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AIDS cure rumours short-lived: Tokay Geckos mainly traded for traditional medicine, finds new study

11/04/2013 18:28

A new TRAFFIC report finds that millions of Tokay Geckos are being harvested from the wild to supply the traditional medicine (TM) trade in East Asia. At the same time, the trade in Tokay Geckos for Novel Medicinal Claims (NMCs), including as a supposed cure for AIDS, has declined markedly.

The attractively patterned Tokay Gecko Gekko gecko is an adaptable lizard species found across much of Asia and in high demand for use in traditional medicines to treat a range of ailments including asthma, diabetes and skin disorders as well as for the international pet trade.

Since 2009, demand for Tokay Geckos in South-East Asia was reported to have sky-rocketed following rumours that extracts from the lizard could cure HIV/AIDS, a claim refuted by the World Health Organisation (WHO).

Following such reports, TRAFFIC examined the Tokay Gecko trade in the region, including a case study in Peninsular Malaysia, the purported centre of demand in the NMC trade, but found that while such trade had been substantial, it has declined massively. In contrast, the trade in Tokay Geckos for traditional medicines was found to be booming according to the new study jointly funded by WWF-Malaysia and Wildlife Reserves Singapore: “The Trade in Tokay Geckos Gekko gecko in South-East Asia: With a case study on Novel Medicinal Claims in Peninsular Malaysia.”

Tokay Geckos are widely consumed in traditional medicine in mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Viet Nam. In mainland China and Viet Nam, Tokay Geckos are reportedly bred in captivity, however; the supply does not meet demand and the industry relies predominantly on wild caught individuals. This has led to reported population declines in parts of the species’s range, notably in Thailand and Java, the primary source locations for Tokay Geckos in trade.

“More research is crucial to understanding the implications of the trade in Tokay Geckos on wild populations,” said Dr Chris R. Shepherd, Deputy Director of TRAFFIC in South-East Asia.

“Regulations and science-based quotas should be put in place and enforced if any trade is to continue at a sustainable level.”

According to Customs records, Taiwan has imported an estimated 15 000 000 dried Tokay Geckos since 2004. Over two thirds (71%) of these Tokay Geckos, came legally from Thailand. The remainder were from Java, Indonesia, where national legislation only permits the export of live Tokay Geckos for the pet trade. In 2011 a shipment of 6.75 tonnes (an estimated 1 200 000 individuals) of dried Tokay Geckos, illegally harvested in Java, was intercepted en route to Hong Kong.

Dealers interviewed during the TRAFFIC study claimed that fraud and criminal elements were rife in the trade, with robberies of Tokay buyers a common occurrence. They also reported that online forums were populated with fake-sellers, while the weight—and therefore the price—of individual Tokay Geckos was sometimes artificially inflated using silicone and metal implants. Heavier Tokay Geckos are thought to be more potent.

TRAFFIC has produced buntings to raise public awareness of the penalties for illegal trade in Tokay Geckos. The materials, produced in collaboration with Malaysia’s Wildlife and National Parks Department and the Malaysian Quarantine and Inspection Services, will be displayed at selected border crossings.


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