Guatemala -- Protecting the Guatemalan Beaded Lizard


Guatemalan Beaded Lizard

"We have recently found groups of the lizard with juveniles and babies and this gives us hope that the species is also recovering."

— Daniel Ariano, Director of Research and Conservation Projects for Zootropic

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Guatemalan Beaded Lizard

Is it more poisonous than a rattlesnake? Does it cause lightning strikes? And can it make a pregnant woman miscarry if she just looks at it?

These are just some of the many myths that surround the wildly misunderstood Heloderma horridum charlesbogerti — more commonly known as the Guatemalan beaded lizard. Actually, the creature is helpful to humans: Its venom is now used as an effective treatment for diabetes.

But fewer than 200 of these lizards survive — with the species in danger of extinction because of poaching and habitat conversion. The Nature Conservancy is implementing a two-pronged approach to save this important reptile:

  • We're conserving the lizard’s habitat within the 50,000 acre patch of dry thorn scrub in Guatemala’s Motagua Valley.
  • We're working to have it internationally recognized as an endangered species to deter poaching for collectors.

A Rare Species with Life-Saving Venom

Even for a reptile, the beaded lizard stands out:

  • It's around 20 inches long with striking yellow markings and stripes on its tail.
  • It has a long, forked tongue and belongs to the only family of venomous lizards in the world. (Its poison is not fatal to humans, but can kill small animals.)
  • It endures high temperatures and long periods of drought by becoming totally inactive (a behavior known as aestivating).
  • During its dormant period (from January to June), the beaded lizard survives on the food stored in its tail.

Scientists are now researching the beaded lizard's venom for other medicinal properties. But in the meantime, conservationists are trying to save this precious lizard from extinction.

Conserving Habitat and Tracking Lizards

The primary threats the lizards face include:

  • Dwindling habitat;
  • Poaching for international collectors; and
  • Misperceptions held by local communities about the lizard's powers.

The lizard’s habitat has become smaller over time as its habitat is converted to farmland to feed the growing communities in the Motagua Valley. However, the Conservancy has been working hard to reverse this trend.

In 2004, the Conservancy and its local partner Zootropic placed radio transmitters on the lizards. These radio transmitters helped obtain previously unknown data on the lizard’s habits and home range.

Now the Conservancy has made plans to buy the Montagua Valley habitat. "We are going to purchase some land from a private owner to create a natural protected area in the lizard’s habitat," says Jorge Cardona, Conservation Project Director, for the Conservancy in Guatemala. "We are increasing our efforts to save the beaded lizard and will work more closely with Zootropic to do this."

The Conservancy and Zootropic also led the effort to get the Guatemalan government to in June 2007 list the beaded lizard under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), making  it illegal to export the species.

Dispelling the Myths

Negative and generations-old myths about the lizard have often meant the reptiles are killed on sight by local residents. To end this practice, Zootropic has also undertaken an education campaign to build community awareness about the creature's harmless nature and endangered status.

The group created a fictional children’s character that visits local schools along with “Valentina,” a beaded lizard donated by a collector. Children interact with the character and hold Valentina to better understand that it is not harmful.

“In the past they were killed and people feared them — but people are now proud of this animal and are helping to protect it,” says Daniel Ariano, Zootropic's director of research and conservation projects.

Ariano adds that Guatemalans who now chance upon a lizard often call Zootropic to help relocate it back to its habitat instead of killing it. Zootropic rewards the community member with a certificate of appreciation and invites them to help tag and release the lizard.

“We have recently found groups of the lizard with juveniles and babies, and this gives us hope that the species is recovering,” says Ariano.

Nature picture credits (top to bottom, left to right): Photo © Daniel Ariano (beaded lizard); Photo © Daniel Ariano (beaded lizard).