An endangered blue-tongued skink found in one small patch of Australia could soon have greater protection from wildlife traffickers who sell them overseas as exotic pets.
The Australian government is using a summit in Panama to seek the highest level of international protection for the pygmy blue tongue skink.
The ballsy reptile, which hangs out in the burrows of trapdoor and wolf spiders, has been reduced to as few as 5000 specimens living on about 30 small, fragmented parcels of farmland north of Adelaide.
The species, thought to be extinct until 1992, is a sad example of the profound risks wildlife trafficking poses for endangered animals and plants.
On the black market of living things, rarity almost always means big money and that motivates poachers to steal them from the wild, pushing already imperilled species further towards extinction.
Taronga Zoo says pairs of pygmy blue tongues can be worth as much as $30,000 on the international black market.
Nicola Beynon, from the Australian chapter of Humane Society International, is thrilled the reptile's plight is up for consideration at the COP19 summit in Panama City.
The summit is a gathering of nations that have signed a global treaty to protect endangered species from the threats of international trade.
She says Australian reptiles are incredibly popular on the international black market, in spite of Australia's move years ago to ban trade in live, native wildlife.
"Our species shouldn't be in the international pet trade, but a lot of our reptiles are," she says.
"Colleagues have done reports on the European pet trade, monitoring online trade, trade fairs and so on, and you see Australian species turning up a lot and they fetch really significant sums."
If the skink makes it onto the highest protection list, it is effectively an international ban on commercial trade in the species.
Australia's long standing protections will be mirrored overseas, with other nations require to seize any smuggled skinks and alert Australia when that happens.
Nick Boyle, from Taronga Conservation Society Australia, says the organisation's animal hospitals often witness the cruel realities of wildlife trafficking.
Animals discovered during failed smuggling attempts often wind up there but Mr Boyle knows they a're just a fraction of the true volume.
"They're a very small percentage of what's actually being smuggled out. And we know they're being smuggled out because there's people listing them (and) looking for them overseas. The demand is there."
A decision is yet to be made on the skink's inclusion on Appendix One of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.
COP19, also known as the World Wildlife Conference, goes until November 25.
Australian Associated Press
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