Tokay geckos are being caught and trafficked from northeastern Indian states to Southeast Asian countries, where many people believe that medicines made from gecko meat can cure diseases such as HIV.
Tongthang, who catches tokay geckos now, used to sell charcoal in a village in the Churachandpur district of the northeastern Manipur state of India. He vanishes into forests near his village to catch geckos and returns after three or four days. He says he is having a great business.
“In just one year I managed to catch 28 geckos from the forest hills," the 32-year-old Tongthang told DW. "I bought 14 others geckos from villagers and supplied them to traders. I earned around 250,000 rupees [3,600 euros]. It is six or seven times more than what I earned in charcoal business in a year.”
Tongthang, who belongs to the Kuki tribe, said that trapping and catching a gecko is a difficult task. "Usually, I manage to catch the younger ones. I also buy young geckos from other catchers. I keep them at home for few months and then sell them when they are fully grown up."
Traders who buy geckos from Tongthang take the reptiles to the border town of Moreh from where another chain of traffickers smuggle them to Myanmar for an international destination.
“There are hundreds of people catching and trading Tokay geckos in northeast India,” told Tongthang.
A booming business
Wildlife traffickers in India usually poach tigers and rhinos and traffic their body parts to traditional medicine experts in China and other East Asian countries.
Wildlife experts say that about a year ago, gecko catchers became active in the northeast Indian states of Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland and Assam. Myanmar-based traffickers are in the middle of the chain. They supply geckos to China, Indonesia, Philippines and other Southeast Asian countries.
In July, when Manipur's local media reported cases of smuggling of tokay geckos to Myanmar, Indian authorities started raiding gecko catchers and traffickers. In the past four months, Indian wildlife officials have seized around 100 captured geckos in two states.
Mr. L. Joykumar Singh, a deputy conservator of forests in Manipur, told DW that geckos were in high demand because of people's superstitious beliefs.
“People who were caught with geckos say that the meat is being used to make traditional medicines to cure HIV, cancer, impotency, diabetes and some other diseases," Singh said. "But it has been proven scientifically that gecko meat cannot cure these diseases.”
A tokay gecko with bluish or greyish body, and with spots ranging from light yellow to bright red, can grow up to 50 centimetres in length and can weigh up to 400 grams. Indian traffickers say that medicines made from one kilogram of tokay meat could be valued at up to 10,000 euros in the international market.
Geckos face extinction
L. Biswajeet, who heads the People for Animals organization in Imphal, the capital city of Manipur, told DW that tokay geckos would vanish from northeast India if stricter laws were not introduced to prosecute gecko traders and smugglers.
“Officially, tokay geckos are not considered endangered species. If the authorities declare this lizard endangered, gecko catchers and traders would fear punishment,” said Biswajeet.
“Geckos have almost vanished from Myanmar and the other southeast Asian countries after being targeted by wildlife smugglers for many years. Now the international wildlife traffickers have their eyes set on India," Biswajeet said, adding that if the Indian government did not act now, the geckos would also become extinct in India.