- Widespread misconceptions about the medicinal benefits of tokay geckos are leading to these common nocturnal lizards being hunted across Bangladesh.
- Wildlife traffickers set an exorbitant price on trapped geckos, based on rumors about their international demand. There is no documented evidence that buyers pay a high price for geckos.
- In the last five years, more than 250 geckos were recovered and more than 30 suspected wildlife smugglers arrested. In Bangladesh, a study found that gecko populations are estimated to have declined by 50% due to trade on the international market based on claims that the species holds medicinal qualities.
- Tokay geckos maintain ecosystem balance by preying on invertebrates, including moths, grasshoppers, beetles, termites, crickets, cockroaches, mosquitoes and spiders.
DHAKA – In the hopes of becoming overnight millionaires, five wildlife traffickers tried to sell a tokay gecko (Gekko gecko), locally known as takkhak, in Bangladesh’s border district of Panchagarh.
Posing as buyers, on Nov. 18 police apprehended the traffickers, who were asking for 30 million taka (about US$ 300,000).
The irony is that the traffickers were unlikely to get anywhere near their asking price for the gecko. And yet, misconceptions about the medicinal benefits of geckos are so widespread that these common nocturnal lizards are often hunted in forests around Bangladesh.
The tokay gecko is found in northeastern India, Bhutan, Nepal and Bangladesh; throughout Southeast Asia, including Thailand, the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia; and toward western New Guinea.
The lizard’s native habitat is on trees and cliffs of the rainforest. It adapts to rural human habitats as well, roaming walls and ceilings at night in search of insect prey. As insects are attracted to lights, the gecko often follows its prey to villages.
Though tokay geckos are widespread and ecologically flexible, rampant trade of the species has led to localized population declines in parts of Bangladesh, China, Indonesia and Thailand. In Bangladesh, gecko populations are estimated to have declined by 50% as a result of collection for the novel medicinal claims, the study said.
Wildlife conservationists say there is a wrong belief that parts of the animal species can cure AIDS and cancer, and the gecko can be sold in the international market at an unusually high price.
Ishtiaq Uddin Ahmad, former country representative of IUCN Bangladesh, said though there is no scientific evidence for such claims, widespread hunting of geckos continues.
“We have recovered over 250 geckos, held over 30 suspected wildlife smugglers and filed some 20 cases [in the last five years]. But we did not find any confirmed client that bought a gecko at an unusual price like taka 10 million [about US$ 100,000],” Ashim Mallick, wildlife inspector at the Wildlife Crime Control Unit of the Bangladesh Forest Department, told Mongabay.
Tokay geckos are more or less common and widely distributed all over Bangladesh, except in the northern Rajshahi district. They are relatively concentrated in forests. According to the Wildlife Conservation and Security Act 2012, trading and selling wild geckos is a punishable crime.
“There is no basis for the high price of tokay geckos. Rackets of frauds have created a fake price by spreading rumors,” Monirul H. Khan, a zoology professor at Jahangirnagar University, told Mongabay.
In 2022, about a dozen tokay geckos were recovered from across the country, leading to the arrest of 15 people, said Nargis Sultana, wildlife inspector at the Bangladesh Forest Department. She, however, could not confirm how many tokay geckos are being smuggled each year.
The myth surrounding medicinal benefits
In Southeast Asia, the use of geckos in traditional medicines dates back hundreds of years. Tokay geckos have been used in traditional Chinese medicines to invigorate lungs and kidneys and to treat skin ailments, asthma, diabetes and cancer. In Vietnam, tokay gecko extract is used to treat erectile dysfunction and persistent cough.
There is a high demand for tokay geckos in East Asia and nearby regions like China, Taiwan, Vietnam and Hong Kong, and that is why the reptile species is being smuggled to these countries, said Tapan Kumar Dey, a former forest conservator.
A 2013 study, however, found no scientific evidence to support claims of tokay geckos providing an HIV/AIDS cure.
Extracts of tokay geckos are also sold in powder or pill form, and in parts of Southeast Asia, the animals are also consumed in wine to increase strength and vitality. These tonics can contain whole geckos or extracts, along with a suite of other ingredients, the study revealed.
“Tokay geckos wine or whiskey is consumed as an aphrodisiac or as an energy drink in many Asian countries,” Dey said.
So, he said, Bangladeshi trappers are selling tokay geckos to international wildlife traffickers who smuggle them to centers of Chinese medicine across Asia.
Mallick said apart from traditional medicines, tokay geckos are also traded as pets in many countries.
Vital to ecosystem balance
Tokay geckos are nocturnal, feeding predominantly on invertebrates, including moths, grasshoppers, beetles, termites, crickets, cockroaches, mosquitoes and spiders.
This species has also been known to prey on other geckos, small rats, mice and snakes. They are a relatively large species and potentially consume large amounts of invertebrate prey.
“Tokay gecko is a useful animal. It keeps balance in nature by eating insects,” Khan said.
Ahmad said if a predator disappears from nature, populations of its prey would go up, creating an imbalance in the ecosystem.
Wildlife conservationists fear that tokay geckos will eventually disappear from the wild if hunting and habitat destruction continue.
IUCN Bangladesh. 2015. Red List of Bangladesh Volume 4: Reptiles and Amphibians. IUCN, International Union for Conservation of Nature, Bangladesh Country Office, Dhaka, Bangladesh, pp. xvi+320. https://portals.iucn.org/library/sites/library/files/documents/RL-549.3-003-v.4.pdf
Olivier S. C., 2013. The Trade in Tokay Geckos Gekko gecko in South-east Asia: with a case study on Novel Medicinal Claims in Peninsular Malaysia. TRAFFIC, Petaling Jaya, Selangor, Malaysia https://www.traffic.org/site/assets/files/7697/tokey-geckos-se-asia.pdf