In 2015, FFI was approached by the St Vincent & the Grenadines Forestry Department to help save the Union Island gecko, a tiny jewel-like lizard known only from a restricted area of dry forest in Chatham Bay on Union Island. Further investigations confirmed that live geckos were being poached and sold abroad to collectors, and their forest habitat was in grave danger of being destroyed.

Working with Union Islanders, FFI, the forestry department and Virginia Zoo developed a recovery plan, which aims to halt illegal exploitation of the geckos and other wildlife, and to use the gecko as a flagship for conserving the remarkably biodiverse forest. Locally recruited wardens now patrol the forest, and 2017 saw the first arrest and conviction of a reptile poacher. Further work is under way to bring important parts of the amazing Chatham Bay ecosystem under protection, to transform the gecko into a mascot for Union Island, and to develop more sustainable livelihoods for impoverished islanders.

The long-term effectiveness of local conservation actions led by St Vincent and the Grenadines to protect the Union Island gecko will also depend on wider support from the international community. Mindful of the need for stronger legislation, FFI is also raising awareness of this diminutive lizard’s plight among key international policy makers, particularly in countries that are known destinations for live Union Island geckos that have been illegally collected and sold on the international market to overseas reptile enthusiasts. This includes highlighting the urgent need to secure maximum protection for this critically endangered and heavily exploited species by adding it to Appendix I of CITES (The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora).

We are grateful for financial support from the Saint Vincent & the Grenadines Environment Fund, the Disney Conservation Fund, the Species Fund, the US Fish & Wildlife Service, the United States Agency for International Development and National Geographic.