Much of the attention given to animal rescues falls on those moments when a particularly charismatic animal is wrested from the illegal wildlife trade. It is only natural—people can’t help but connect with bears and gibbons and elephants—but in reality a massive proportion of animals rescued by Wildlife Alliance are reptiles.
Though perhaps more cold than cuddly, snakes, turtles and lizards are captured and trafficked in enormous quantities. A recent bust by the Wildlife Alliance-supported Wildlife Rapid Rescue Team (WRRT) shows just how extensive this reptile trade can be, with over 1,000 tokay geckos rescued from the trunk of a single car!
Dozens of the tockay geckos rescued from a taxi in Cambodia recently. This shot was taken shortly before they were released back into the wild.
A call came in from an informant warning about a car headed from central Cambodia for the capital of Phnom Penh. Most of the WRRT was in the remote eastern provinces at the time, so Forestry officer Heng Kimchhay and military police Captain Sou Sareth headed out on their own to intercept the Toyota Camry suspected of illegally transporting wildlife. Just as the informant said, the vehicle was spotted on route to the capital, and the two pulled over the car, which happened to be a taxi.
Forestry Administration officer Heng Kimchhay (left) confronts the owner of boxes containing over a thousand illegally trapped and transported lizards shortly after the taxi carrying them was pulled over.
Boxes full of lizards pack the trunk of the taxi, which has been taken to a local Forestry Administration office so evidence can be collected, the offenders can be processed, and the health of the geckos can be assessed.Outside a local Forestry Administration outpost the people within the taxi exited the vehicle and Kimchhay and Sareth searched the vehicle. The trunk was packed with cardboard boxes, each containing a sack of tightly packed tockay geckos. In all, the car was found to be transporting a whopping 1,027 tokays, of which 1,008 were still alive.
Tockay geckosA tokay (the -ay rhymes with pie) is a large variety of gecko, a lizard known for its ability to climb upon pretty much anything, including glass and ceilings. Their distinctive—and very loud—calls can be heard in Cambodian forests and cities alike. Tokays are very adept at ridding areas of insect pests, but these thousand were likely going to be turned into food or possibly dried out for use in traditional medicines. There are also reports that Malaysian syndicates are buying them to fight them in rings, with onlookers gambling on the results.
The man who was trafficking the geckos was written up in the Forestry Administration office, and thumb-printed documents admitting to possessing and transporting the geckos. He claimed that he had seen tokays for sale before in a market and assumed that it must be legal to sell them, but the sheer number of lizards the man had collected indicates he was very familiar with the trade.
Also charged in the incident was the taxi driver, who was a close relative of the owner of the gecko packages, indicating that he was knowingly a party to the crime of illegally transporting wildlife. The taxi was confiscated, as is standard practice in illegal transport cases, and will be returned when the fines for the offense are paid.Geckos spill out from the sacks in which they have seen stuffed by the hundreds. Photos such as this one will be used as evidence against the alleged traffickers.
Because tokays are considered a “common species” the suspected traffickers can not be imprisoned for the crime even though it was on such a large scale. Instead, Kimchhay recommended through the Forestry Administration that the court impose the maximum fine upon the traffickers, in this case three times the market value of the illegal wildlife. A tokay is reckoned to bring about $1.25 each on the illegal market, bringing the total fine to around $3,850—a sum that in developing Cambodia should prove to be a massive deterrent to any further trafficking.
The driver of the taxi prepares to thumbprint documents concerning the evidence found in his vehicle while the alleged trafficker of the lizards (in blue) is also processed by Heng Kimchhay of the WRRT (right) and a local Forestry official.
The case also demonstrated the independence of the WRRT and the challenges it can face in doing its work. The two alleged traffickers were clearly very well connected, as calls started coming in to the WRRT office from officials asking that the case be thrown out and the taxi returned. Such pressure is a common feature in Cambodia, which is consistently ranked among the most corrupt countries in the world by monitoring organizations like Transparency International. But despite the pressure exerted on our team, the WRRT’s Forestry officials refused all demands that matter be dropped and the traffickers will be prosecuted by the court.
As for the tokays, they were transported to forested areas and released back into the wild, allowing a thousand-strong chorus of their distinctive “TO-kai!” calls to echo through the trees.
The WRRT releases a number of the confiscated tockay geckos in the forest near a Buddhist temple in Cambodia’s Kampong Cham province. There the geckos should be able to find food and because of the location’s proximity to a temple, they should be safe from trappers. Hundreds more of the geckos were released in a separate protected area in the province of Koh Kong.