26 May 2005

South Africa joins global study on reptile numbers

The prospect of spending the next fours years hunting for snakes, frogs, lizards, geckos, blind worms, terrapins and crocodiles might fill many people with horror - but University of Cape Town herpetologist Marius Burger can't wait to get started.

"I consider myself very lucky," he says. "Really, there is beauty in things that most of us are fearful of ... and even people who are fearful still have some space in their hearts for (reptiles like) dwarf chameleons and tortoises."

Burger, whose previous research has taken him all over Africa, will be doing the fieldwork for a new R2 million study, the Southern African Reptile Conservation Assessment, that was formally launched at Kirstenbosch last week.

The project is aimed at identifying reptile species threatened by extinction in th sub-continent, and the work involves gathering thousands of records of reptile sightings from all over South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland.

It has been funded by the South African National Biodiversity Institute and will be co-ordinated by UCT's Avian Demography Unit, which has previously successfully placed the birds and frogs of the sub-continent into atlases.

Kristal Maze, the institute's director of Biodiversity, Policy and Planning, said very little was known about the conservation status of reptiles, despite South Africa having an extremely rich reptile fauna.

"Information is essential for identifying priorities for conservation actions, which are likely to include regulation of collection for the pet trade and minimising habitat loss." she said.

Graham Alexander, a prominent reptile researcher at Wits University and editor of the African Journal of Herpetology, said the last time any attempt had been made to record the distribution of South Africa's reptiles in a co-ordinated way was 16 years ago.

"Many new species have since been discovered and there is an extreme shortage of information on these and several other species."

The project will be driven by experts from South African universities, museums, conservation agencies and the Herpetological Association of Africa (HAA), and the public is encouraged to send in digital pictures of any live or dead reptiles they come across - if they can photograph them safely! - with an accurate site identity.

Pictures of good enough quality will become part of a "virtual museum collection" of photographic specimens, available for inspection on the project's website.

Burger pointed out that southern Africa had some 526 reptile species, or about 600 including sub-species. More than 75% were endemic, meaning they occur naturally only here.

Species include 14 land tortoises - one third of the world's 42 species - some 156 snakes ("and counting"), and at least 114 different kinds of geckos.

Explaining that new reptile species were being discovered constantly, Burger said there were 323 lizard species in the region, the third highest richness in the world after Australia and Mexico.

Holly Dublin, chairwoman of the World Conservation Union's Species Survival Commission, said the project was part of a global investigation into the conservation status of reptiles.

"It is important locally, but more so in that these things are feeding upwards into a much more important (international) decision- and policy-making environment," she said.

Source: www.allafrica.com


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