How a Reclusive Lizard Became a Prize Find for Wildlife Smugglers

On May 30, 2008, a research team armed with GPS units, notebooks, and binoculars set out into a dense patch of jungle in Indonesian Borneo. An oil palm company had commissioned them to survey the area for important environmental and cultural assets that might be impacted should the forest be converted into a plantation. They had no idea, however, that an “exceptional herpetofaunal discovery” awaited them that morning, they later wrote.

As midday approached, the sweating group decided to take a break from their uphill trek to have lunch next to a shallow, rocky stream bed. Glancing at the creek between bites, one of the local team members spotted something of note: a brownish-yellow reptile, about a foot long, that he referred to simply as kadal —the generic Indonesian word for “lizard.” The partially submerged creature had the elongated, snakelike body of a Chinese dragon, the facial features of a cartoon dinosaur, and the pronounced scales of a mini-alligator.

For a few minutes, the strange visitor became the focus of attention as the group photographed it and gently passed it around. To their amazement, it hardly struggled and did not try to bite them. Lunch soon resumed priority, though, and they put the creature back into the stream, where it sat, unmoving, for the next hour. As the group prepared to leave, one of the team members glanced back for a final look and noted that it had disappeared.

Excerpted from POACHED : Inside the Dark World of Wildlife Trafficking by Rachel Love Nuwer.

Scribe Publications

It wasn’t until the researchers returned to their computers and reptile identification books that they realized the importance of what they had found: the mystery creature was, in fact, the elusive earless monitor lizard, Lanthanotus borneensis (literally, “hidden ear from Borneo,” named for its lack of external ear openings). Until recently, scientists and collectors had captured fewer than a hundred specimens since the species’ 1877 discovery. Among reptile enthusiasts, its rarity and mystique have earned it a grandiose nickname: “the Holy Grail of herpetology.”

In 2012, a few members of the Indonesian survey team published a paper about their finding in the Journal of Threatened Taxa . They were careful to limit the amount of detail they included about the lizard’s location, noting that, “due to the species’ rareness and its high conservation value, it cannot be ruled out that pet reptile collectors and traders may misuse this … information.” Although they omitted GPS coordinates, they did print a rough map and a description of the habitat.

Unfortunately, the authors had underestimated the tenacity and resourcefulness of the world’s unscrupulous reptile collectors. The map and scant description provided ample detail for them to go on—as evidenced by the snowballing number of earless monitor lizards that quickly began turning up in collections and online ads.

In June 2014, Vincent Nijman, a conservation ecologist at Oxford Brookes University, spotted a blog post offering pairs of earless monitor lizards for sale in the Czech Republic. By July, specimens had made their way to Europe’s largest reptile fair, held in Germany, while photos posted on Facebook, online reptile forums, and dealers’ websites began surfacing in countries from Japan to the UK.

Nijman was torn about what to do. On the one hand, he didn’t want to bring even more attention to the lizard. On the other, raising awareness about its plight could alert customs agents to look out for it and help it gain important protection. Like so many other obscure species, it was not yet included in the CITES international trade appendixes. In the end, Nijman decided to sound the alarm.

A quick walker with a firm handshake, Nijman stands out for his endearing eccentricities: He styles his shoulder-length curly hair like Kenny G’s, continues to use a Nokia brick phone from the mid-2000s, and loves singing Dutch-accented ABBA at karaoke. When I asked him about a dusty human skull that rests on the windowsill of his cluttered office, he picked it up, looked into its empty sockets for a moment, and then replied, “I have no idea who this is or where it came from.”

He also happens to be one of the world’s leading academic experts on wildlife trafficking. Although he’s spent time aplenty conducting surveys in the field, one of his favorite investigative methods can be carried out right under the gaze of that office mystery skull: internet sleuthing to uncover new trends in the illegal trade. As he likes to tell students and reporters alike, “You can monitor these kinds of things and do entire studies without even leaving the office.”

In 2014 he did just that for the earless monitor lizard, publishing his findings along with coauthor Sarah Stoner. Over a 17-month period, they documented nearly a hundred earless monitor lizards for sale online, offered by 35 different people in 11 countries. Germany and other European nations came out on top, although a few American buyers were also involved (not surprising, given that the United States accounts for 56 percent of all live reptile imports). Some lizards were originally priced at as much as $15,500, but, as the market became saturated, their value fell to $3,300.

“The scale and pace of this trade is something that, 20 years ago, would not have been possible to do through letters and phone calls,” Nijman said. “The internet allows people to very quickly become a part of a small global network of specialized, niche hobbyists who can instantly share information and arrange deals.”

The earless monitor lizards that Nijman found for sale on Facebook and reptile forums no doubt originated from the region where the research team worked in Indonesian Borneo. Collectors now regularly travel there, and local villagers now eagerly provide them with what they’re after. Hotel staff reportedly tell foreign guests that they can get earless monitor lizards for them, and shopkeepers—in the style of knockoff handbag hawkers in New York City—furtively call out, “We have lizards here!” Some villagers have supposedly made enough off the reptiles to afford a new a motorbike or television.

This is not the first time a species’ discovery or rediscovery has triggered a collecting frenzy. According to a 2017 Science paper, more than 20 newly described reptiles have been targeted after traders learned of their location in the scientific literature. In 2010, for example, researchers described a new species of psychedelic gecko on a small Vietnamese island; two years later, the geckos began regularly turning up for sale in Europe, priced at up to $3,300 per pair. Likewise, in 2010, when a snake no one had seen since the 1930s suddenly turned up in Vietnam—a so-called Lazarus species, back from the dead of presumed extinction—its rediscovery was quickly followed by online ads touting pairs of “farmed” specimens for $1,800.

Conservationists have learned the hard way that some discoveries are better left a carefully guarded secret. They either omit location data from papers entirely, or—in the case of some security-savvy journals—upload sensitive information to locked files that can be accessed only with permission. “There are things we keep seriously quiet about, including very, very high-profile species,” Nijman said. “Because we know if the news comes out, it’ll be the end of them.”

For the earless monitor lizard, such a fate may already be set in motion. But because no field data exist for the species—including such basic information as population size or distribution—there’s no way of determining if and when the trade will become an existential threat. In the meantime, traders continue to plunder the wild for the lizards, and collectors continue to buy them.

Of all the reptile enthusIasts involved in Lanthanotus borneensis ’ story, one name stands out above the rest: Tsuyoshi Shirawa. A former wildlife smuggler, he is now Japan’s largest wholesale dealer in cold-blooded animals. Among his claims to fame is his standing as the first foreign collector to have gotten hold of the earless monitor lizard following its rediscovery. In 2013—a full year before the lizards began turning up for sale in Europe—he posted a YouTube video filmed at his facility in Japan showing one of the lizards eating an earthworm. This virtual announcement was followed by a 2014 Facebook post claiming that he had achieved the first successful captive breeding of the species, as evidenced by an accompanying live-streaming of the eggs hatching.

Shirawa could be considered a starting as well as ending point for the earless monitor lizard’s story. He helped spread word about the species’ rediscovery through his YouTube and Facebook posts, which garnered thousands of views. As one enthusiast gushed, “You are a herpetological Gagarin!”—comparing Shirawa to the first human to travel into space. For some fanboys, watching videos of the lizards online was not enough—they needed to visit in person. As Nijman put it, “There’s people who are willing to fly to the other side of the world just to see this lizard and have a photo taken with it.”

In one Facebook picture shot at Shirawa’s facility, for example, Steve Sykes, owner of Geckos Etc. Herpetoculture in California, grins elatedly, mouth hanging open like a puppy, as he gazes down at an earless monitor lizard clutching his thumb. “Herpetologically speaking, this is one of the coolest animals I have ever held in my hands,” he wrote in the photo’s description. “It takes a lot to get me really excited, but this did it!”

Shirawa’s public facility, iZoo (pronounced “ee-zoo”), is in Shizuoka Prefecture, about two hours south of Tokyo. I caught the train down on an unusually warm November morning, stocking up on onigiri for the ride and putting Air’s “Alone in Kyoto” on repeat on my iPod. Tokyo’s frenetic hustle soon gave way to jumbled blocks of suburban homes painted in various shades of gray, which in turn softened into picturesque vistas of mist-covered rice fields and farms. Eventually the landscape parted, revealing the gentle, swirling swells of the North Pacific.

The facility would be hard to miss: a modern orange-brick building with a sweeping shingle roof, iZoo decidedly contrasts with Kawazu’s otherwise nondescript houses and drab apartment buildings. When Shirawa bought and renovated the building in 2012, it was a failing turtle aquarium, drawing just 20,000 visitors per year. Now, around 130,000 people stop by annually.

I paid the $13.50 entrance fee and headed inside, where the air was at least 10 degrees warmer, dense with humidity and the sweet smell of fruit and decay. An obnoxious kids’ jingle played on a loop—a chorus of young voices screaming in Japanese “No lion, no giraffe! Only reptiles!” followed by a male voice shouting “iZoo! iZoo!”

It took only a couple of minutes to arrive at the earless monitor lizard exhibit, which Shirawa was clearly very proud of. The grating children’s tune was abruptly replaced with an intense tribal drum beat, ushering visitors into a dark, cavernlike hallway lined with blown-up images of earless monitor lizards. At the end of the hall stood a casket-sized tank, illuminated with beams of light like Snow White’s glass coffin. Hung up around, memorial-like were laminated newspaper clippings, a map pinpointing the species’ origin, and a video display showing an earless monitor lizard eating worms. A placard—the only one in the facility that included an English translation—described the reptiles and bragged of iZoo’s standing as the first facility to keep and breed them in captivity. “This must be one of the most rare reptiles in the world, and very few have ever been seen,” it read.

According to a 2017 Science paper, more than 20 newly described reptiles have been targeted after traders learned of their location in the scientific literature.

Reptiles4all/Getty Images

Bemusement was my primary emotion as I gingerly approached the glass enclosure and peered down. There, smooshed up against the wall, I spotted my first earless monitor lizard. The motionless creature was curled into an S, its scales gleaming a deep brown, partially submerged in the shallow water. Like a game of Where’s Waldo? my eyes began to dart around the tank, trying to identify any other scaled abnormalities. Sure enough, I spotted another lizard wrapped around a rock and a couple more hidden among the mess of stones and detritus.

I’d come all this way to see these animals, but after a few minutes loitering around the exhibit and trying (unsuccessfully) to get a good photo in the dim light, I realized that I was getting kind of bored. The lizards, after all, were just sitting there. I moved on.

Professional and neat, Shirawa was soft in the face and belly, with strongly arched, thick eyebrows. We took a seat in the far corner of an empty cafe, and a waitress brought over some coffee.

“People who don’t meet me, they think I’m a gangster or in the mafia or something—that I’m scary,” he began. “But I just love reptiles, and reptiles only—nothing else!” He let out a jovial, tinkling laugh. As we continued to chat, he came across, conflictingly, as both a sincere animal lover and a slick, smooth-talking operator.

Born in Shizuoka City, Shirawa’s factory worker parents forbade him from keeping dogs or cats at home. But that was okay by him, because, by the time he was five or six years old, he had already developed a keen fondness for lizards, turtles, and snakes. The former two his parents allowed him to keep, the latter they refused. That didn’t stop Shirawa, though: He took to smuggling snakes into the house and hiding them in his desk. As he got older, his love for all things scaled and cold blooded grew.

“Some people like TV shows or music or cars, but for me, only reptiles,” he said. “I don’t know why I like them so much, but I’ve always wanted to be together with them. They’re something strange and exotic, and some have mysterious lifestyles. I like for them to be close to me.”

After high school, he began breeding and selling reptiles. When he had saved up a little money, he bought a plane ticket to Thailand, where he taught himself Thai and began connecting with reptile wheelers and dealers. Some were traffickers, and he soon followed their example, succumbing to the allure of smuggling. He’d fly into Japan with a suitcase full of animals, sell them in a day, and then fly straight back to Thailand to load up again. In 1989, when he was 20 years old, his luck ran out. He was stopped at the airport in Bangkok when customs officials discovered around 50 endangered turtles and lizards in his luggage, plus around 125 non-CITES-listed lizards. Shirawa was given a three-month suspended prison sentence and fined $100. The light penalty was not enough to deter him. As he put it, “I was young and naughty.”

The experience did, however, make him more wary. When a Japanese customer contacted him a couple of years later to ask whether he could obtain some shingleback lizards—an Australian species that looks like a cross between a pine cone and a very large grub—he instead recruited one of his buddies from Bangkok, a Swiss guy named Michael. Michael said he’d help with the sourcing but not the trafficking, so the buyer sent his wife to Australia to act as a lizard mule. Shirawa met the two there to facilitate, helping to collect 80 shinglebacks that they divided between two suitcases.

When it came time to leave, however, the buyer’s wife begged Shirawa to take one of the bags himself. Sure enough, they were stopped at the airport (to this day, Shirawa thinks someone ratted on them). Michael wound up being deported after a month, while the wife served a 10-month prison sentence. Shirawa got it the worst: The jury deemed him the “big boss,” so he was given 20 months behind bars. He considers his time in the Australian correctional center well spent, however. “I learned English!” he said, cracking up.

Youthful hiccups behind him, by the late 1990s, Shirawa was Japan’s biggest reptile and exotic animal dealer, both wholesale for pet shops and for specialty items sought after by zoos. He became well known for his ability to source difficult-to-acquire species like elephants, orcas, rhinos, and polar bears, and business only grew as the internet gained popularity, allowing him to connect with exporters and clients in 65 countries. “Facebook makes it easier to build relationships with people overseas,” he said.

Despite the undoubted success of Shirawa’s business ventures, he still couldn’t resist dabbling in illegalities. In 2004, a Japanese acquaintance asked him to help launder 24 protected radiated tortoises from Madagascar. Shirawa agreed and, colluding with a zoo, created fake permits for 11 of the animals. He kept the remaining 13 as payment for the deal. The Tokyo police caught on, however, and in 2007 Shirawa and his accomplices were convicted of fraudulent reptile registration and fraudulent trading. “It was my mistake,” he said. “I thought this was a very sweet deal. It was like sweet temptation! I’d get 13 endangered animals for free, just to make papers.” He sighed, shaking his head. “I was very stupid, because I thought, ‘I’m a professional. I can write anything in my report and it will be accepted.’ I was very, very, silly.”

This time, he paid a fine of $15,330 and spent two years in prison. Again, though, he did not squander his time: He wrote a book called The Price of Animals , detailing his business experience and his adventures obtaining rare species for zoos. Its cover features a gaggle of exotic animals with barcodes on their sides.

Since his release, Shirawa has vowed to steer clear of illegal dealings and insists that he has thoroughly learned his lesson. So far, it’s going well. He’s managed not only to get his business back on track but also to get into the government’s good graces. As the Japanese reptile market has grown, he’s become a trusted source of information for officials, who turn to him for help with everything from managing illegally released former pet pythons to providing suggestions for animal cruelty laws and import quotas.

He’s also bringing in fewer animals these days—“just interesting species I import for myself.” Most interesting of all, of course, was the recent acquisition of the earless monitor lizard. His involvement began in 2013, when he bought two animals—a male and a female—from an unnamed Japanese dealer. “People think I go to Borneo and catch the lizards myself to bring them here, but no, never,” he said. “It’s not necessary to go there.”

Instead, Shirawa prefers for others to take on the risk themselves, breaking local laws to smuggle the animals out of their native Malaysia, Brunei, or Indonesia, where the lizards are strictly protected. Poachers can be fined up to $8,600 and imprisoned for up to five years for trafficking in the species. As Nijman spelled out, “You can’t catch earless monitor lizards, you can’t keep them, and you can’t buy them. And you certainly can’t take them with you out of the country.”

Once smuggled out, however, the species is fair game for trade in the eyes of many nations. Over 90 percent of reptiles have not been evaluated by CITES, and until 2016 this included the earless monitor lizard. The oversight is how Shirawa managed to obtain legal permission to slip specimens into Japan, which—unlike the United States—does not take other countries’ domestic wildlife laws into account.

Such weaseling does not sit well with conservationists. When I asked Shirawa whether it bothers him to know that his animals were originally acquired in violation of Indonesian law, he shrugged. “It’s not myself who broke it. If I go there, then I have a problem.” He added that Malaysian officials aren’t even concerned with upholding their domestic laws pertaining to the earless monitor lizard, because they have actually issued export permits for specimens.

Shirawa’s efforts paid off for his collection—and for further solidifying his esteem among fellow reptile enthusiasts. In 2015 he produced four successful hatchlings, while 2016 brought 13 more. In the meantime, he picked up around 30 additional earless monitor lizards from sellers in Europe. Not a single one has died under his care, he said, and he has refrained from selling any, preferring to remain the only zoo in Japan that has them. “Many people are looking for that lizard,” he said—but stressed that commercial gain isn’t his motivation. “I want to save this animal for the future,” he said. “I’ve made some mistakes, but now I’ve changed. Please understand my mind and situation: I just love reptiles.”

In the years since the Borneo researchers stopped for lunch and unwittingly released the earless monitor lizard from its Pandora’s box, Indonesia has begun cracking down somewhat. In October 2015, the country made its first Lanthanotus borneensis –related arrest: a German caught at the Jakarta airport with eight of the animals. He said that he had paid local traders just $3 a pop. Months later, a second German was stopped with 17 earless monitor lizards at the West Kalimantan airport. Unfortunately, however, Indonesia’s commitment to conservation goes only so far. Although officials there are not okay with seeing the country lose its lizards to Germans, they do seem all right with the profit.

Following the lizard’s rediscovery, Nijman and other conservationists approached Indonesian authorities numerous times about addressing the growing crisis but were ignored. Likewise, in the months leading up to the 2016 CITES conference—a gathering at which countries submit and vote on species protection proposals—Indonesia ignored pleas to participate, even as Malaysia prepared a proposal requesting protection for the earless monitor lizard.

At the conference, when Malaysia presented its case for the highest level of protection for the earless monitor lizard—the level that forbids international commercial trade—Nijman and others had their fingers crossed. But then, for the first time and at the very last minute, Indonesia piped up. Its officials proposed, instead, a lower protection listing with a zero-export quota tacked on. Although this may sound like a good compromise, it’s not. The zero-export quota pertains only to wild-caught animals—not ones allegedly bred in captivity—which means earless monitor lizards caught in the wild, like so many other reptile species scooped up in Indonesia, can simply be laundered into legality.

Malaysia, to everyone’s horror and surprise, agreed to Indonesia’s proposal. Later, the truth came out: Malaysia and Indonesia were in cahoots. A few days before the meeting, the countries had decided to trade votes. Malaysia would support Indonesia’s position on the earless monitor lizard and Banggai cardinal fish, and Indonesia, in return, would stand with Malaysia on saltwater crocodiles.

Indonesia’s capacity to breed earless monitor lizards at a commercial scale is extremely doubtful. Shirawa, Nijman said, remains the only one he knows of who has managed to pull it off—and it was no small feat. It required reptile staff tending to the animals 24/7 at a cutting-edge facility that neither aims to churn the lizards out on a commercial scale nor needs to make a profit off them. “If you’re a little forestry department out in f-ing wherever, you can’t set up a first-class facility and make breeding viable,” Nijman said. “Instead, you capture the animals in the wild, keep them in a shed for a few hours, and then they become captive-bred second-generation.”

For him and others concerned with the earless monitor lizard’s future, it was a big loss. Still, he does not place the entirety of the blame on Indonesia for choosing profit over preservation—nor even on the authors of the original paper that announced the lizard’s discovery. Instead, he believes the people who did the most damage to the species’ conservation are none other than himself and his coauthor. By going public with their findings about the escalating trade, they further raised the lizard’s profile and spread the word that it’s available. “I’m not sure if I’d do it again,” he said. “I think I have a moral obligation to report it, but perhaps it’s a case where good intentions went wrong.”

If I’m being honest with myself, I have to admit that I, too, have likely played some role in those good intentions gone wrong, by writing a cover story for Newsweek about the earless monitor lizard, and with this chapter.

Indeed, Shirawa, in passing, confirmed these fears. Back at the zoo, he told me that my Newsweek story had brought him some positive attention. Grinning, he thanked me.

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