Miniature jewel in jeopardy

The Union Island gecko is a tiny, breathtakingly beautiful lizard distinguished by jewel-like markings.

It is named after a small Caribbean island belonging to St Vincent and the Grenadines, lying roughly halfway between this country and neighbouring Grenada.

The only known population of this vanishingly rare gecko is confined to a 50-hectare patch of forest on Union Island. This single population comprises an estimated 9,960 individuals, including juveniles, but numbers are rapidly declining as a result of rampant poaching for the illegal pet trade.

Its minuscule size makes the Union Island gecko very vulnerable to desiccation, so it lives mainly in moist crevices or under logs and rocks to avoid drying out. Very little else is known about the behaviour and life history of this recently discovered lightweight lizard.

At a glance
Gonatodes daudini
Critically Endangered
Saint Vincent and the Grenadines

Family:

Sphaerodactylidae

Order:

Squamata

Estimated in the wild:

9,960

Union Island gecko facts

  • The Union Island gecko weighs less than a pinch of salt.
  • This tiny lizard was described only as recently as 2005.
  • A fully grown Union Island gecko measures just 3cm, roughly the size of a paperclip.
  • There are fewer than 10,000 Union Island geckos left on the planet.
  • The entire range of this lizard is just 50 hectares – not much bigger than Vatican City.

The survival of the Union Island gecko is hanging by a thread. We urgently need to ban all international trade in this critically endangered species and protect its rapidly declining population from ruthless reptile poachers.

One

The number of known populations of the Union Island gecko.

80%

The fall in Union Island gecko numbers since 2010.

Conservation story

Poaching of wild Union Island geckos to supply the illegal pet trade poses a grave and increasing threat to the species’ survival. Illegal collection was first reported soon after the species was described, and has since accelerated.

Surveys in 2018 revealed that gecko numbers have plummeted by nearly 80% in accessible parts of the species’ range since 2010, largely as a result of collectors – including local residents and international visitors – plundering the small population and destroying its fragile habitat. 

Union Island geckos are openly sold online to buyers, especially in the UK, France, Switzerland, USA and Japan, despite the fact that no permit has ever been issued to collect or export this lizard for any purpose. Although there is no authorised captive-breeding programme, there is evidence of online sales by breeders in Switzerland, Germany, Spain and the Czech Republic.

Illegal collection poses the most serious threat to the Union Island gecko, but it is also under severe pressure from habitat loss. Collectors have caused serious damage to this tiny lizard’s mini-refuge by turning over rocks and dismantling logs and termite mounds. This environmental vandalism jeopardises the survival of the remaining geckos and other native species that are highly vulnerable to predators and drought.

How FFI is helping to save the Union Island gecko

In 2015, Fauna & Flora International (FFI) was approached by the St Vincent and the Grenadines Forestry Department to help save this miniature gem of a lizard. 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.

In partnership with the forestry department and Virginia Zoo, FFI worked with Union Islanders to develop 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 its forest habitat, which harbours a remarkable variety of animals and plants. 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 safeguard the amazing wildlife of Chatham Bay, to transform the gecko into a mascot for Union Island, and to develop more sustainable livelihoods for impoverished islanders.

Local conservation actions led by St Vincent and the Grenadines to protect the Union Island gecko are only half the battle. Their success will ultimately depend on wider global support in the form of international legislation and collaboration.

FFI is also raising awareness of this bejewelled 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.

Only the most stringent protection measures – which include adding the species to Appendix I of CITES (The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) – can prevent the extinction of this species.