as pets. They are generally low maintenance and come in many different morphs, making it more appealing to people to try their own hand at breeding new varieties. Breeding requires many different controlled elements. Gecko breeders must know the genetic background of each gecko in order to predict what the possible outcomes will be. In addition to this, there are many difficult requirements to meet for success. For example, a breeder would need enclosures and incubators with proper temperature regulation systems. If an incubator is too far outside of the temperature range, this can cause birth defects such as kinked tails. The recent rise in leopard gecko breeding has resulted in many new “designer” geckos with unique traits. A few popular ones include Jungles, Tangerines, and Bandits.

A leopard gecko with a kinked tail

However, geckos are not only valued as pets. They are also commonly used in various types of traditional medicine. Lizards have been used by local medicine men for years, treating skin disease, pains and burns, snake and spider bites, and a vast variety of other issues. Tegus, in South America, is thought to help close wounds, get rid of skin irritations, cures measles, eye infections, earaches, insect bites, and rheumatism, all by ingesting the fat or oil of the lizard. The monitor lizard is used as an aphrodisiac in South India, as well as being used to treat haemorrhoids, rheumatism, high blood sugar, and asthma. Hunting lizards in particular is common in hunter-gatherer communities, such as the Irulas of Tamil Nadu in southern India. They use medicine from many animals; the red sand boa and spiny-tailed lizard are both used for skin diseases. Currently, one of the most frequently used animals in traditional medicine is the Tokay gecko.

Tokay geckos are nocturnal, feeding mainly on invertebrates as well as other geckos and small rats and mice. This gives them the potential to be used for biological control agents, since they consume many pests that carry disease. They can live up to 10 years and are a solitary species that meets only to mate. Tokay geckos become sexually mature at 1-2 years of age, and can lay 2 eggs every 30 days. These eggs take 64 days to hatch. People buy the geckos and use them to treat HIV, cancer, impotency, diabetes, and far more. Information has been going around recently that declares Tokay gecko to be a cure for AIDS, further increasing the demand.

Despite these claims and the effect on trade, there are many who argue that the use of geckos is based in superstition, not science. Singh, the deputy conservator of forests in Manipur, says "it has been proven scientifically that gecko meat cannot cure these diseases.” Doubting the effectiveness of this type of treatment doesn’t stop people from buying; 1 kilogram of Tokay gecko meat can be worth up to 10,000 euros (over $11,000). Tokay gecko meat can be consumed as is, but is usually dried and ground into powder to be eaten. Customers also use the gecko by extracting a nondescript liquid from them with a syringe to treat HIV/AIDS.

Although many claim that using Tokay gecko in traditional medicine has no scientific basis, it has been done for hundreds, if not thousands of years. It’s frequently used in Chinese traditional medicine for lungs and kidneys, skin ailments, cancer, diabetes, and asthma, among other conditions. It’s been used in Vietnam for cough and erectile dysfunction, and there’s evidence that the Tokay gecko may have anti-tumor properties. In fact, in clinical practice, there’s evidence of a legitimate effect on malignant tumors. A research team from Henan University of China investigated the effect of Tokay gecko on malignant tumors, and found that it could slow tumor growth by boosting immunity, strengthening body resistance, and promoting healthy energy. In addition to that, gecko can induce apoptosis of tumor cells and suppress expression of several cellular components necessary for the propagation of tumor cells. There still have been no pharmacological studies, so the way it works is unknown.

The controversy over whether or not Tokay gecko is beneficial as an element of medicine is not currently the main issue, however. Many illegal and unethical practices are being carried out to transport and sell these animals, often with severe ecological effects. As of 2019, Tokay geckos are not listed in CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species), meaning that there are no strict regulations for global trade of the species. Although individual areas have their own regulations, the lack of enforcement allows unethical behavior to slip through the cracks. One example of this is the different ways dealers try to increase the weight of their geckos to bring in more profit. Dealers will sometimes inject geckos with silicon or force feed them metal to increase their value, causing them to die soon after they are sold. Additionally, the gecko trade can be a dangerous business. Some customers who go to buy geckos reach the meeting place and are simply robbed instead, making this business a risky one to be involved in.

My research associate and I looking into the Tokay Gecko trade

In many places, it is legal to breed and sell Tokay geckos, albeit with a license (which is relatively easy to obtain). Breeding generally will not have an adverse effect on the environment and wild ecosystems, but the problem is that these “breeders” choose to instead catch wild Tokay geckos and sell those through the front of breeding. These Tokay gecko dealers come to the conclusion that Tokay geckos are too expensive to breed- it is far cheaper to pay villagers a few cents per lizard to catch them from the wild. The laws in place only allow for a certain amount of live geckos to be commercially bred and sold per year, but these “captive-breeding” organizations in Indonesia export about 1.2 million dried wild-caught Tokay geckos per year to medicine and meat. Farmed geckos don’t have the same regulations that wild-caught geckos do, so claiming that geckos have been bred is an effective way to get around the quotas. Traders are able to get away with this ruse because it is incredibly difficult to tell if a gecko has been bred or captured. Because of this, catching is low risk and high profit, leading many dealers to take that route.

In the course of my research, I contacted Aaron Bauer, a herpetologist in the biology department of Villanova University. He has many publications in his field, including several books about geckos and other herpetofauna. I questioned him about the global Tokay gecko trade and its effect on ecosystems as well as the species as a whole to gain a better understanding of the situation.

He described the possible consequences of the wild-caught business, saying, “The trade in wild geckos can lead to local or even total extinction of select species. Most geckos have small distributional ranges, so over collecting can quickly wipe out a population… intensive collecting of attractive geckos that will bring a high price, can decrease populations quickly and if the gecko is limited to one tiny island or one single mountain, it could be wiped out in a matter of just a few years.”

Almost all trade in Tokay geckos is sourced from the wild. As demand increases and populations dwindle, it becomes even more essential to establish regulations on the capture and trade of wild animals such as these. While the reasons behind the fluctuating demand for Tokay geckos are varied and complex, the impact on the environment remains.

Overexploitation of species must inevitably lead to conflict. The primary goal is to first establish Tokay geckos in CITES as a species to watch, and from there, find the best way forward.

Created By
Natalie Sell