Sungazer Custodians

Bradley Gibbons, African Crane Conservation Programme, bradleyg@ewt.org.za

Sungazer lizards Smaug giganteus are more commonly known as Ouvolk in South Africa’s Free State province, the only place on earth where these Vulnerable charismatic lizards can be found in the wild together with a very small population located in the south of Mpumalanga.

Since 2015, the EWT has awarded Sungazer custodian boards to exactly 30 farmers, five of which were awarded during 2021.

Sungazer custodians are farmers who go the extra mile for Sungazers and assist the EWT to conserve these reptiles on their farms and act as champions for Sungazer conservation in their area. It is never difficult to select a Sungazer custodian, because they show an extra passion for Sungazers on their properties. They ensure that their farms are safe for Sungazers, by conserving the habitat used by Sungazers and minimising disturbance to them. Another example of going the extra mile is to ensure that areas where Sungazers occur are avoided and farmers won’t drive too close to their colonies. It is important to note that Sungazers are found in colonies in natural grasslands which differs from typical lizards found in rocky areas.  The EWT recognises these landowners’ conservation actions through the Sungazer Custodianship Programme.

The custodian agrees to sign a short agreement to cement their commitment to protect the Sungazers for the five-year custodianship period (with the option to renew). Through this they commit to report any useful or relevant information to the EWT, such as new areas where Sungazers are found on the farm (and in some cases to send photos of baby Sungazers) and  report potential or current threats to prevent further harm to Sungazers as much as possible in their respective region. We hope that other farmers from the areas will notice the board when they visit a custodian and then follow the example of the custodian.

One of the five custodians in 2021 is a couple from Koppies in the Free State, Dawie and Natasha Smalberger, who have not only reported their Sungazer sightings regularly but even put up their own camera trap to keep a watchful eye on the Sungazers on their farm! There is no doubt that they deserve to be awarded a custodian board for this type of involvement, and the EWT appreciates their efforts to conserve Sungazers.

Sungazer camera trap, lizards
A photo taken by the Smalberger’s camera trap of a Sungazer family (the adult with 2 youngsters) found on their farm
Natasha and Dawie Smalberger, with Bradley Gibbons of the EWT, shortly after receiving their Sungazer custodian board in December 2021 by Bradley.

As part of conservation efforts on privately-owned farms, the EWT would like encourage farmers to further protect their farms using another form of a conservation agreement known as the ‘Biodiversity Stewardship’ approach. Not every farm can be declared a nature reserve if a landowner would like these reptiles to be protected. Therefore, conservation on privately-owned land is made possible with the use of this strategy. An example of an agreement like this is a protected environment where livestock farming and even crop farming can operate as it currently is. However, intact vegetation such as grasslands will remain intact from not further extending any cultivated fields. These farmers will in most cases also adhere to a management plan that has been compiled to further improve the habitat on the farm.

The EWT is grateful to all Sungazer custodians and values their role in conserving Sungazers.