The Solomon Islands prehensile-tailed skink Corucia zebrata is a herbivorous, arboreal species, well known amongst the Indigenous people. This reptile is opportunistically hunted by forest-dependent communities as a source of protein. It is also popular amongst wildlife collectors,  and is heavily traded in the live pet trade. The CITES database shows this species was the reptile most exported from the Solomon Islands between 2000 and 2020. The prehensile-tailed skink is the largest of the arboreal skinks, and is a nationally recognized endemic animal, featured on the Solomon Islands fifty dollar note, along with the endemic Solomon tree dragon Hypsilurus macrolepsis.

Prehensile-tailed skink, New Georgia. Photo: Douglas Pikacha, Jr.

As a result of its popularity in the live wildlife trade, large numbers of this charismatic reptile have been captured from the wild and exported overseas to grace exotic pet markets. To add to this threat, the Solomon Islands suffer from one of the highest rates of deforestation; only 0.3% of terrestrial ecosystems are formally protected, and large swaths of tropical forests and critical habitats for the species have been lost to industrial logging.

Although the prehensile-tailed skink is popular in the live pet trade, there is little published information available about its ecology and behaviour in the wild. This doesn’t mean, however, that knowledge of the species is lacking: local communities and Indigenous people of the Solomon Islands are intimately aware of their natural environment and the species it harbours, and we wanted to understand their perceptions of the conservation status of this lizard. To this end, between January and May 2020, we conducted a social survey of 146 respondents on 12 islands across the archipelago. We found that, according to Indigenous people, the prehensile-tailed skink is more commonly found in lowland and hill forests, which coincides with published accounts and field guides. Respondents generally reported the skink as being abundant, but communities on some islands, such as Makira, said that the species is declining. Respondents also highlighted the threats to this endemic reptile, stemming from habitat loss, hunting and predation.

Aerial view of Bonege II beach, Guadalcanal, Solomon Islands. Photo: Gilly Tanabose.

The Solomon Islands is the only of the Pacific Islands Countries and Territories that trades in live wildlife. This commercial trade, combined with the lack of any certified captive breeding facility with standard veterinary care, the harvesting of wild-caught individuals both for domestic use and the commercial live pet trade, and the high demand for this species on the exotic pet markets, means better management of this species is needed. Based on our research findings, we make recommendations to manage this species better and ensure that populations persist in the wild. One of these suggestions is to establish ethical, well managed captive breeding facilities that could provide an alternative to the harvesting of wild skinks and curb pressure on the islands’ populations.

A wild prehensile-tailed skink Corucia zebrata in a hillforest on Kolombangara Island, Solomon Islands. Photos: Dylan Bush.

Although our interviews with Indigenous people of the Solomon Islands suggest that the species currently appears to be relatively common, more and more of its habitat has been cleared in recent years. Extirpation from some areas has reportedly already begun. The effects of exploitation of insular endemic species such as the prehensile-tailed skink demonstrates the vulnerability of such narrowly distributed species to anthropogenic impacts and the live pet trade, and the need to protect them from further exploitation.

The article “An Indigenous perspective on the conservation of an insular endemic: the prehensile-tailed skink Corucia zebrata on the Solomon Islands” is available open access in Oryx—The International Journal of Conservation.

Patrick G. Pikacha is a vertebrate ecologist with an interest in understanding human–landscape–wildlife linkages. He is currently employed by Pacific Adventist University, Papua New Guinea, and is a research collaborator with Ecological Solutions–Solomon Islands, a local environmental organization based in Gizo, Western Province of the Solomon Islands. His research covers the Melanesian countries, focused on the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea. He has a passion for promoting the conservation and better management of island faunas and landscapes, and exploring the contributions of indigenous knowledge to environmental stewardship.