What a Lizard Can Teach Us

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The Endangered Keeled Whorltailed Iguana ( Stenocercus varius); threatened by extinction.

Carlos Zorrilla

In the past I’ve reported on the wild diversity of moths, orchids and ferns in Northwest Ecuador’s Intag cloud forest, where I live and work. Bird and mammal diversity, while not as rich as that of Ecuador’s lowland tropical forests, is still impressive. Around my home and adjacent forest, I and others have identified 225 species of birds. And although mammals have not been extensively studied, there are dozens of species, including Andean Bears- a threatened species- as well as mountain lions, ocelots, coatimundis, and armadillos, to mention just a few.

A Fortuitous Trip to the Composting Latrine

And so, one morning as I was headed to attend to some very personal business, I noticed a sudden movement on the bamboo wall of my composting latrine (If you are wondering: I think it wiser to enrich the earth with human waste rather than pollute waterways). Upon closer inspection, I saw it was a beautiful lizard, one I’d not seen before. Ever the curious person I am, I immediately ran back to my house and grabbed my camera. Fortunately, the lizard was still there waiting for me to take its photograph; which I did. Several of them.

Minutes later, I downloaded the images hoping to identify the reptile. Luckily I knew a place to look which would narrow the search. One such place is the Tropical Herping site, which has fine photographs of many of the lizards from this part of Ecuador. Soon, I had a likely candidate for what I initially named the Compost-Toilet Lizard. But I wanted to make sure. So, I wrote the administrator of the site. He confirmed my suspicion, that the lizard was the Keeled Whorltailed Iguana (Stenocercus varius); a species listed as endangered. The species is also known as Mist Whorl Tail Iguana. A name, I must admit, much nicer than the initial name I baptized with! It turns out that the iguana is not only facing extinction, but it is endemic to Ecuador. And, it has only been recorded in three of Ecuador’s 22 provinces, and it has been seen very few times. The IUCN Red list, for example, has no record of it for the Imbabura Province, where I live.

Reptile Diversity

You can expect rich diversity of species in a mega-diverse country like Ecuador. And such is the case for reptiles. The small Andean nation (283,581 square kilometers) occupies only 0.055% of the world’s land area, yet has an impressive 473 species of reptiles, or a bit more than 5% of the world’s total. As in most other mega diverse countries, many species face extinction. In Ecuador’s case, a depressing 273 of the country’s 473 species are in danger of becoming extinct, thanks to man’s actions, or lack of thereof. Of these, 131 are endemics; meaning they live nowhere else.

What a Lizard Can Reveal

The fact that it’s taken me four decades to see the Keel Whorltail Iguana, in spite of my curiosity in all things natural and being an avid photographer, tells me a lot about the habitat where I live; and what is being lost. Beyond the obvious- that it may take decades for a cloud forest to reveal its true biological diversity, the finding should add urgency to the calls being made all over the world to stop the biodiversity crisis ravaging our planet.

The call is even more urgent in places like Intag, where the government’s near-nearsightedness is promoting large-scale mining at all costs. Intag, and a good part of the country, is currently riddled with thousands of mining concessions overlapping some of its most biodiverse and threatened forests, harboring several hundred species threatened by extinction. In fact, the land where I discovered the iguana is within a mining concession belonging to the world’s biggest mining corporation, BHP Billington. Just in case you were wondering how I this could come about, the government issues mining concessions without asking anyone’s permission. This includes not only not consulting with private land owners, but also with communities and local governments. Often, a community finds out the subsoil under their territory has been given away only when a mining company comes to tell them about it. Local government development plans are a little more than a joke when this happens. What’s more, the government, in its infinite wisdom, has decided not to exclude mining in special protected areas, called Bosques Protectores. Mine is such a protected area; now unprotected. There are currently forty-one of these protective forests affected by mining concessions; and tens of thousands of hectares of indigenous land. As if all this wasn’t horrible enough, given that the minerals tend to be in mountainous areas, the concessions also cover thousands of upland watersheds; small and large.

The true social and environmental “costs” of large-scale mining, in general, are horrific to land and local populations; with forced relocation and heavy metal contamination of land and water a common “side-effect”; as well as wholesale deforestation where the land is forested. The impacts are unimaginable in biologically and culturally diverse places such as Intag, and will undoubtedly have negative consequences for generations to come.

You could excuse a country lacking water resources and diversity of cultures and species for favoring mining. In Ecuador’s case, it is unconscionable. Even more so once you know that, in the overwhelming amount of cases involving developing countries, linking a country’s economy to mineral exports usually leads to increases in poverty, social strife, corruption, and authoritarian governments. The term Natural Resource Curse had to be coined to explain this startling paradox.

The Keel Whorltail Iguana is just one species threatened by extinction; Ecuador has over one thousand in the same fraught boat. It’s just a lizard you might say. Yet, its importance should not be lost because our bias for more “cute and cuddly species”. For it can, as in the case of those other species, reveal to us what is so tragically wrong with our way of looking at the world, and our place in it.

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