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sungazer lizard, reptile
Yes, they may resemble miniature versions of dragons from Game of Thrones, but if you want a ‘best friend’, please consider a cat, dog, or direwolf. © Shivan Parusnath

The sungazer – a name that would fit that of a mighty dragon! Well, technically it does, as its scientific name is Smaug giganteus – a wonderful reference to Smaug the dragon in Tolkien’s The Hobbit. And the resemblance to Daenerys Targaryen’s dragon children in Game of Thrones is almost uncanny.

But that is where the fantasy world ends for the rare sungazer lizards, and reality begins.

NOTE: Sungazer lizards do not make good pets, and it is illegal to keep them in captivity.

Why sungazers are endangered

It can be summed up in one word: Humans. In South Africa, the only country where this lizard occurs naturally, constant increase in human population means that more land is being transformed to meet agricultural, residential and transport needs. These are primary contributors to their habitat fragmentation – not to mention worldwide biodiversity loss. The construction of roads, pipelines and electricity infrastructure are the major culprits.

sungazer lizard, reptile
© Shivan Parusnath

However, it doesn’t end there. Sungazers are used in the Sotho and Zulu practice of traditional medicine to make love potions. And reptile collectors and others LEGALLY keep them as pets and exhibits. Note that the keeping of these reptiles is legal in South Africa only if you have a permit. 1194 live sungazers were legally exported overseas, to 15 countries, between the years of 1985 – 2014.

There is a much darker side; a side that stokes the fire of the urgency of conservation management initiatives. Sungazers have also become victim to ILLEGAL pet trade. Highly sought after all over the world because of their dragon-like appearance, these stunning creatures have been reduced to nothing more than a commodity traded for financial gain.

sungazer lizard, reptile
“The sungazer is classified as vulnerable under the IUCN Red Listing criteria (Bates et al. 2014). This is because the creature is under threat of habitat loss from agriculture and mining. It is also constantly being collected from the wild, because of the difficulty of captive breeding, for pet trade and muthi-markets.” © SANBI (click here for more info)

The sungazer lizard is endemic to Highveld grasslands of the Free State and Mpumalanga provinces of South Africa. Interestingly, these lizards live in burrows underground, as opposed to around rocks like many other members of their family.

sungazer lizard, reptile, burrow
Daenerys’s dragons have nothing on these little burrowers! Studies have revealed that sungazers are not only an indicator species for optimal grasslands, but also a flagship species. According to a recent study, “Sungazer reserves would help conserve other threatened species that are currently not found within protected areas”. Examples include the yellow-breasted pipit and the Highveld golden mole. © Shivan Parusnath
What needs to be done

• Protect its habitat

It’s clear that conservation management initiatives need to be implemented to avoid eradication of the sungazer. It can’t be denied that this isn’t a simple task, as the continued development of societal infrastructure and money to be made from illegal harvesting are ever present.

sungazer lizard, reptile
© Shivan Parusnath

• Stop illegal trade

It’s time to use social media to our advantage. Popular platforms such as Facebook and Instagram are habitually used to advertise sales of sungazers. Experts need to ensure that they are familiar with the jargon and overall “language” of social media. This has #GOT to happen!

sungazer lizard, reptile
© Shivan Parusnath

Translocation of threatened individuals

Efforts need to be intensified to find a successful translocation method from areas under development to safe alternative areas. Yes, this will be difficult, considering that living in artificial burrows is not their nature, but that is where scientifically sound practical solutions have to be found.

If action isn’t taken now, then unlike Game of Thrones, they won’t be able to renew for another season.

The full report: Journal for Nature Conservation, Parusnath, S. et al (2017):The desolation of Smaug: The human-driven decline of the Sungazer lizard

sungazer lizard, reptile
© Shivan Parusnath

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