JAKARTA (Reuters Life!) - A tiny Indonesian lizard has become big business for impoverished villagers in Indonesia, where growing Asian demand for reptile-based traditional medicines has driven a boom in gecko farming.
Geckos -- the pale, soft-skinned lizard with a distinctive call -- are abundant in Indonesia and are believed by Chinese and Korean traditional medicine devotees to help cure cancer as well as skin and respiratory diseases.
In rural Banjarsawah village, on the eastern half of Java island, struggling farmers have discovered geckos make a surprisingly lucrative commodity.
Tohasyim, 32, a farmhand who earns 10,000 rupiah (about $1) a day feeding other people's cattle, now makes 1 million rupiah or about $110 a month hunting geckos in a local forest.
"I start hunting the geckos in the evening after I finish my job, feeding other people's cattle. I normally start hunting the geckos at 6 in the evening until 5 in the morning," said Tohasyim, who, like many Indonesians, has only one name.
The industry began four years ago when one villager, Abdurrahman, began drying geckos at home and selling them to an exporter.
Now, more than 100 hunters scour the forest nightly catching the skittering lizards and delivering them to Abdurrahman, 40, who delivers them to the exporter.
Most villagers in Banjarsawah are now involved in dried gecko production. Hunters venture into the forest in groups of four or five, wearing battery-powered head lamps and catching the lizards with their gloved hands.
About a dozen workers, mostly housewives, spend days stretching, drying, and packing the lizards. They often work from 7 in the morning to 4 in the afternoon in the dark woven bamboo house of the industry's owner. When demand is high, they work even longer. These workers earn about 20,000 rupiah per day.
"My job is stretching the geckos. I get 525,000 rupiah per month. I think this is enough to cover our day-to-day needs," said Hobiah, a farmer's wife who is pregnant with her second child and has been working in the industry for almost six months.
The high season for gecko hunting is during Indonesia's rainy period, from December to February.
Abdurrahman, a father of two, said he cannot disclose how much he earns from his gecko business, but he says he's happy with what he makes.
"On average, every three days we can get 5,000 to 10,000 geckos collected by hunters and we produce a maximum of 1,600 dried geckos in a day," he said.
He sells the geckos in pairs. One pair in good condition costs 4,000 rupiah, while a damaged pair missing the tails fetches 2,000 rupiah.
But gecko hunting has got environmentalists alarmed. R. Tri Prayudhi, a campaigner at East Java-based conservationist group ProFauna said that while the animals were not endangered, they played an important role in the ecological system and should remain in the wild.
"The gecko is a wild animal and should not be traded. The problem is that there is no protection for these animals in Indonesia. We have a principle that a wild animal belongs in nature," Prayudhi said.
Editing by Sunanda Creagh and Miral Fahmy