Dragons are among the most powerful creatures of legend and fantasy, yet even they can't seem to escape the threat of extinction. In the fictional realm of Westeros, the iconic beasts are nearly extinct; Smaug "the strong and wicked wyrmof The Hobbit, was the last great dragon of Middle-earth; and many more such cases of fictional endlings exist. Over in this world, meanwhile, South African conservationists are trying to save a real-life draconic lizard from the same fate.

The armour-plated reptile is the largest of a group called the girdled lizards, and like any good dragon, the species goes by many titles: the giant dragon lizard, giant zonure and sungazer, to name a few. Scientifically, it was originally grouped under the name Cordylus with other girdled lizards, but a reassessment in 2011 produced its current name, Smaug giganteus – after J. R. R. Tolkien's fictional fire-breathing villain. The architect of Middle-earth was born in the same area of South Africa where this lizard is found.

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Here be dragons: behold, Smaug giganteus. Image: Wits University

The sungazers are impressive but greatly imperilled. Their large size – up to 40cm (16in) long – and fascinating appearance make them popular in the pet trade. What's more, they have a history of being accidentally targeted by pest-control measures meant for other local animals like mongooses, and the small area of central South Africa they call home has been heavily modified by their human neighbours.

"The rich and arable Highveld grasslands that the sungazers inhabit is, unfortunately for the species, also the perfect soil for crop production," notes Shivan Parusnath of the University of the Witwatersrand in a press release. "This leaves the species prone to danger when humans plough the land for crops."

Parusnath recently led a re-evaluation of the species to assess just how dire its current situation is. By visiting more than 200 sites across the sungazers' limited home range (only several hundred square kilometres), and comparing this to past data, he and his colleagues found that about one third of the population has vanished within the last four decades. In addition, nearly half of the lizards' natural environment has been modified for agriculture or industrialisation.


Like the fictional Smaug, sungazers spend much of their time underground, as far as half a metre (1.5 feet) below the surface in South Africa's Free State and Mpumalanga provinces. Also like the Tolkienian dragon, they're very picky about where they make their lair, requiring a very particular combination of climate conditions, soil type and prey species. They've never been known to recolonise land once it has been altered by human activity.

The new report also investigates the impact of the pet trade. There are strict laws that apply to the export of these lizards, and stiff penalties for transgressors. Over the past three decades, nearly 1,200 sungazers were exported via permit, but exactly how many have been moved across borders illegally is unknown. What's more, these reptiles have traditionally been targeted for alternative medicines, another threat that is not currently well-examined.

In the case of many threatened and endangered species, captive-breeding programmes can be a powerful tool for conservation – but with Smaug, it's complicated.

"Sungazers likely do not even enter the process of producing sperm and eggs without the correct cooling and warming periods that they experience seasonally in the wild," Parusnath explains. "On top of that, sungazers seem to have a very complex social structure, and so keeping them in random combinations in a one-metre-long glass tank is not going to be very productive in terms of getting them to reproduce."

Fortunately, there are other conservation measures that can be taken, and for now at least, these lizards are doing better than the dragons of Westeros or Middle-earth. Parusnath's assessment estimates there to be just under 700,000 mature individuals alive, about half of their pre-agricultural population, and plans are in the works to better protect their remaining habitat.

One of the organisations involved in this and other research is the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT). No stranger to preserving South Africa's rare reptiles, EWT has also been pushing to have the venerable Smaug recognised as the country's "national lizard" in order to promote public awareness.

And Parusnath is exploring sungazer genes to get a handle on the lizards' genetic diversity, an important signal of population health. This will also allow researchers to investigate cases of "wildlife laundering" to feed the sungazer pet trade.

"This will make a huge difference to the illegal trade in the species, since there are strong suspicions that wild-caught sungazers have been laundered and sold as captive-bred with permits for decades," he says.



Top header image: Joachim S. Müller/Flickr

The new paper by Parusnath and colleagues is published in the Journal for Nature Conservation, and titled “The Desolation of Smaug.”