An obscure lizard reveals how zoos may indirectly play a role in animal trafficking

Accredited U.S. and European zoos keep earless monitor lizards. Malaysia and Indonesia, where the protected animals live, say none have been exported legally.

By Rachel Nuwer
Published 17 Jun 2021, 13:04 BST
Native to Borneo, earless monitor lizards hadn’t been seen for decades before 2008, when researchers spotted one. This specimen in Budapest Zoo is one of scores now on display in zoos in Europe and the U.S.
Photograph by Joël Sartore, National Geographic Photo Ark

When a team of researchers set out to survey a patch of jungle in the Indonesian part of Borneo one May morning in 2008, they had no idea that they’d find the “holy grail of herpetology” on their lunch break. While sitting next to a creek, one of the Indonesian team members spotted a brownish-yellow lizard, about a foot long with a face like a cartoon dinosaur and pronounced scales, resembling a mini-alligator.

It was an earless monitor lizard, the first such specimen known to be found in the wild in decades. News of the rediscovery, announced in a 2012 paper, spread quickly among reptile enthusiasts.

Indonesia and Malaysia have strictly protected earless monitor lizards for decades, meaning they’re banned from collection or trade. Neither country has legally sanctioned their export, but the 2012 paper suddenly ignited interest in the species among collectors, who were willing to pay thousands of dollars for a single lizard. The authors inadvertently provided just enough information to tip poachers off about where to find the lizards.

Experts estimate that about 200 earless monitor lizards—some sourced from the wild, others bred from wild-caught parents—were traded from 2013 to 2016, primarily in Japan, Europe, and the U.S. Most ended up in the hands of collectors, but accredited zoos also have participated in the trade.

Now a report on June 14 in Nature Conservation claims that many—even most—of the 70 earless monitor lizards at accredited zoos in Europe and the U.S. seem to trace back to illegal trade. Technically, zoos may not have broken any laws, but Vincent Nijman, author of the findings and a conservation ecologist at Oxford Brookes University in the U.K., hopes the paper makes zoos consider more carefully the complicated ethics and professional optics of obtaining animals with questionable provenances.

“If zoos want to be taken seriously with all their statements against illegal wildlife trade and wanting to be positive contributors to conservation, then they have to be cleaner than clean,” Nijman says. “They should be the organisations that set the good example.”

Thomas Ziegler, curator for reptiles at the Cologne Zoo, in Germany, which has four earless monitor lizards, agrees that zoos face an ethical dilemma now that the animals are available in commercial trade. But he thinks accredited zoos are justified in deciding to acquire the species. “Should we let them die—disappear in private holdings because we cannot touch them? Because then we might lose them,” he says. “Zoos have the potential to act as modern arks.” 

It’s unclear how earless monitor lizards—which are evolutionarily unique, representing the only living species in their family—are faring in the wild. They’ve been found in northwestern Borneo, including Malaysia’s Sarawak state and Indonesia’s Kalimantan province. Most likely, earless monitor lizards will be considered “vulnerable,” says Mark Auliya, a herpetologist at the Zoological Research Museum Alexander Koenig, in Germany, who is part of a team assessing their status for the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

To enhance protection of the lizards, in 2016 the Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), the body that regulates global wildlife trade, banned their trade without permits.

“First and foremost, this is illegal. It is also unethical.”

Melvin Gumal

But by then, earless monitor lizards had already appeared for sale online and at reptile shows. Commercial dealers and hobbyists account for most of the trade, according to experts and investigative reports. But 11 accredited zoos in Europe keep at least 60 of the lizards, and in February 2021, Audubon Zoo in New Orleans acquired 10 from Prague Zoo in the Czech Republic.

Zoos historically worked closely with dealers who sourced animals from the wild. For decades many zoos acquired species mainly for the purpose of entertainment, without much concern about the wildlife trade’s potential impact on conservation. In recent years, however, zoo associations and their accredited member institutions have increasingly promoted their role in conserving animals. They also have become vocal advocates against poaching and trafficking of species.

Six zookeepers and officials interviewed for this story said that all the earless monitor lizards in their care were legally acquired for research and conservation purposes. They say the captive animals could serve as a genetic life raft should the species go extinct in the wild.

Reconstructing origins

Nijman used information gleaned from social media and news stories, records in a zoo industry database, and discussions with CITES authorities, commercial traders, and zookeepers to reconstruct the origins of 13 accredited and three non-accredited zoos’ earless monitor lizards. One accredited zoo acquired its lizards solely through confiscations, such as when customs agents seize animals that traffickers tried to smuggle across borders. The other zoos got theirs mostly through trade with commercial dealers and other zoos. Many of those animals, Nijman argues, seem to have been trafficked from the wild or are descendants of trafficked parents.

Audubon Zoo sourced 10 captive-bred lizards from Prague Zoo, for example, which bred them primarily from seven animals obtained in 2016 from iZoo, a non-accredited facility in Japan’s Shizuoka prefecture. iZoo in turn bred the animals exported to the Prague Zoo from what Tsuyoshi Shirawa, iZoo’s owner and Japan’s biggest reptile and exotic animal dealer, acknowledges were wild-caught parents. (Shirawa spent more than two years in prison after being convicted in 2007 on charges of fraudulent registration and trading of other protected reptiles.)

When I interviewed Shirawa in 2016 for a book I was writing, he told me that he hadn’t broken any laws when he acquired and traded earless monitor lizards because he hadn’t taken any out of Malaysia or Indonesia. Japan, unlike the U.S., doesn’t recognise other countries’ wildlife laws, so once a domestically protected species is smuggled into Japan, it’s legal.

“In Indonesia, maybe the species is protected, and maybe it’s not—but it’s a domestic law, it’s just an Indonesian law,” Shirawa told me.

The same laundering loophole exists in Europe for animals that are not regulated by domestic legislation or restricted in trade by CITES. As a result, trade in earless monitor lizards to European countries increased before 2017, when the CITES regulations went into effect.

For example, in 2014, Sandra Altherr, co-founder of Pro Wildlife, a German conservation organisation, received a tip from a whistleblower that two Germans were illegally collecting earless monitor lizards in Indonesia and smuggling them out.

Shortly after, dealers across Europe—including in Germany, the Ukraine, the Czech Republic, and France—began touting earless monitor lizards online, according to a 2014 investigation by the wildlife trade monitoring group Traffic that Nijman co-authored. One of those dealers was Robert Seipp, an exotic animal dealer in Germany who in 1986 was convicted of trafficking reptiles in Australia. He also sold earless monitor lizards in 2014, along with others, at Europe’s largest reptile show, in Hamm, Germany.

According to Nijman’s Nature Conservation paper, in 2014 Seipp also supplied four earless monitor lizards to Budapest Zoological and Botanical Gardens. All these transactions were legal.

Seipp did not respond to interview requests.

Claims of legal trade

Shirawa told me that in addition to working with people who smuggled earless monitor lizards out of Indonesia, he imported some legally from Malaysia. Other reptile dealers also assert that Malaysian officials have issued legal export permits for the lizards.

Jürgen Schmidt, a professional reptile breeder in Austria, said in an email that in 2016, he imported eight earless monitor lizards legally from a Malaysian reptile dealer located near Kuala Lumpur called Versus Creation.

Schmidt “is one of the best breeders I know,” says Anton Weissenbacher, a zoological curator and reptile specialist at Schönbrunn Zoo, in Vienna. The zoo obtained four captive-bred earless monitor lizards from Schmidt in 2017. “We would not work with him if we had even a little bit of a feeling that there is something wrong or strange,” Weissenbacher says.

Versus Creation did not respond to interview requests.

Schmidt says he knows of three other people who say they legally imported a total of 20 to 30 earless monitor lizards from Malaysia and Indonesia.

Officials in both countries contest this. They say permissions have never been granted to export the species. 

Authorities in Sarawak have never issued export permits for the species to leave the country or even to leave Borneo for other parts of Malaysia, says Melvin Gumal, head of the biodiversity conservation and research division of the Sarawak Forestry Corporation, the government body that issues CITES trade permits.

“Sarawak has a problem with this,” Gumal says of the trade in earless monitor lizards. “First and foremost, this is illegal. It is also unethical.”

In Indonesia, on the other hand, reptile traders may have taken advantage of a paperwork loophole arising from confusion over the scientific and English names of earless monitor lizards. Traders could apply for permits using a name for earless monitor lizards that did not appear in Indonesian legislation, evading customs officers. (This confusion was cleared up in 2018.)

“There were a lot of windows and doors that could be opened to smuggle the species,” says Amir Hamidy, a herpetologist at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences and a member of Indonesia’s CITES team.

But that didn’t change the fact earless monitor lizards are protected, he says. “This is smuggling.”

A higher obligation  

Neither Budapest Zoo nor Prague Zoo responded to requests for interviews. Bob Lessnau, the vice president and general curator of Audubon Zoo, wrote in an email that he and his colleagues found Nijman’s paper to be “based on conjecture” and “lacking factual source material to support its assertions.” 

“We clearly did our due diligence and have the required and proper permits and permissions from the designated authorities,” Lessnau says of the 10 earless monitor lizards from Prague Zoo. “We have seen no evidence that the founding animals were acquired illegally.”

Dan Ashe, president and chief executive officer of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, a nonprofit organisation and accrediting body that represents more than 240 facilities in the U.S. and overseas, calls Nijman’s argument “a muddle.”

“He makes a broad statement that says zoos have a higher obligation than compliance with the law,” Ashe says. But legal compliance “is the way we combat trafficking,” he says, and Nijman “is not showing that anyone has not complied with the law.”

But given the loopholes in European and Japanese legislation, simply following the law sometimes isn’t enough, says Chris Shepherd, executive director of Monitor, a nonprofit research organisation dedicated to lesser-known species in wildlife trade. “That’s basically saying it’s OK to break laws in range states, and that laundering illegally sourced animals is fine,” he says.

Others in the zoo world say Nijman raises important points. “Zoos and aquariums, as part of their due diligence, have a responsibility to avoid supporting illegal export of animals,” says Danny de Man, the deputy executive director of the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA), the accrediting body for European zoos. “I welcome this paper, because I think this publication will help us look at our policies and procedures and, if need be, fine-tune them.”

Ivan Rehák, chairman of EAZA’s reptile group, who keeps an unofficial studbook for earless monitor lizards, agrees that the origins of captive individuals of the species “is problematic.” But zoos didn’t cause the illegal trade or spur original demand for earless monitor lizards, he says, and they don’t have the resources to go above and beyond the law when it comes to investigating the origins of the animals they acquire.

“I think zoos should be able to prove the legality and provenance of any animal they get,” Shepherd says. “The onus shouldn’t be on people like [Nijman].”

Ethical arguments 

Even if an animal is known to have questionable origins, there are still “many ethical issues” that can come into play when deciding whether to acquire it, Rehák says. In the case of earless monitor lizards, zoos can play valuable roles in managing captive populations and participating in conservation efforts “to help to ensure the survival of the species into the future,” he says.

Commercial traders and zookeepers frequently cite habitat loss as justification for keeping captive populations of earless monitor lizards and other animals—to have them as backup in case the species goes extinct in the wild.

Most conservationists agree that carefully managed captivity with a plan for reintroducing animals into the wild is warranted for species on the brink of extinction. A captive-breeding program launched in the late 1980s saved the critically endangered California condor, for example.  But for species such as the earless monitor lizard that are not on the point of collapse, simply citing habitat destruction as a reason for captivity “is a very general and unacceptable argument,” Auliya says. Much of Borneo’s lowland forest is being converted to oil palm plantations, but the lizards seem to be able to survive in disturbed environments, and experts also can’t say whether poaching is driving population declines, Auliya says.

“This kind of argument always occurs, but I think it’s very weak,” Hamidy agrees. “It’s not justification for keeping animals in a cage.”

Gumal adds that Malaysian authorities know of more than half a dozen strictly protected locations where earless monitor lizards live, including in national parks, which undermines the habitat loss argument. He says he’s also disturbed by the fact that Malaysian and Indonesian scientists and authorities have been left out of discussions among Western zoos about earless monitor lizard conservation.

As things stand now, “the countries with the resources are losing their resources to unscrupulous traders,” he says, describing it as a situation that contravenes best practices for fair and equitable distribution of benefits from biodiversity.

The earless monitor lizard offers a chance for zoos not just to reevaluate their involvement with this particular species, Shepherd says, but to take a closer look at their overall approach to animal acquisition. “This paper is really timely, because it highlights a problem that really needs to be dealt with,” he says. “If zoos are to be a major player in conservation, then this sort of mess needs to be cleaned up.”

Wildlife Watch is an investigative reporting project between National Geographic Society and National Geographic Partners focusing on wildlife crime and exploitation. Read more Wildlife Watch stories here, and learn more about National Geographic Society’s nonprofit mission at Send tips, feedback, and story ideas to


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