Monitor Lizards Are Caught Up in Bizarre Trafficking Scheme

People shop online for a rare root that’s considered holy. What ships instead will make you cringe.

June 29, 2017

Yellow monitor lizard

Neil D'Cruze

What would you say if I told you I had a rare, holy root called Hatha Jodi that could protect you during journeys or on the battlefield? A root that, when washed in water from the Ganges River, can ward off evil spirits, help you acquire wealth, and make you more attractive? A root that looks like two hands clasped in prayer and is found in only a few secret, sacred sites across Nepal and India? And what would you say if I could sell it―and all of its magic­―to you online for as little as $55?

Well, you should call me liar—or worse, an illegal wildlife trafficker.

For starters, whether the Hatha Jodi root has ever existed is unknown and, in this case, almost irrelevant. That’s because scientists have conducted tests on some of these “roots” found online (and in markets across India) and determined that they aren’t even of plant origin. In fact, they are pieces of animals. And very specific pieces, at that.

Neil D’Cruze, a trained taxonomist with a PhD in herpetology, says these so-called roots are actually the two-headed penises of protected monitor lizards. (In case you’re wondering, snakes and lizards have branched penises, with each side responsible for transporting sperm from a different testicle.)

Monitor lizard penises masquerading as Hatha Jodi roots

Neil D'Cruze

You probably have a lot more questions, too. And so does D’Cruze, who is a senior wildlife adviser for World Animal Protection and a visiting academic at Oxford University’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit. D’Cruze has been investigating the Hatha Jodi trade since last December, when the issue first popped up on his radar. “It’s really difficult to ascertain exactly what is going on here,” he says.

Of the four species of monitor lizard found in India, the Bengal and yellow monitor lizards cannot be traded, according to Indian law and Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna. (The CITES designation protects animals threatened with extinction, prohibiting all trade, domestic or international, except under “exceptional circumstances.”) The reptiles currently face serious threats, including habitat loss, lack of food thanks to pesticides, and illegal hunting for their meat, skin, and fat. The latter is a popular ingredient in traditional medicine.

But why would dealers go out of their way to replace a root with the genitalia of a protected species—especially when almost any old actual root would do? Also curious is that lab tests conducted by David Megson at Manchester Metropolitan University in the United Kingdom confirm that some of these specimens are plastic—which means some dealers have made molds of the lizards’ business ends and have started manufacturing fake penises to pass them off as fake roots.

“I have been fortunate enough to work on a variety of interesting forensics cases, but I never thought I would be involved with something like this,” says Megson. “Chopping off a lizard’s penis and claiming it’s a rare root . . . It is a very bizarre world that we live in.”

Indeed. What we do know is that the Hatha Jodi trade is growing. After D’Cruze and his fellow investigators learned the root’s true identity, they began searching for it online and quickly racked up more than 200 “Hatha Jodi” listings on a host of commercial websites, including Amazon, Etsy, eBay, Alibaba, and Snapdeal.

A Hatha Jodi store in Delhi

Neil D'Cruze

India is taking this new threat to its monitor lizards seriously. At the end of May, a joint task force composed of officers from the Wildlife Trust of India, the federal Wildlife Crime Control Bureau, the Crime Branch of the State Police, and the forest department carried out a sting at a house in the city of Bhubaneswar. The officers posed as buyers, negotiated a deal, and later swept through the building where they confiscated more than 200 pieces of dried lizard phalluses.

In the past month, wildlife authorities have conducted 14 such raids in six Indian states, in both rural and urban areas. Still, D’Cruze says it will take a lot more research to get to the bottom of this mess. He says there are three competing theories to explain the strange substitutions. “If a real plant does exist at these extremely remote locations, then the four Indian species of monitor lizard, given their wide distribution, would be easier and cheaper to source,” says D’Cruze. “If the plant does not exist, then it is just a deceitful piece of marketing used to dupe customers.”

Or authorities. A third possibility is that consumers are seeking monitor lizard parts in the first place. Giving credence to this theory is the fact that many of the listings make statements like “This item is real Hatha Jodi—Not fake!” but then neglect to explain what real and fake actually mean. Such wink-wink code words might help buyers and sellers sidestep the law.

“But I suspect that the majority simply buy the Hatha Jodi thinking that it is in fact a holy root,” says D’Cruze. As he says, what market forces may be at play in this absurd trafficking ring are still a bit of a mystery. 

onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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