Photograph by S hivan Parusnath
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Sun gazers, as these dragon-like lizards are known, are losing ground and numbers in their native South Africa.

Photograph by S hivan Parusnath

'Dragon' Lizard Named for the 'Hobbit' Pummeled by Poachers

Humans are vanquishing the “sun gazer” lizard for the pet trade and traditional medicine.

Smaug is in peril. But it’s not Smaug the wicked dragon in Tolkien’s The Hobbit that’s under siege. Calamity has instead beset Smaug giganteus, a spiky lizard that looks exactly like a miniature dragon—and is now being decimated by poaching and development, scientists say.

Tolkien’s Smaug is enormous and fiery. The lizards are neither. They don’t breathe flames, and many are barely longer than a tube of toothpaste. (But they’re twice as big as closely related lizards, hence the label “giganteus.”)

Like all self-respecting dragons, they’re heavily armored. Their bodies bristle with sharp, bony spikes, to the detriment of jackals and birds of prey—and well-intentioned researchers who study the lizards in South Africa’s eastern grasslands, where they live. “They’ve drawn blood on me many, many, many times,” says Shivan Parusnath, of the University of the Witwatersrand, in Johannesburg, a National Geographic grantee and author of a new study of the creatures.

Effective though lizard body armor is against predators, it does nothing to protect Smaug giganteus against the roads and farms that have carved up the land. Or against local people who kill the animals to make a traditional love potion. Or reptile fanciers who prize them for their ferocious beauty, fueling illegal collecting.

WATCH: Researchers release a Sun gazer lizard into the wild.

“The species is undergoing a very rapid loss,” Parusnath says. Conservation scientist Mark Auliya, of the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research in Germany, who isn’t affiliated with the new study, agrees: Smaug giganteus “will be brought to the extinction within the next five to 10 years if nothing happens,” he asserts.

Also known as sun gazers for their habit of seeming to look into the sun as they bask, the lizards have eluded detailed scientific study for decades. So Parusnath and colleagues set out to do a thorough inventory, visiting nearly 80 sites where their burrows had been seen in the 1970s.

They learned that the animals today occupy roughly 450 square miles of South Africa—that’s about a third of their previous range, Auliya says. Even worse, a third of the sites where the lizards lived in 1978 are now devoid of the reptiles, the scientists report in the Journal for Nature Conservation.

Instead of dragons, they found signs of dragon-snatching: snares, hooked wires, and burrows that had been dug open. The researchers chose one burrowing site for intensive long-term study, but late last year they found many of the burrows there dug up, the residents gone. “That hit me quite hard,” Parusnath says.

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The pet trade is taking a toll on the lizards. They're also caught to make love potions.


Permits to catch wild sun gazers are hard if not impossible to obtain from the government because of concerns over the lizard’s numbers, and no one has yet figured out a technique for breeding the animals in captivity. Despite this, exports of the lizards declared to the government have soared, from 357 for the decade from 1985 and 1994 to 660 between 2005 and 2014.

That leads Parusnath and others to believe that poachers are nabbing wild lizards, which are then “laundered” and declared captive-bred in export documents. (Parusnath is now working on genetic techniques to distinguish between captive-bred and wild-caught lizards.)

Researchers don't know how many of the lizards leave the country without being reported to the authorities, but it’s clearly not zero. In August 2016, for instance, Dutch officials found 19 sun gazers in the suitcase of a man flying from South Africa through Amsterdam to a reptile fair in Germany.

Websites for reptile fanciers carry both “Wanted” and “For Sale” ads for Smaug giganteus, and Parusnath says the underground trade is probably “much bigger” than the reported trade.

It’s equally impossible to put numbers on the animals captured and killed for sale in South Africa’s muthis, or medicine markets. By tradition a woman who eats powdered sun gazer will tolerate her partner taking more lovers.

The new study pegs the number of mature sun gazers at roughly 680,000, which sounds like a lot of lizards, but the animals mature slowly, have only a few babies at a time, and reproduce only every few years. The study recommends that Smaug giganteus remain classified as “vulnerable” in the listings of the International Union for Conservation of Nature, which monitors the status of wildlife around the globe.

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Scientists found snares and hooked wires in many burrows—but no lizards in them.

“Unfortunately the combination of those three things makes the species very vulnerable,” says Ernst Baard, executive director for biodiversity support at CapeNature, the biodiversity agency of South Africa’s Western Cape province.

To help conserve the lizards, researchers are enlisting landowners to declare voluntary reserves for them and to report signs of poaching.

Another option: prohibiting all legal exports. But that, Parusnath notes, might make unscrupulous collectors crave them even more.

Seeing “these beautiful animals taken from the wild to sit in somebody’s glass tank in Japan or the USA,” Parusnath says, “you wonder to yourself, what’s the point?”

Traci Watson writes about the microscopic beasties in our houses, huge galaxies millions of light years from Earth, and everything in between. She lives in Washington, D.C.

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