NORMAN — A curator from the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History is in the Philippines this month to learn more about the sailfin dragon — a rare, elusive lizard that is one of the hottest commodities in illegal pet trading.
Cameron Siler and a group of fellow researchers hope their findings will lead to more protection for this vulnerable species, which is often hunted, poached and sold on the black market.
The sailfin dragon, also called the sailfin lizard, is highly prized for its vivid neon green, blue and violet coloring, its prehistoric dragonlike appearance and its aquatic skill. With their flattened toes, the lizards can give the appearance of walking on water.
This is not Siler’s first trip to the Philipines to study the sailfin dragon. Roughly 10 years ago, Siler, a herpetology expert, joined an existing research team. Over the next few years, the team conducted 40,000 to 50,000 biological surveys across 7,100 islands in the Philippines, collecting genetic samples to develop a DNA database and family tree for the sailfin.
This research is crucial for any species that has been declared vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation and Nature, Siler said.
Siler and his fellow researchers had hoped to discover a protected environment for the sailfin dragon. Instead, he said, they stumbled on a far more terrifying reality. Less than 10 percent of the sailfins’ suitable habitat in the Philippines is currently being protected.
Even worse, he said, every specimen surveyed at one of the major Filipino pet markets came from one peninsula in northeastern Philippines, where only 0.8 percent of the land currently is protected from development.
The vulnerable species could eventually be endangered if nothing is done, Siler said.
“We have absolutely observed dramatic population declines over the last 10 years. What is more alarming is the absence of any wild adult individuals during our surveys over the last decade. As adults are usually hunted for food or the pet trade, we fear this is a sign of dramatic pressure being placed on the remaining wild populations in the Philippines,” he said.
Siler believes his research team’s findings are promising, however, because conservationists — now knowing where most of the sailfins are being acquired — may more easily persuade local governments to increase legislation to protect them.
Species traced to one peninsula
The researchers discovered that most of the sailfin dragons smuggled into other countries for sale come from a single location in the Philippines: the Bicol Peninsula on Luzon Island.
“Knowing this, there actually can be more of a directed conservation effort in this region,” he said.
The researchers this month are concentrating on collecting more biological surveys in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan, which devastated much of the Philippines last year. These findings will provide scientists with key insights on how sailfin dragon populations respond to natural disasters, Siler said.
The research is being funded by a Rapid Response Research grant from the National Science Foundation.
While herpetologists are slowly beginning to understand these majestic, private creatures, a great deal of research remains, Siler said.
“The more herpetologists understand about this rare species, the more local governments can implement effective conservation regulations,” he said.
The more herpetologists understand about this rare species, the more local governments can implement effective conservation regulations.”