Save the sungazers!

The mighty Smaug.
The mighty Smaug.

While sungazers are often seen basking next to their burrows looking up at the sun, conservationists are looking further ahead for them – straight into the history books. Due to the fear that these ancient-looking lizards might soon disappear from Earth, a call is being made for them to receive legal recognition as South Africa’s national lizard.

The initiative is driven by the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT), because it believes this will afford these iconic creatures much-needed protection from the forces that threaten their survival. These are mostly the destruction of their habitat and their popularity in the pet and muti trades. The EWT has started a petition, and has made a call on members of the public to sign their support for the initiative.

The largest of the girdled lizards, Smaug giganteus (named after Smaug, the impressive dragon in JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings), is found only in South Africa’s gently sloping primary grasslands. It still remains in isolated patches in the north-eastern Free State and south-western Mpumalanga, and can also be seen in the Golden Gate Highlands National Park.

Agricultural practices are a major threat to the species’ survival, destroying large tracts of sungazer habitat and creating a highly fragmented patchwork of disjunct island populations. By 1992, an estimated 42% of the sungazer’s habitat was being used to grow crops and this is suspected to have increased significantly. While they are currently listed as vulnerable in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, Ian Little, EWT’s manager of the threatened grassland-species programme, points out that this assessment was based on distribution data from the late 1970s.

The recent call is part of a long series of ongoing activities under the sungazer conservation project.
Little says their main conservation efforts are geared towards trying to secure the key portions of the sungazer’s habitat through biodiversity stewardship agreements with the relevant landowners.

Formal recognition of sungazers’ national status depends on the Department of Arts and Culture. While there is no exact number of names required on the list, Little says they are aiming for 10 000 in order to show that they have the necessary support.

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