Small, slimy, and valuable: the leopard gecko and the pangolin are endangered and protected animals in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. But for Gulwali Khan, who owns a chapli kebab shop on Peshawar’s Ring Road, catching those means supplementing his income: despite a province-wide ban, a multi-coloured, long-tailed leopard gecko that weighs only 150 grams fetches at least Rs500,000.
“Leopards geckos are popular but difficult to catch, even though they are not venomous,” explains Gulwali, who moonlights as a go-between for gecko sales. “They are so delicate that even slightly caressing them makes them lose weight.”
Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is blessed with a substantial leopard gecko population. Geckos typically exist in arid and semi-arid regions of the province: their niches have been discovered in Dara Adam Khel, Dera Ismail Khan, Bannu, in Zagai — a village near the Jamrud subdivision of Khyber Agency, and also in the desert areas of Mardan, Swabi and Nowshera districts.
According to an official of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Wildlife Department, geckos are found near seasonal nullahs in these regions. “There are many gecko species, often distinguished by variations in colour. Hunters try to cover each area to catch a variety.”
But those involved in poaching geckos don’t care. In fact, they aren’t even sure if geckos are a pet or lab animal. Some seem to believe that geckos are utilised in curing cancer, with buyers extracting a substance from its body for treating cancer patients. “I really don’t know what purpose geckos serve, but an adult size, multi-coloured, long-tailed gecko above 150 grams can fetch one a small car,” says Gulwali.
Deals between gecko sellers and buyers are mostly struck on the internet or on cell phones; according to local sellers and middle-men, “international buyers” arrive in Peshawar from Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad, where they are shown videos and photos of the precious reptiles. A price is only determined once the client sees the reptile; weight, colour, length, and gentle temperament all play a very important role in determining the cost.
“About two months ago, one of my friends caught a beautiful gecko leopard from a graveyard in Zagai village. This was after spending four months hectically planning and chasing the gecko,” narrates Gulwali. “It had gorgeous patterns on its body, weighed 190 grams — which is rare for geckos A buyer from Karachi bought it for Rs700,000. Whenever I successfully broker a deal, I charge Rs6,000 each from both parties.”
The Wildlife official explained that once poached and sold, geckos are usually transported to Western countries via Dubai. “Breeders in the United States, for example, are trying to create artificial colours and sizes to meet the local demand there. The leopard geckos are popular in America these days and are kept as pet animals there,” he claims. “Pakistan and Afghanistan are the two main suppliers of leopard geckos, because reptiles with these kinds of markings and colours are not found in American deserts.”
Not all gecko leopards found in and around Khyber Pakhtunkhwa fulfil the criteria of buyers. “Sometimes, local dealers play a trick on international buyers by feeding barley and excessive water to the gecko to increase their weight. Most often, this is fatal for the reptile,” explains Gulwali.
A more recent and more lucrative arrival to the market is the pangolin: “A pangolin can earn you up to Rs400,000,” claims Jan Rehman, a resident of the Budbher Village near Peshawar. “The Pangolin is a shy animal, and catching it is not everybody’s cup of tea. My acquaintance in Dara Adam Khel, Zardad Afridi, had caught one about three months ago. But it died en route Peshawar due to mishandling. An international buyer in Lahore was ready to buy it for Rs300,000,” narrates Rehman.
The Pangolin is called Rumzan Megai in local dialects. They have poor eyesight, and so rely on their keen sense of smell to navigate and find food. Pangolins do not have teeth nor can they chew, but feed by opening anthills or termite mounds with their claws, and catching insects with their sticky tongues, which can be up to 70cm long.
Due to the lack of scales on their snout, eyes, ears and underbelly, pangolins curl into a ball for protection when threatened. They can also use their anus glands to produce a foul smelling acid in order to deter predators. “A netter in Dara Adam Khel was trying to catch a pangolin one day, but the pangolin sprayed a pungent smelling fluid which left the poacher unconscious for two hours,” claims Mahmood, a dealer of reptiles in Peshawar.
Authorities try and keep a vigil on the illegal netting, sale and smuggling of replies, but as the Wildlife official explained, the Department runs short of resources in trying to enforce the ban. Attempts are routinely made to bribe officials and to co-opt them too. Most arrests made in connection with reptile poaching have been fortuitous till now.
“A month ago, a party approached me and said their relative was bringing a leopard gecko, which he had netted in Kuala Lumpur, and intended to export it to the US via Dubai,” narrates the official. “The party in fact wanted our department’s support, but we informed the relevant authorities at Peshawar airport and the gecko carrier was arrested on the spot. Unfortunately, the gecko was found dead because of its aerial journey. The man was released after he paid his Rs 2,000 fine.”
More successful was a local arrest made some eight months ago in Mardan. “A man had caught a pangolin but he was arrested along with the precious mammal. He willingly handed it over to our department, but he was fined Rs30,000. The pangolin was released in the area from where it was netted,” the official said.