A multi-pronged defence of threatened species

How can conservation tools complement each other? Here we explore, through the eyes of a gecko and a chameleon, how different tools can work together to tackle two of the greatest threats to biodiversity: habitat change and overexploitation.

The William's dwarf gecko (Lygodactylus williamsi), found only in the United Republic of Tanzania, is truly a thing of beauty. Its colours really pack a punch – the males offset their bright orange bellies with a striking electric blue on the top, while the females complement it with a more subtle blend of green or bronze.

This beautiful colouration, however, has some downsides [1]. In particular, this gecko's popularity as a pet grew so rapidly that in the space of just five years, from 2004 to 2009, it's estimated that more than one in ten of these wild geckos had been collected for the international pet trade.

International trade was not the only pressure this small gecko faced – it only lives on one specific type of plant in a very small area of Tanzania, meaning habitat loss and fragmentation have had a particularly brutal impact. In 2012, the species was categorised as Critically Endangered[2] by The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species™, and it was found to live almost exclusively in two small protected areas in Tanzania: the Kimboza and Ruvu Forest Reserves in the foothills of the Uluguru Mountains, covering less than 50 square kilometres in area.

These multiple and interacting threats require a whole suite of solutions, and here we detail two of them: protected areas and international trade regulation through the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

Protected areas

Protected areas are a mainstay of conservation. When effectively managed, they can serve as refuges to a large variety of animals and plants - particularly for those that are highly threatened, or have very specific habitat needs and small ranges.

Tanzania, the home country of the William's dwarf gecko, has dedicated an area larger than Germany to conservation. This is particularly important given Tanzania's extraordinary levels of biodiversity. Excluding insects, it has over 14,500 native species (a huge number of which, like the William's dwarf gecko, can only be found in Tanzania) and it's home to more than a third of Africa's plant species.

Left - Protected area coverage in Tanzania and terrestrial percentage coverage compared to Aichi Biodiversity Target 11. Right - Direct trade in live wild-sourced CITES-listed animals exported by Tanzania, 2013-2017, as reported by Tanzania[1]. All international wildlife trade is now banned in Tanzania.

However, ensuring protected areas are well-funded and effectively managed is often a challenge, highlighting why employing multiple conservation tools is important. CITES can help tackle the threats to biodiversity through another route – by regulating legal, international trade.


CITES strives to ensure that international trade does not harm the survival of species in the wild. By providing various levels of trade regulation to species, CITES can help to make sure that wild species are not traded at unsustainable levels, and, with 183 Parties signed up (182 governments and the European Union), it's achieved near global coverage.

CITES considered evidence of the William's dwarf gecko's situation, and in January 2017 the Parties listed the species in Appendix I - prohibiting all international trade in wild individuals for commercial purposes.

However, listing under CITES does not always equate to a trade ban - another popular wild-caught pet from Tanzania, the Flap-necked chameleon, didn't need such drastic protection measures and was placed on Appendix II of CITES in 1977. Although it was the most highly traded chameleon in Tanzania from 2013-2017, it is much more adaptable than the William's dwarf gecko to areas modified by people, and its range overlaps with protected areas across most of sub-Saharan Africa. This flexibility makes it less vulnerable to certain threats than the more sensitive gecko.

Expanding the tool set

Whilst they are both essential conservation tools, the connections between protected areas and CITES trade regulations have yet to be fully explored. However, by learning from species such as this gecko and chameleon we can advance our understanding of how multiple threats can be tackled at the same time.

The pressures facing our living planet are increasing. Creating multiple solutions that can work both within and across national borders, and making sure that they work together, is more critical than ever.

Anna Feeney, Kelly Malsch, Claire McLardy and Oliver Tallowin, UNEP-WCMC.

This story is part of a series of quarterly blog posts published in complement to the Live Protected Planet report, which you are invited to explore at

[1] Maisch, H. 2013. Reasons to feel blue. Zooquaria, (83): 24–25.

[2] Flecks, M., et al. 2012. Lygodactylus williamsi. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2012: e.T14665363A14665385.

[3] CITES Trade Database, UNEP-WCMC, Cambridge, UK. Downloaded on 01 April 2019.