By Phuntsho Namgyel
Cordyceps sinensis or yartsa guenbup was a protected species before 2004 and its picking and possession was illegal.
While it fetched high price across the northern borders, locals within the country were subjected to questioning, property search and heavy fines. A field study in 2003 noted that a family was fined Nu 90,000 for possession of it and this family had to sell three yaks and a horse to pay off the fine.
Cordyceps was among a list of protected species, not based on any objective assessment but on the perception of foresters who saw it as a rare and endangered one. A decade since its legalisation, cordyceps has brought economic prosperity to the alpine communities across the country and the resource base remains intact, except for the cyclic production of good and bad years characteristic of any natural product.
From alpine to sub-tropical, a man in Gelephu was recently fined Nu 100,000 for possession of a Tokay Gecko, a reptile. Like cordyceps, Tokay Gecko has always been an important ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine. Available figures show that Taiwan imported 15M dried Tokay Geckos since 2004 and the USA some 8.5 tonnes between 1998 and 2004. This trading in traditional medicine for most part is sourced from breeding in captivity. Tokay Gecko has also for several decades been sold as pets in Europe and North America, each selling for USD 20 and they have not only become established in these countries but in some cases they are considered pests.
A claim in 2009 that it was a cure for AIDS and H1N1 raised its selling price reportedly to millions of Dollars. Online sites price it from more than USD 2M for a Tokay Gecko weighing 300 grams to USD 323M for ones that weighted 1,000 grams.
The heavier the animal, it was believed, the higher the medicinal enzyme-content. A study carried out by TRAFFIC, a wildlife trade monitoring network said it found no evidence for these exorbitant prices. Most Tokay Geckos observed for sale in Malaysia, a major trading hub, were estimated to weigh between 250-300 grams, their prices ranging from USD 96 to USD 15,984 an animal.
Tokay Gecko is found in tropical forests from South Asia to South East Asia and also adapting well in urban settings, feeding on insects and small vertebrates. It attains lengths of about 28–51cm for males and 18–48cm for females and weighing between 150 and 400 grams, sporting spots ranging from light yellow to bright red.
Their breeding season lasts for about five months and females lay eggs almost every month. Individuals reach sexual maturity at one year of age with average life span in captivity recorded at 10 years, but lesser in the wild.
Threat to a species survival from collection or extraction is generally dependent on life forms of the said species, its abundance and distribution and market demand among others. For example, a species with short-lived life form like insect is less likely to be endangered than long lived ones like elephants. Similarly, a species with narrow range in geographic distribution like Takin is more vulnerable to extinction than species with wide geographic distribution like wild boars. Species with high market demand like Rhinoceros is more likely to be over exploited than species with low market value like monkeys.
Tokay Gecko has a high reproductive rate and wide geographical distribution and are bred in captivity and reared as pets. Except for some report of local level over-exploitation of it in the wild, there is no imminent threat to its survival as a species at the global and regional level. The species has not yet been evaluated for any threat category in the IUCN Red List.
We are heavily influenced by western conservation model that people and wildlife are in conflict with each other and that wild areas should be set aside purely for aesthetic (non-consumptive) enjoyment. We tolerate wildlife extraction of low values and when a product becomes valuable, new restrictions are imposed or existing ones reactivated. People engage in wildlife extraction because of poverty.
The TRAFFIC, a wildlife trade watchdog, has its vision of a world in which trade in wild plants and animals is managed at sustainable levels without damaging the integrity of ecological systems in such a manner that it makes a significant contribution to human needs, supports local and national economies and helps to motivate commitments to conservation of wild species in their habitats.
What the vision statement highlights is that wildlife conservation is not only about ecology but people and economy.
It is reported since peaking of demand for Tokay Gecko in 2010 and 2011, the demand for it was declining.
This is characteristic of a natural product that demand rises when market is interested in the new claim and novelty of the product, and demand falls when claim is dispelled or cheap substitution is available. For example, Garcinia gummigatta was promoted as a weight-loss supplement, which led to a ‘boom’ for the product, but it went ‘bust’ when scientific tests showed it to be ineffective. The markets for natural products are extremely fickle and trend-driven.
There has been for a long time in environmental circle the recognition of the important role of biodiversity conservation in poverty alleviation of the local people. In this regard, when a natural product from the wild provides a window of opportunity for our rural people who receive less benefit but bear more cost in the national scheme of nature conservation, state efforts should be geared towards seizing the economic opportunity for them rather than burdening them with heavy fines.