Abronia graminea, © Adam G Clause

Of Trade and Tree-Climbing Lizards

Exploitation for the pet trade threatens cloud forests’ arboreal alligator lizards

You probably have never heard of a tree-climbing alligator lizard.

You are not alone – most people haven’t. But these creatures aren’t as strange as they sound. And they aren’t actually related to alligators at all. They are, however, in some serious trouble.

A Lizard with its Head in the Clouds

Arboreal alligator lizards live mostly in the montane cloud forests of Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. Cloud forests are very unique ecosystems found on tropical mountains at altitudes where clouds form, roughly 5,000 to 10,000 feet. They have very high humidity and dense vegetation. Tree trunks and branches are completely covered by ferns, mosses, lichens, orchids, and other plants, where these lizards hunt for insects.

Because it is so unique, the cloud forest has an incredibly high number of endemic species – plants, animals and insects that exist nowhere else in the world. The arboreal alligator lizards are no exception; of the 29 recognized species, 27 are endemic to one country or another. Most of these species have very small populations, and live in very small ranges. In fact, some of the species are so rare that they are only known from the few specimens collected when experts first discovered them. Five species have never been seen again in the wild.

Arboreal alligator lizards are certainly beautiful. They get their name from their triangular heads and marked scales, which bear some resemblance to alligators. In some places they are known as dragon lizards. They spend most of their time atop high trees, so are very difficult for humans to spot. Most people who visit or even live in the cloud forests may never see them. Unfortunately, avid reptile collectors are roaming the lizard’s habitats, paying locals to search for these rare species.

Abronia graminea, © Adam G Clause

From Exploitation….to Extinction?

The rarer the species, the higher the price the lizard will fetch in the pet markets of Europe, Asia and the U.S. Some species can fetch up to $2,000 each in the U.S. pet market! But when it comes to arboreal alligator lizards, most of those in the pet trade have been taken illegally from their countries of origin. Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador do not allow capture or export of their species of arboreal alligator lizards. Mexico has only allowed very few exports. Yet at least 12 species of these rare lizards, which have no record of being captured or exported legally, are bought and sold as pets – mostly in Europe and the U.S.

This illegal trade, combined with the loss of their cloud forest habitat, has taken its toll on arboreal alligator lizards. Today, the IUCN lists 12 species of these lizards as threatened, and one as critically endangered. Only two species have stable populations, and we have so little data on another 13 species that we don’t know how they are faring. From what we do know, some of these lizards have such low population numbers that illegal international trade could literally wipe them out in just a few years.

Without clearer restrictions on trade put in place, we’re leaving loopholes open for wildlife traffickers to exploit. Reptile collectors may saying they are involved in the conservation of the species, even saving them from extinction by collecting and breeding them. The reality is that they are breaking the law by capturing and smuggling these lizards out of their native countries. Many captive breeding projects are used as a front to conceal the fact that sellers are offering wild-caught lizards. Those that are really breeding the species are not helping the case either. Many reptile breeders will focus on breeding specific color mutations to get a higher profit, destroying the species original gene pool. And all of this only serves to increase the demand for these lizards in the pet trade, driving a self-perpetuating loop of poaching, smuggling and selling that could rapidly lead to extinction.

Teamwork to Save these Tree-climbing Lizards

Fortunately, many countries are working together to close those loopholes and confront this threat. Mexico has presented a proposal for the next CITES meeting in September to list all 29 species of arboreal alligator lizards in Appendix II, which would place clear and strict limits for all countries on how any of them could be legally traded. Guatemala has gone a step further by proposing five species to be listed in Appendix I, which would mean all international trade is forbidden.

We are working together with the Species Survival Network to gather support for these proposals, and make sure they are adopted at the CITES meeting in September. You can also play an important role in stopping the exploitation of these remarkable lizards. Now that you know more about them, help spread the word! Share this information with your friends and family, and if you know someone who is considering buying an arboreal alligator lizard as a pet, talk to them about what you’ve learned here. Reducing the demand for these lizards is a vital part of making sure they can crawl the cloud forest canopies for decades to come.

Stop Deadly Wildlife Smuggling

The U.S. has a critical role to play in protecting species that are being driven to the brink by wildlife trafficking or unregulated trade. Ask U.S. officials to stand strong at the CITES meeting this fall!

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3 Responses to “Of Trade and Tree-Climbing Lizards”

  1. Monica Torres

    Thanks for sharing the truth about pet trade for Abronia!

  2. Doug Hotle

    I have had the pleasure of seeing these lizards in the wild. One of the issues I have noted is that in many áreas, collectors will come through and encourage the local children to collect them, They keep them in plasic soda bottles and unfortunately perish long before the collectors return, if ever.

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