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Spiny lizards: Poaching rises during coronavirus lockdown

Spiny lizards: Poaching rises during coronavirus lockdown

Poaching increased in India during the lockdown, says a study by TRAFFIC – a wildlife trade monitoring network. Species are being systematically wiped out by organised trade networks, with new poaching techniques and trade routes emerging faster than we can respond.

The highest trafficked species include reptiles and amphibians like the Tokay gecko, spiny lizards, tortoise and freshwater turtles. In the first week of September, 38 Indian spiny-tailed lizards were seized from six poachers in the Desert National Park, Rajasthan. In Bhuj, Gujarat, forest officials say that more than 300 spiny lizards were killed in April and May for their oil and meat. It’s a common belief that a special kind of oil, locally called <em>sanda</em> oil, from its tail is used to heal bone diseases and increase stamina.

The spiny-tailed lizard, Saara Hardwickii, is in high demand for its oil in India and abroad. As the poaching is extensive, the species is on the verge of extinction despite being strictly banned. Its fat is considered to be a panacea for numerous human ailments and also an aphrodisiac. Thanks to proper implementation of the Indian Wildlife Protection Act, we do not see street quacks selling <em>sanda</em> oil anymore, which was a common sight 30-35 years ago. However, illegal poaching continues.

<img class="wp-image-16070 size-full" src="https://indianarrative.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/P2-Spiny-basking-in-Thar-sun.jpg" alt="" width="1500" height="932" /> A spiny lizard basking in the Thar sun (Photo: Mrityunjoy Kumar Jha)

My first encounter with the Indian spiny-tailed lizard was in Thar desert of Rajasthan – shaped by a stark absence of surface water. The vast, arid ecosystem is spread over 2,00,000 sq km, and includes parts of Rajasthan, Punjab, Haryana, and Gujarat. To most humans, it can seem inhospitable, but there are a great many creatures, large and small, that have evolved, over several millennia, to thrive in precisely this habitat. “They’re not always easy to spot,” says wildlife photographer Kamal Sahansi, “but cracking the code of the desert is the fun.”

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The Thar desert is rich in herpetofauna, being the home of 11% of the 456 reptile species found in India. Prominent among them are the toad-headed Agama, Sindh Awl-headed Snake, Indian spiny-tailed Lizard, Dwarf Gecko, Persian Gecko, Desert Monitor and Saw-scaled Viper.

The spiny lizard is a fascinating creature from the desert. This diurnal, ground-dwelling reptile is the only herbivorous lizard species currently known in the Indian subcontinent. It is found in patches across the Thar, Kutch, and surrounding arid zones in India, Pakistan and Iran. Spiny Lizards support the desert ecosystem through seed dispersal and is a favourite food source for predators. Its preferred habitat is open grounds with grass, shrubs, interspersed with khejri (Prosopis cineraria) and ker (Capparis decidua) trees.

<img class="wp-image-16074 size-medium" src="https://indianarrative.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/P6-Tail-Piece-Laggar-Falcon-devouring-spiny-300×289.jpg" alt="" width="300" height="289" /> A Laggar Falcon devouring a spiny lizard (Photo: Mrityunjoy Kumar Jha)

To locate an Indian Spiny-tailed lizard is quite a task. After some wait we saw one. Its round head emerged from the burrow and surveyed the sunlit world for danger. Minutes later, he crawled out of his cubbyhole, revealing his foot-long flat, hefty body and stubby legs. Heat had transformed it’s colours from slate grey to beige. Orange speckles adorned his head, and blue color tinged the spikes of his tail. “Even lizards are colourful in Rajasthan,” I thought.

Spiny lizards are extremely alert and well aware of their surroundings. Before emerging fully, they pop their heads out to study the situation and check if it’s safe. If the coast is clear, their hands and the rest of the body follow. Once outside, they are completely still, basking in the sun in an open area close to their burrow. Exposed but on full alert for any threat. The one we were observing was an adult with a beautiful, blue spiny tail. The spiny-tailed lizards get their name from their stout tails that are covered with ‘spines’ or sharp, thorny extensions that they use to ward off predators.

Like all reptiles, it is a poikilotherm-it cannot generate sufficient body heat so it depends on sunshine to warm itself. Cold winter days are not to the liking of the spiny—tailed lizard. It has a survival strategy though—it closes the tunnel leading to its burrow and sleeps over the long winter months in underground rest chambers.

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What about its energy requirements? No problem. It lowers its metabolic rate to almost zero and uses stored fat for basic body functions. How does it store fat in its vegetarian diet of grass, flowers and leaves, and an occasional insect? The spiny lizard has an extremely efficient digestive system that not only provides it food when it is active, but converts the extra nutrients of the vegetation into fat that is mainly stored in its fat tail and below the skin (subcutaneously).

<img class="wp-image-16071 size-full" src="https://indianarrative.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/P3-Spiny-in-hole-at-Tal-Chapar.jpg" alt="" width="1000" height="647" /> A spiny lizard surveys the surroundings from its hole at Tal Chapar, Rajasthan (Photo: Mrityunjoy Kumar Jha)

It has a stout body, and a fat tail that stores body fat on which the lizard survives through long months of winter hibernation. However, the fat stored in its tail is also its undoing. Every predator wants it—be it a eagle, falcon or fox. A whole lot of predators depend on the spiny-tailed lizard for food for at least some months of the year. During the ‘spiny-tailed lizard season’ which is from April to November, when they come out after a long winter sleep, predators gather around lizard colonies to feast on newly emerged hungry lizards.

We saw a few eagles and falcons scanning the ground for tasty prey. After a dozen swoops, one of them finally scored a spiny-tailed lizard. As it turned out, it was the booted eagle’s day, and it disappeared shortly after, to relish its hard-earned meal. The rest of the lizards successfully made their way back to their burrows and safely sealed themselves inside.

Nonetheless, besides poaching the biggest threat to this lizard is from habitat destruction due to expansion of agriculture, roads, and urbanization. The IUCN has included the spiny-tailed lizard in the vulnerable category. Myth and legend to take a toll of these spiny tailed lizards due to their oil, which is assumed to contain magical powers..