PETALING JAYA: Malaysia is asking for a total ban on the international trade of an extremely rare species of lizard that most locals have never heard of but is in danger of being increasingly "loved" to death overseas as pets.
The earless monitor lizard - known locally as cicak purba - is so rare and is only endemic to Borneo, and even then it has only ever been recorded in Sarawak and Kalimantan.
The lizard which measures some 20cm long and lacks external ears, hence its common name, is said to resemble a dragon. Malaysia has put forward a proposal to place the lizard under Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which means all international trade on it, including its parts and products, is illegal.
The proposal is to be discussed during the Conference of the Parties in Johannesburg in September.
In the proposal, it is stated that there was a documented increase in the trade of the species, with evidence of emerging sale in the Czech Republic and Germany as well as showcases in Japan, France and even Ukraine.
It added that there had been rapid emergence of a trade since 2013.
A search on the Internet shows the lizard being offered for sale on websites such as reptileforums.co.uk and faunaclassifieds.com for up to US$6,000 (S$8,289) a pair or Euro 8,000, as well as on Indonesia's online forum, www.kaskus.co.id.
It is also regularly featured on Instagram with the hashtag #earlessmonitor, #lanthanotus and #dragon.
Traffic Southeast Asia regional director Dr Chris Shepherd said there was a huge demand in the United States, European Union and increasingly in Japan and Hong Kong, adding that advertisements online were now constantly available compared to just a few years ago.
"The species is totally protected in Sabah, Sarawak, Brunei and Indonesia.
"There should not be any international trade but if you go online, you can find it for sale.
"Sadly, importing countries are not doing anything to help protect this species," he said while applauding the Malaysian government for putting up the proposal.
"We strongly encourage importing countries to investigate the origin of lizards held by dealers and collectors there.
"These are acquired illegally or the offspring of those acquired illegally," he told The Star.
US Fish and Wildlife Service's records showed there were imports of seven shipments of 28 live lizards into the country since 2013.
Intelligence also showed that the lizard was being targeted by a small group of collectors and traders who used trusted couriers to smuggle them out of Borneo. Some even visited Kalimantan in 2014 to take them from the wild.
"These people call themselves reptile lovers but in fact, they are nothing more than criminals," said Dr Shepherd, warning that the "number of criminals is increasing".