The girdled lizard commonly known as the Sungazer and indigenous to South Africa is currently rated in the Vulnerable Category of the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Shivan Parusnath, a Masters student at Wits is heading up a research project that looks into the conservation of this unique species as well as to provide updated data on the status of this lizard.
Smaug giganteus, the Sungazer, is a charismatic lizard species found only in the Highveld grasslands of South Africa. The species was reclassified into the genus Smaug in 2010, and this name was chosen because of the Sungazer’s resemblance to the legendary dragon of the same name from J. R. R. Tolkien’s novel The Hobbit. Tolkien was born and spent the first few years of his life in the Free State and it is possible that the character of Smaug was inspired by the Sungazer, which like the dragon, is heavily armoured and lives in underground burrows.
Unfortunately, this dragon-like species is threatened by extensive habitat modification brought about by agricultural and urban development. Sungazers live in burrows that generally extend no deeper than 50cm below the surface and entire colonies are prone to extirpation when land is ploughed or excavated. Sungazers are highly sought after in the international pet trade where they can command up to R60 000 each and the traditional medicine (muti) trade where their bodies are powdered to make love potions. Both of these trades are largely unregulated and in most cases Sungazers are procured for these purposes through poaching. The full effects of these activities on Sungazer populations are yet unquantified.
The project aims to quantify the number of Sungazers left in the wild, the effects of different habitat management strategies on Sungazer population densities and to identify areas where the species would most benefit from protection. The Sungazer is listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List. However, this assessment is severely outdated and a new assessment based on the current species distribution is imperative and urgently required. Once the conservation status of the wild population is known, effective strategies can be implemented to preserve the species and its habitat. The Sungazer is currently only found within two formal reserves throughout the distribution and several more are necessary for the species to continue to persevere in the changing landscape of the 21st Century.
The fieldwork for this research entails a journey across the distribution of the species – the northern half of the Free State and a small portion of the contiguous area of Mpumalanga. Sungazer burrows will be counted at sample sites across the distribution, and then ecological niche modelling will be employed to extrapolate these data to the entire distribution. Most of this area consists of privately owned farmland, and educating and building relationships with farmers is key to the conservation plight of the Sungazer. Thankfully, most farmers are aware of the concerns that the Sungazer faces in the wild, and are eager to participate in the conservation of the species.
Wits University, through the School of Animal, Plant and Environmental Studies, is the home base of the project and provides supervision of the research.
This project was initiated by the Endangered Wildlife Trust and is the first stage of research in a comprehensive programme focused on the ecology and biology of the Sungazer and the threatened grassland biome that it inhabits. The project is being funded by the National Research Foundation, the Tshwane University of Technology, SANBI’s Threatened Species Programme and Rufford’s Small Grants for Nature Conservation, and a research vehicle has been provided by the National Zoological Gardens.