A tiny, critically endangered Caribbean lizard with jewel-like markings has taken a small but significant step back from the jaws of extinction.
Thanks to the hard work and commitment of the local community, regional government and a coalition of local and international conservation organisations, the dazzling, diminutive Union Island gecko is making a big comeback in the little-known biodiversity hotspot after which it is named, at the southern tip of the St Vincent and the Grenadines island chain.
The tiny and beautiful Union Island gecko. Credit: Jeremy Holden/Fauna & Flora
According to a recent survey, the gecko’s population has grown from 10,000 in 2018 to around 18,000 today, a heart-warming 80% increase and the kind of conservation success that Fauna & Flora, Re:wild and local partners aim to accomplish together across the Caribbean.
“As a Unionite and a community leader, I am extremely proud to be a part of this success story,” said Roseman Adams, co-founder of the local Union Island Environmental Alliance (UIEA). “Without a doubt, our shared, unwavering dedication and sacrifice has brought us this far. We now have to be entirely consistent with further improvements in our management and protection of the gecko’s habitat for this success to be maintained.”
The entire global population of the Union Island gecko, a reptile roughly the size of a paperclip, is confined to a single 50-hectare fragment of old-growth forest. As such, it is extremely vulnerable to human disturbance and to natural disasters such as the increasingly severe hurricanes that rip through the Caribbean.
Union Island is the only home of the rare Union Island gecko. Credit: Jacob Bock/Fauna & Flora
First described by science in 2005, the species immediately became a coveted exotic pet. When brought into the light, the gecko slowly transforms from dark brown to glorious technicolour, like a developing Polaroid picture. Perhaps unsurprisingly, its stunning appearance and rarity have proved to be a double-edged sword.
By 2017, the Union Island gecko was officially the most heavily trafficked reptile in the region. A survey conducted the following year found that the wild population had shrunk to just 20% of its former size as a result of aggressive poaching for the international pet trade. To make matters worse, the fragile habitat of the remaining geckos was also being trashed by would-be poachers searching frantically for more specimens.
With the hapless lizard heading for imminent extinction, a number of organisations, including Fauna & Flora, the Union Island Environmental Alliance and St Vincent and the Grenadines Forestry Department, rode to the rescue. A species recovery plan, developed with local residents in 2016, has guided a range of conservation efforts including expansion and closer management of the gecko’s protected forest habitat, anti-poaching patrols and 24/7 camera surveillance.
Union Island wardens patrol at-risk areas and act as a deterrent for any would-be poachers. Credit: Roseman Adams/Fauna & Flora
“It is truly a testimony to the determination of the Forestry Department – and the amazing community wardens on Union Island – that this gecko has become one of the best-guarded reptiles in the world,” said Jenny Daltry, Caribbean Alliance director for Re:wild and Fauna & Flora. “This is something the whole community of Union Island can be rightly proud of.”
In 2019, with support from Fauna & Flora the government of St Vincent and the Grenadines also successfully pushed for the Union Island gecko to be listed on Appendix I of CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora), affording the species the highest level of protection against exploitation and illegal trade. With the new legislation, authorities around the world, including those in countries driving demand for the gecko, are empowered to take action against traffickers.
“Our surveillance efforts, alongside the CITES legislation, have gone a long way in deterring poachers, but we know that there are still people out there with the Union Island gecko on their target list,” said Isabel Vique, FFI’s Programme Manager for the Caribbean. “In addition, with its sensational landscape and myriad of beautiful species, the geckos’ habitat is becoming under threat from destruction. If not properly managed, the development of Union Island not only puts the future of the gecko at risk, but will impact a large number of other threatened species that are endemic to this area.”
This miniature gem of a reptile is by no means the only precious jewel on Union Island, which boasts a wealth of natural treasures, both terrestrial and marine. Described by the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund as ‘globally irreplaceable’, the island’s well-preserved tropical dry forest and coral reefs harbour many species found nowhere else on the planet, including the newly described Caribbean diamond tarantula and the Grenadines pink rhino iguana – both also at risk from the exotic pet trade – as well as nesting leatherback and hawksbill turtles.
The Grenadines pink rhino iguana. Credit: Jenny Daltry/Fauna & Flora
Building on their efforts to protect the Union Island gecko, Fauna & Flora, Re:wild, UIEA and the Forestry Department are working on a wider initiative to safeguard the future of the island and its local community. This involves the development of nature-based, climate-sensitive employment sustainable development opportunities, as the island’s unique wildlife and forests start to attract visitors from all over the world.
“The recent improvement in the population of the geckos – thanks to work of Fauna & Flora, UIEA and the Forestry Department, and the support of several funding organisations – provides crucial evidence that successful conservation is a collaborative and inclusive effort, where the overall beneficiary is species survival,” said L. Fitzgerald Providence, Director of Forestry for the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, St Vincent and the Grenadines. “We now have to astutely work on securing the Chatham Bay Forest as a reserve to sustain the habitat for the Union Island gecko and other endemic species.”
Tropical dry forest is an important habitat for many of the island’s threatened species. Credit: Jeremy Holden/Fauna & Flora
In the meantime, this ravishing rarity remains firmly on the critical list. Eternal vigilance is the name of the game if we are going to maintain this positive momentum and secure the future of the Union Island gecko.