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German Smugglers, Tortillas Ladies, and the Rarest Reptile on Earth

Luke Armstrong | Mar 17, 2022

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beaded lizard

We enter the compound and are greeted by two women making tortillas in the entrance.

"Hola!" they say, and I hope one is going to offer us a tortilla, but they do not and this makes me sad.

The tortilla ladies are also the security guards. The best way to keep a facility like this protected in these unstable parts is to install a local family to live there in exchange for their vigilance—In large Latino families, someone is always home (so don't even think about it Maria and Juan!).

“Nice pool,” I tell biologist Matt Norgren as he leads me along the edge of an Olympic sized pool housed within the compound. The pool is a way to make supplemental income for the reptile project. But we aren't here to swim. Based on what happens next, it appears we are here so Matt can frighten me with the one thing that terrifies Indiana Jones!

We enter an upstairs room that houses newly arrived snakes. Each crate-sized terrarium contains an expert witness being stored as evidence for upcoming court cases. Their previous owners face charges related to owning, transporting, or selling them without the proper permits.

Matt goes straight for the rattlesnakes, opens one of the tanks, picks up a demurring six-foot rattler up (this man is insane!) and sets him on the floor of the room.

I have come to see the rare pair of beaded lizards, but clearly I first have to get past this rattlesnake.

Instead of going straight for my jugular vein as I imagine I would in his serpentine situation, the snake curls up calmly on the floor and seems to fall asleep. He's happy it seems, to be free of the small box he lives in.

Animals Will Never Understand Humans

Ask the animals and they will tell you that human beings make significantly less sense than the platypus. Collectively, we’re as fathomable as fasting at a wedding feast.

Collectively, our species is pushing many species to extinction. Yet for every animal being pushed out of the doors of existence by collective human actions, there are a few oddball human beings passionately dedicated to ensuring their perseverance.

Matt Norgren is one such oddball. His specialty is herpetology (that's the study of reptiles, not STDs!). He’s a volunteer Here at Antigua Exotic in San Felipe, Guatemala—a reptile sanctuary housing two of the rarest reptiles on earth.

Matt speaks about the beaded lizards like they're sacred.  "The Guatemalan subspecies of the beaded lizard is almost gone," he says. "If they don't get some serious help, goodbye lizard."

Reptiles on the Backstreet

Despite its name, Antigua Exotic is not located in the famed colonial city Antigua, Guatemala. Just below a hill that was first pointed out to me as “the slum of San Felipe,” tucked several dusty alleyways behind San Felipe’s central plaza, the very plaza where two Mariachi bands—Los Luceros and Los Principes—make their living simply by being mariachis—is The Antigua Exotic Reptile Rescue Center. It's not online, so if you ever want to go just go to the central part of San Felipe, Guatemala and ask the mariachis where the snakes are.

It was founded by Danny Mazariego, a Guatemalan keen on protecting the threatened reptiles his own government does little to safeguard. Funding for the operating costs comes from a Danny's father, a dentist who believes in his son's mission to protect his country’s threatened reptiles.

Prior to the refugee’s existence, there was nowhere local for confiscated reptiles to be taken. CONAP, the enforcement body of safeguarding confiscated animals, now brings the animals to Antigua exotic and has begun sporadically donating food to the center.

Safety in an Unprotected Land

After looking at the recent arrivals in the evidence room, Matt puts the rattlesnake back in his crate. We walk back through the courtyard, past the caimans and tortilla ladies to the permanent breeding/housing room—a room lined with terrariums decked out to make the reptiles feel like at this isn't a cage but a home—sticks to climb, rocks to hide under—everything snakes and lizards love!

As we make our way, Matt describes each snake, its situation, its health, where it came from, and why it should not be here.

"Half of these shouldn’t even be in Guatemala,” he says, “And the ones being flagged by customs are probably a drop in the bucket of how many animals are coming and going in the illegal reptile trade."

The two beaded lizards—the Crown Jewels of the sanctuary—came out of suitcases. Since there’s scant many of them, people will pay up to $10,000 for a Guatemalan beaded lizard.

The two who live here were removed from the same German suitcase. But instead of being the showpiece of some guten tag’in ruck’s illegal reptile garden, the beaded lizards landed in the best terrarium in the refuge.

Their terrarium occupies its own corner of a building filled with inferior terrariums occupied by snakes.

"These lizard are super rare,” the placement of the terrarium says without saying.

Matt leaves to get a key so that we can hold the lizards.

"These are one of two venomous species of lizards on earth," he says opening the case.

He should have told me how venomous the lizards were before fetching the key. I have to laundry to pick up later and can't afford a lethal lizard bite.

Rare, Venomous, and Endangered Lizards

While snakes all seemed to think that evolution owed them venom for the legs that had been taken, globally only two known species of lizards—The Gila Monster and its congener pal The Beaded Lizard—developed venom capable of harming humans. Searching the Internet for the “Two venomous species of lizards” will reveal that the Beaded Lizard is often called the “Mexican Beaded Lizard” a misnomer that forgets the highly endangered Guatemalan subspecies.

Venomous snakes may have venomous lizards to thank for their venom as many biologists buy into a theory that snakes and venomous lizards evolved from a common venomous lizard ancestor.

The Beaded Lizard Could be a Great Gift to Humanity

Though venomous, the beaded lizard’s docile nature makes them not a threat to humans. They could prove to possess a great gift for humanity should they survive long enough for the toxins in their venom to be studied. It was a compound isolated in Gila monster venom that led to the drug Exenatide, which the FDA has approved to treat type 2 diabetes.

From the pain killing medication made from black mamba venom, to ACE inhibitor medicine from pit viper venom, the science that studies venom has shown that a great many medical breakthroughs have come from the relatively miniscule amount of reptilian toxins studied. With 170,000 venomous species cumulatively containing over 40 million biologically active molecules, only 0.00005% have been categorized, much less studied with enough depth to reveal their therapeutic and healing potential.

Play Date With the most Endangered Reptiles in the World

Matt carries each of the lizards into the outside courtyard. One thing is clear: I have nothing to fear. Beaded lizards are like puppies. They sit on your lap and chill with you. Their faces are large, and filled with a cold, but piercing, reptilian intelligence. Though their venom could lead to respiratory failure in humans, as long as you aren’t a dick to them, you’re fine. Of the eight documented bites of the last 100 years, all were due to indiscreet pokings and proddings—dick moves as far as the beaded lizard is concerned.

On the pavement in the courtyard, the slightly larger lizard walks back and forth between us. Because they are this docile, they are easy pickings for poachers, hunters, historical persecution, habitat destruction, and pleasure killings that occur because some people think it’s fun to shoot living things with a gun—these are the combined reasons for the lizard’s rarity.

When their final price fetches as much as an impoverished farmer would make if he worked every day until his newborn’s five-year-old birthday, protecting them from destitute people who see them as liberating financial opportunities is not easy.

“It’s always Germans,” says Matt, speaking of his experiences with the most common nationality of foreigners caught with contraband reptiles in their suitcases.

But without some sort of major breeding program, the lizards before me might be the last living generation of their kind.

Trying to Breed the Beaded Lizard in Captivity

Two zoos in the United States have successfully bred Guatemalan beaded lizards. With an estimated less than 200 beaded lizards left in the wild, the only hope for the species’ survival is continued funding and expanding of existing breeding programs.

As the collective actions of humans have brought the beaded lizards into such a perilous state, their survival depends on the directed passion of the few oddball humans like Matt and Danny who are fervent about spreading awareness of their predicament and working to secure funding for programs that protect their progenies.

As the two beaded lizards waltzed around the courtyard, they soaked up the sun, content it seemed and unaware just how precariously the existence of their species hung in the balance.

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