Home > Case Studies > Project Heloderma: Saving the Guatemalan Beaded Lizard

Project Heloderma: Saving the Guatemalan Beaded Lizard

By: Dr Gareth Evans - Updated: 20 Aug 2012 | comments*Discuss
Beaded Lizard Guatemala Gila Monster

The story of Project Heloderma sounds like the plot of a Hollywood blockbuster; a young, idealistic scientist who teams up with a grizzled and cynical animal smuggler to bring a virtually unknown creature back from the edge of extinction. The difference is, this time it’s all true – and, incredibly, was pulled off with an initial budget of only $40-a-month!

Venomous Bite

Both the Beaded Lizard (Heloderma horridum) and its close relative the Gila Monster (Heloderma suspectum) are venomous – and for many years they were believed to be unique amongst the world’s lizards for this reason, though it now seems that venom may be more prevalent than was first though.

While human fatalities from the bite of these creatures are very unusual, among the villagers of Guatemala, they inspired a colourful range of myths, which though biologically fanciful, ensured that the Beaded Lizard was far from popular – and often simply killed on sight. This reptile’s breath, according to folk-lore, causes dizziness and having confused its hapless victim, it then uses its tail to sting, with a venom so potent that it can kill simply by touching a person’s shadow.

With PR like that, it’s hardly surprising that persecution by local people ranked alongside habitat loss and illegal collection for the exotic pet market as major drivers on its route towards extinction.

Project Origins

The first scientifically recorded sighting of what was named and formally described four years later as the Guatemalan Beaded Lizard (H. horridum charlesbogerti) took place in 1984, but when no more living examples were found by the mid-1990s, it began to look as if the reptile had almost certainly died out. In 2002, the Guatemalan organisation, Zootropic, began a wide-ranging conservation initiative to safeguard the future of the country’s lizard-life, which ultimately led the then 20 year old undergraduate student, Daniel Ariano, to take on the challenge of finding out if it really had.

The early days of the project truly do unfold like a story from a film; funded on a shoestring and with no spare cash to provide a vehicle, Ariano was forced to do a 14-hour round trip by bus from Guatemala City to the lizard’s habitat in the Montagua Valley. His attempts to discover all that he could about this elusive and little-known species from the villagers ultimately led him to see an article in a newspaper about one man – described as a local poacher – who caught native animals for the wildlife trade. What caught Ariano’s eye was not the story, but the accompanying photograph; Gilberto Salazar was holding the unmistakable shape of a Beaded Lizard!

Poacher Turns Gamekeeper

With the proof in his hands that – at least until very recently – these rare reptiles were still alive and one person knew how and where to find them, Ariano set out to track down Salazar. In all the best traditions of the cinema, their first meeting was a predictably tense one, with Salazar holding Ariano at gunpoint, while the young scientist tried to explain what he was hoping to do. Salazar had obviously seen all the right films himself; a brief show of reluctance, followed by an agreement to show the outsider where the lizards could be found and then, in the final reel, the poacher turns gamekeeper, becoming one of the project’s staunchest supporters!

The Future

Although H. h. charlesbogerti has not, to date, been formally declared a subspecies, the Guatemalan form of the Beaded Lizard is undoubtedly endangered – and possibly critically so. An estimated total population of no more than 200 animals live in an isolated area of dry-forest described as “the size of a cattle ranch in Texas.”

Their future is, clearly, uncertain, but the successes of Project Heloderma in improving the understanding of this creature in the wild, helping to conserve its natural habitat, educating and increasing local awareness and beginning a re-introduction programme have bought them some time.

Things are looking more positive too; there is some cause for cautious optimism. The project is no longer run on a shoestring; the International Reptile Conservation Foundation and Zoo Atlanta have joined Zootropic as principal partners in the initiative and the Beaded Lizard has become a flagship species for wildlife and habitat conservation in the region. Not a bad result for a reptile that hardly anyone had ever heard of and seemed to be destined for extinction within little more than a decade of its discovery.

Who says life can’t be like the movies?

You might also like...
Share Your Story, Join the Discussion or Seek Advice..
Why not be the first to leave a comment for discussion, ask for advice or share your story...

If you'd like to ask a question one of our experts (workload permitting) or a helpful reader hopefully can help you... We also love comments and interesting stories

(never shown)
(never shown)
(never shown)
(never shown)
Enter word:
Latest Comments
  • SON
    Re: Reptile Keeping and the Law FAQs
    Just found out my tenant has at least 10 snakes in my upper floor apartment - I am checking on the lease, but is it legal to…
    22 February 2021
  • Reptile mo.
    Re: What to do if Your Reptile Escapes
    My bearded has escaped and it's been 24 hrs I've looked everywhere. He's no where to be found what shouldni do
    23 November 2020
  • arc
    Re: What to do if Your Reptile Escapes
    our baby green anole escaped in our apartment and we can't find him and he blends into the carpet
    17 November 2020
    Re: Keeping Tortoises as Pets
    My daughter in law has recently homed a tortoise from a local rescue centre, the tortoise is doing very well and seems to be happy and…
    12 November 2020
  • Benny
    Re: Keeping Caimans
    Hi, i'm studying a L3 Animal Management Course and am working on my Exotic animals assignment. I'm looking at caimans and why people have them as…
    6 November 2020
  • Andy
    Re: Keeping Caimans
    I am finding it hard to find insurance companies that will insure me for my licence that I need to own one I stay in the UK can anyone out there…
    12 September 2020
  • Shane
    Re: Keeping Bearded Dragons as Pets
    I have a new dragon 4 years old coming today I already have a 4 year old dragon both boys and I let the meet the first time…
    28 August 2020
  • Tan ver
    Re: 10 Common Myths about Turtles and Tortoises
    I grew up my turtle from. Baby since last 2 yrs nd. Day ago I couldn't find him. EverDay I used to take him…
    25 August 2020
  • Deb
    Re: Should I Leave the Heat Bulb on Overnight?
    We have a baby comillion in a screen enclosure. What should the temperature be.
    22 August 2020
  • Reidy
    Re: What to do if Your Reptile Escapes
    My juvenile black and white tegu escaped his enclosure and got outside I've checked absolutely everywhere even pulled up…
    19 August 2020