Colorful Gecko Has an Amazing Success Story in Caribbean

Conservation efforts lead to 80% increase in Union Island gecko population.

Union Island gecko on a finger

Jacob Bock / FFI

Just about the size of a paper clip, a colorful gecko is making a dramatic comeback in the Caribbean.

Efforts by residents, the government, and conservation groups have mightily strengthened the population of Union Island geckos (Gonatodes daudini). The gecko’s numbers have risen significantly by 80%  from 10,000 in 2018 to about 18,000 today.

The Union Island gecko is classified as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List. The only known population of these flashy lizards is found in a 123-acre area of forest in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, an island country in the eastern Caribbean Sea.

The ecosystem is considered “globally irreplaceable” for its rich diversity of reptiles, plants, and other wildlife. It is considered a key biodiversity area because it is home to a number of endangered species and if it were destroyed, those species would become extinct.

The Union Island gecko was first scientifically described in 2005 and quickly became a much sought-after animal in the exotic pet trade. By 2018, the number of Union Island geckos in the wild had dropped to one-fifth of its original size due to poaching.

In 2016, the St. Vincent and the Grenadines Forestry Department reached out to the international wildlife conservation organization Fauna & Flora International to find out whether they needed to take action to conserve the dwindling species.

“As soon as I Googled its name, I was shocked to discover these lizards were being illegally trafficked and sold to collectors all over the world. A survey in 2017 found the gecko was the most heavily trafficked reptile from the Eastern Caribbean, if not the whole Caribbean,” Jenny Daltry, the Caribbean director for Re:wild and Fauna & Flora International, tells Treehugger.

Re:wild’s mission is to protect and restore the biodiversity of life on Earth.

“Realizing this was an emergency,” Daltry and members of the Forestry Department visited the island to assess the population. They met with the Union Island Environmental Alliance (UIEA) to develop a plan.

“Union Island has around 2,000 residents, most of whom had never heard of this lizard but wanted to help prevent their heritage being stolen,” Daltry says. “We found the gecko's habitat was being ransacked by foreign collectors, so with funding from the St. Vincent and the Grenadines Environment Fund and Re:wild, the UIEA formed a team of wardens to start patrolling the forest round the clock. That was the start of our collective effort to save the gecko.”

About the Union Island Gecko

An adult Union Island gecko measures just over an inch (3 centimeters) which is about the size of a paper clip. Daltry calls it a living jewel.

“It is no bigger than my thumb but has the most extraordinary coloration, with white dots surrounded by blood-red circles on a greenish background. Its tail ends in a white blob, which it holds in the air when excited,” she says.

“When I first saw the gecko in the wild, I was puzzled to see it was just a small dull brown lizard—nothing like the photographs I had seen on the traders' websites. But when brought into the light, the gecko's colors develop and become more and more vivid, like a Polaroid picture.”

Researchers also find it fascinating that the species is endemic to just a small patch of forest.

Although the geckos faced threats from development and diseases, the pet trade definitively caused the species the most harm.

“Who knows how many of these miniature tropical geckos died even before reaching their buyers,” Daltry says. “Furthermore, by hunting the geckos the poachers also caused immense damage to their forest habitat, reducing the survival of geckos and endangering other forest species as well.”

Conservation Efforts

Now, cameras have been installed and wardens from the UIEA continuously patrol the forest. Local residents are watching for suspicious behavior and border patrol staff and the police have been trained on wildlife protection laws.

The government was also successful in listing the gecko on the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) Appendix 1, which controls international trade of species threatened by extinction.

“Anyone found with this species can therefore expect the same stiff penalties as for trading tiger skins or rhino horns!” Daltry says. “Thanks to these measures, we have seen a sharp fall in signs of disturbance in the forest and the Union Island gecko population is growing.”

The resurgence is particularly fulfilling because the Caribbean islands have had higher extinction rates than any other part of the world. More than two-thirds of all reptiles that have gone extinct in the past several centuries have been native to the Caribbean.

“So bucking that trend is a big deal and gives hope for hundreds of other species teetering on the brink,” Daltry says. “The resurgence is important for the people of Union Island too. The gecko's rise is truly a cause for celebration and a great reward for their efforts over the past six years. This colorful gecko is becoming something of a mascot for Union Island because it was discovered by a local man, unique to this island and extraordinarily pretty.”

View Article Sources
  1. "Bejeweled, Critically Endangered Gecko Staging Dramatic Comeback on the Caribbean’s Union Island." Re:Wild, 2022.

  2. "Union Island Gecko." IUCN Red List.

  3. Jenny Daltry, the Caribbean director for Re:wild and Fauna & Flora International

  4. "For All Wildkind." Re:Wild.

  5. "Union Island Gecko." Fauna & Flora International.

  6. "How CITES Works." CITES.