Kohima, Oct 8 : Jacob Sema is a school teacher in Nagaland but it has been over a month since he held his last class. He is often seen invading the jungles in search of tokay geckos (a species of lizard) in a mad craze to become a millionaire overnight.
Like many others in the north-eastern states of Assam, Nagaland, Manipur and Mizoram, Jacob is driven by rumours that a gecko at least 14 inches long and weighing a minimum of 200 grams can fetch up to Rs10 lakh in the South East Asian market. Though not proven scientifically, it is believed, especially in south-east Asian countries, that geckos can heal HIV/AIDS and cancer.
So taken are north easterners with this obsession that they’ve started rearing geckos. They’re even feeding the lizards — who normally feed on insects and worms — chicken to make them fat and saleable.
Roland Ao, who owns 100 geckos, says he hardly gets time these days to go to office. His geckos weigh between 100 and 110 grams, so he’s desperately trying to fatten them. “Some youth hunt the reptiles for me, and I buy each for Rs 2,000,” Roland says. “I’m feeding them grasshoppers and cockroaches, also supplied by the same hunters. Sometimes, I even feed them chicken.”
Kept in specially-made cages, the geckos descend at night to eat the insects. Both Jacob and Roland say the trade chain involves both national and international traders. Once caught, the reptiles are allegedly smuggled into Myanmar and then onwards to the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia. The Nagas say it is usually Manipuris who buy the reptiles. “I am often approached by some people from Manipur. They come to my house to enquire if any of my geckos have reached the required weight and length,” says Roland. “I am taking good care of them hoping that fortunes will smile on me some day.”
A male tokay gecko can grow to a length of about 11-20 inches while a female grows to 7-19 inches. They weigh anywhere between 150 and 400 grams.
Peter Mao, a gecko hunter, says that they catch the lizard by driving it out of its hole: “We usually burn green tree leaves to create smoke around a tree. The smoke forces the geckos to come out of their holes.
We then catch them by their necks.” Adds Sanjay Rai, another hunter and Peter's friend, “A gecko living in a tree has at least a couple of holes, each linked with the other. We pour petrol into one of the holes. The smell of the fuel drives the reptile out.” They say they get to know of a gecko's presence in a tree from its sound 'gec-ko'. “Last week, seven of us went to Assam and caught eight geckos, each weighing between 80 and 100 grams. One person bought them all for Rs16,000,” says Peter.
“Some people say that geckos are a cure for diabetes. I eat a lot of sugar and who knows, I may be a patient of diabetes. So, one day I ate a gecko after roasting it. It tastes like any other meat,” he adds.
Under the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, trading in or killing of geckos is an offence. Wildlife experts say geckos are needed to maintain the ecosystem. Hunting geckos for profits is a clandestine trade in Nagaland, and the administration has little knowledge about the trade or its traders unlike in Manipur and Mizoram, where the police and wildlife authorities recently launched a crackdown on people involved in this trade, and even made a few arrests.
Authorities in these two states are also trying to dismiss the rumour that geckos can heal HIV/AIDS and cancer. “Geckos can’t heal HIV/AIDS and nor can it be processed into an aphrodisiac. The Chinese have been consuming the reptile for a long time and it has been proven, both medically and scientifically, that geckos have no medical properties,” a wildlife expert from Mizoram says.