The wildlife officer pops the metal lid off a can of powdered chocolate drink mix, releasing a rush of sour air that smells like excrement. Inside is a black sock crimped by rubber bands. Carefully unrolling the sock, she discovers a small, brown-scaled reptile—a shingleback lizard, barely conscious and severely dehydrated, with duct tape across its arms and legs to restrict its movement.
According to the delivery label, the can was part of a larger consignment—a box full of other tins and objects containing more reptiles—en route to Hong Kong, likely to be sold as pets. At the Australia Post Melbourne Gateway Facility in Victoria, where every piece of outbound mail is scanned, inspectors intercepted the contraband and called in state wildlife officers.
Australia is home to nearly 900 native reptile species. More than 90 percent of them exist nowhere else, making them highly coveted for the pet trade. Despite the country’s near-blanket ban on the export of live native animals, each year thousands of animals are smuggled by mail to markets such as Tokyo, Berlin, and Los Angeles. From 2018 through 2019, nearly 90 percent of all wild animals seized by Australian authorities were reptiles, according to data from the Australian Department of Agriculture, Water and Environment.
Shinglebacks—also known variously as stump-tailed, bobtail, sleepy, and pinecone lizards—are common across the southern half of Australia. With their striped patterning, the ochre-colored ones from the Goldfields region of Western Australia have become especially popular among collectors. Also in Western Australia, shinglebacks on Rottnest Island, near Perth, are prized for their speckled appearance; they’re now listed as vulnerable in some Australian states because of their low numbers.
More than 500 shinglebacks have been seized during the past decade, according to a June 2021 study by Monitor Conservation Research Society, a Vancouver-based nonprofit dedicated to lesser-known species involved in the wildlife trade. That number of seizures likely means they’re one of the country’s most heavily trafficked animals, according to conservationists.
“There's definitely a lot more trade going on than we have captured in our research,” says Sarah Heinrich, the study’s lead author and a research fellow at the University of Adelaide. Heinrich says seizures account for only a small portion of illegally traded wildlife and that competition among collectors for newer, more interesting reptiles drives the trade. (Read more about the exotic pet trade.)
“People are always looking for something different, whether it’s a new color, genetic trait, or even if it’s a new species,” Heinrich says. “It’s never going to be enough, and they are going to look for new ways to obtain those lizards.”
Lizard love life
In the case of shingleback lizards, Heinrich says their unusual mating behavior has helped drive demand among collectors. They reunite with the same partner every year for the duration of their lives—sometimes up to 50 years.
A smooth knob-tailed gecko was intercepted in 2018 at a postal sorting facility in Melbourne, intended to be shipped abroad illegally.
“Shinglebacks were the first monogamous lizard found in the world, which was significant and started a whole field of research looking at the social lives of lizards,” says Mike Gardner, professor of biodiversity at Flinders University, whose team has been studying shinglebacks for more than 30 years.
Some of the lizards appear to grieve when their mate dies, Gardner says. “Male shinglebacks have been observed hanging around the female for up to three days after she has been killed, tongue flicking and nudging her. They are persistent in trying to understand what has happened to their partner.”
The shinglebacks’ monogamous ways have caused some enthusiasts to view them as “romantics” and pay a premium for them. That makes shinglebacks a more coveted catch for traffickers. A bonded pair of shinglebacks can sell for more than three times as much as a single one.
Gardner says that although shingleback lizards are common, they’re vulnerable to overexploitation. “They have a lower reproductive rate compared with other reptiles, sometimes with small clutches of one to two offspring, and may not have young every year,” he says. As a result, poachers who take sexually mature individuals or breeding pairs from the wild can undermine local populations by reducing their genetic diversity.
Another issue for the lizards’ wellbeing is a highly contagious reptilian coronavirus known as “shingleback flu,” discovered in 2015 and confined mostly to Western Australia. Some wildlife rehabilitation centers in Perth report that more than half the shinglebacks they treat are infected with the virus, which causes symptoms similar to human flu and a high mortality rate if left untreated. There’s no evidence yet to suggest that it can infect humans, but Gardner says wildlife trafficking could facilitate its spread to other animals in Australia and abroad.
Leanne Wicker, a wildlife health advisor at Zoos Victoria, warns that animals represent their own ecosystem of parasites, viruses, and bacteria. “One of the most concerning things is that it’s highly likely there are many more significant infectious diseases in reptiles that we haven’t even identified yet,” she says.
Bound, gagged, mailed
Shingleback lizards are easy to find. That accessibility has led to “poaching tourism,” says Matthew Swan, wildlife compliance coordinator at the Western Australian Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions, and one of the co-authors of the paper carried out by Monitor Conservation Research Society.
You can fly to Perth, “walk out of the airport, book a ferry, and be on Rottnest Island within 24 hours,” Swan says. “If you’re a smuggler, you’re going to blend in with the other thousands of tourists who are on the island that day.”
Trafficking cartels entice young international students to act as couriers, promising them an all-expenses paid holiday in exchange for stealing a shopping list of herpetology, from shinglebacks to blue-tongue skinks and water dragons, Swan says. In early 2019, a Taiwanese man was jailed after trafficking dozens of reptiles while he was living in a hostel in Melbourne.
Sophisticated poaching syndicates will hire a van and disappear into the Australian desert, which one convicted smuggler likened to a candy store. Free from surveillance by law enforcement in that empty landscape, poachers gather as many species as they can. “If they come across a snake while looking for a shingleback, it’s like finding a thousand dollars lying on the ground. They’re not going to walk past it,” Swan says.
The reptiles are placed inside toys, shoes, rice cookers, deep fryers, containers of all sorts, and sent abroad in the mail. Lacking air, water, and food, many animals don’t survive the journey, and some lose claws and limbs along the way. But the high market price of shinglebacks—up to thousands of dollars—means that only a few need to survive for traffickers to make a profit. (Read more about why so many animals in the pet trade die in transit.)
Border closures and restrictions imposed during the COVID-19 pandemic have disrupted wildlife trafficking supply chains and likely reduced the volume of reptiles being exported from Australia. But the downturn has given cartels time to stockpile their animals, according to a senior spokesperson from the Australian Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment.
In Australia, captive breeding of reptiles is legal with the required license. Authorities suspect that traffickers are breeding and raising shinglebacks and other reptiles in illegal, hidden compounds. Meanwhile, as COVID restrictions ease, wildlife smuggling in Southeast Asia is beginning to increase, according to an internal report from the UN’s Office on Drugs and Crime.
Protecting shinglebacks from global trade
With poaching difficult to monitor in the field, the Australian government has concentrated its efforts on border detection. In March, it installed world-first 3D x-ray scanning units at airports and postal facilities that use enhanced scanning and machine learning to detect wildlife. Meanwhile, the University of Technology Sydney is developing an “electronic nose” that can identify a smuggled animal from its odor.
Because they’re relatively abundant, shinglebacks aren’t prohibited from inter-country trade under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which regulates the flow of wildlife and wildlife products around the world. This means that once the lizards evade local authorities and leave Australian soil, they’re mostly unprotected.
“Shingleback lizards make a good case study,” Heinrich says. That’s because “they exemplify a problem for many animals, especially Australian species, that are illegally exported but because of a lack of international or domestic protection laws are able to be bought and sold openly once they reach overseas.”
In the United States, where the Lacey Act bans species imported in breach of the country of origin’s laws, traffickers can exploit a legal loophole by laundering shinglebacks through Europe and Asia, falsifying documentation to say the reptiles were captive bred before shipping them to North America.
Heinrich suggests that it would help if shinglebacks were listed for protections under CITES, empowering authorities to seize them outside Australia. A representative from the federal Department of Agriculture, Water and Environment told National Geographic that Australia intends to nominate more than 125 species at high risk of trafficking for CITES protections, including the shingleback lizard.
Listing species with CITES can be a lengthy process, taking on average 10 years to complete. Every year counts: Australia has one of the world’s highest rates of extinction, with more than 10 percent of its mammal species disappearing during the past 200 years and a further 1,800 plant and animal species now under threat of extinction, according to the Australian Wildlife Conservancy.
“We really need to be watching common species like the shingleback carefully,” Gardner says, “because if they're not coping, then it’s likely other animals are probably going to be in danger.”
Wildlife Watch is an investigative reporting project between National Geographic Society and National Geographic Partners focusing on wildlife crime and exploitation. Read more Wildlife Watch stories here, and learn more about National Geographic Society’s nonprofit mission at natgeo.com/impact. Send tips, feedback, and story ideas to NGP.WildlifeWatch@natgeo.com.