Food For Thought - April

Reptile Decline: At risk of Extinction

Reptiles are often overlooked but they play a crucial role in ecosystems around the world.

With more than 12,000 species globally and 401 indigenous terrestrial species in South Africa, reptiles contribute significantly to biodiversity and help our ecosystems survive and thrive.

Alarmingly, a recent global study revealed that more than 20% of the world’s reptile species are in decline and are at risk of extinction.

Even more alarming is that this statistic is now similar in mammals, birds, and amphibians too. Globally more than 44,000 species are at risk of extinction. This is 28% of all assessed species. According to the article, if each of the threatened reptile species became extinct, a combined 15.6 billion years’ worth of evolutionary history would be lost completely (Cox, Young and Bowles et al., 2022).

Most of the decline in reptile species is due to habitat loss, climate change and the exotic pet trade. In South Africa, the poaching of live animals is particularly prevalent with tortoise and chameleon species, crocodiles, girdled lizards, and small-bodied vipers (adders).


2404 reptile decline2

So why is it that reptiles are becoming such a hot topic within conservation when so many other species are at risk, too? Well, to put it simply: the focus has been on the other classifications of animals for a while already. We know cheetah, rhino and wild dog are at risk and there are already efforts in place to conserve them. However, there is space for a new focus area that desperately needs the attention: reptiles.

Conservation as we know it generally fails to include reptiles and there seems to be few conservation efforts anywhere that actively include reptiles in their list of goals or specific target areas. This could be because reptiles present us with a unique challenge in terms of conservation. Unlike other groups of animals, reptiles don’t follow distribution ranges that fall into already conserved or protected areas. Unlike rhinos or cheetahs, reptiles are found almost anywhere.

How do we conserve something that isn’t in a protected area? This is a massive challenge that the world of conservation needs to try to address because ultimately, if we want to save reptile species from extinction, conservation needs to become more broadly focused and extend far beyond the borders of protected areas as we know them. This is easier said than done when some of the geographical ranges of certain species can be totally wiped out by the implementation of a single agriculture-based farm, or a single human settlement.

Some examples of South African reptiles which fall into this conservation conundrum are the Sungazer/Giant girdled lizard (Smaug giganteus, syn. Cordylus giganteus) and the Geometric Tortoise (Psammobates geometricus).

The Sungazer (seen in the introduction to this artice) is a hot commodity in the exotic pet trade so live poaching is at an all-time high. But, this lizard does not occur in ANY formally protected area, so conservation efforts are almost impossible to implement. With 95% of the population occurring in the Free State and 5% in Mpumalanga, their distribution and survival relies heavily on virgin grassland habitat (they are habitat specialists and do not translocate easily). Unfortunately, the population is rapidly dwindling because of expansion of agriculture, mining activities, overgrazing and the exotic pet trade. More than 99% of these lizards occur on privately-owned farms and properties which means conservation efforts are incredibly limited.

The EWT is working on protecting their habitat through Biodiversity Stewardship and attempting to reduce threats such as the illegal pet trade.

The Geometric Tortoise similarly falls outside of formally protected areas and is critically endangered. Found only in the south-western Cape, the last remaining 350 hectares of habitat for this species has just been purchased by the Turtle Conservancy in an effort to protect the species for a bit longer.

Unfortunately for the Eastwood’s long-tailed seps (South Africa’s smallest grassland lizard), the grasslands it inhabited were converted into pine plantations and this species has recently become extinct. This is becoming the norm rather than the exception, and is of grave concern if we consider how much more focus there has been on conservation efforts in the recent years. Ultimately, unless people become more aware of these situations, and unless a broader approach is applied nation-wide and even world-wide, this is not going to change easily.

The bigger picture to keep in mind is that the efforts being made are positive but are limited and are reliant on multiple parties working together for the greater good of the species in question. Without support and awareness, it is becoming increasingly difficult for efforts like these to continue. We can only hope that by bringing awareness, conservation efforts will become more broad-based to include reptiles.

We can consider ourselves lucky that where we are, we are mindful of the footprint we bear on the environment. However, there is always more that can be done and in this case, speaking about it and encouraging others to do the same might be a good way to start.


Article citation: Cox, N., Young, B.E., Bowles, P. et al. A global reptile assessment highlights shared conservation needs of tetrapods. Nature 605, 285–290 (2022).

by Tess Woollgar. Images courtesy of Canva.


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