Found nowhere else on Earth, New Zealand geckos are amongst the reptiles most sought after by collectors. All of New Zealand’s gecko species are fully protected, and since 1996 their export has been against the law unless permits have been granted for scientific research. These measures, however, do not stop international reptile smugglers from trying to catch the geckos and take them out of the country. Some traffickers have been caught and jailed.
It appears that Russian reptile traffickers managed to smuggle individuals of several species of Naultinus geckos out of New Zealand in the past 4 years and have set up a commercial stream of captive – bred individuals to supply European collectors.
Russia seems to be an unlikely destination for tropical reptiles, but some of the world’s most notorious reptile smugglers are Russian.
In January this year, a well-known smuggler Kirill Kravchenko was arrested in São Paulo Guarulhos Airport in Brazil, with almost 300 reptiles, amphibians, arachnids and insects in his luggage. The Russian is now incarcerated in Brazil and the country's media have widely publicised the case.
Russian sources claim that Kravchenko smuggled animals out of New Zealand, Madagascar, Japan (Goniurosaurus geckos) Vietnam, Argentina, Mexico, Australia (thorny devils - Moloch horridus) and South Africa (armadillo girdled lizards - Ouroborous cataphractus). On Kravchenko's phone, Brazilian law enforcement found communications, discussing wildlife trade with citizens of fifteen countries, including New Zealand.
Kravchenko is known to have visited New Zealand multiple times. Conservationists and law enforcement think that he was looking for geckos.
In July 2020, Ekaterina Valeyeva (nee Pyatyzhkina) - a Russian reptile collector, youtuber and suspected smuggler, posted a clip called Viviparous Geckos of My Dreams on her Russian-language YouTube channel Частный Экзотариум. It is thought that she is married to Kravchenko.
This channel is extremely popular, with over 700 thousand subscribers, and viewing figures exceeding one million for some clips in which Valeyeva handles reptiles and shows off her large collection of exotic species. She also has another very popular channel - BobCat TV, where she uploads videos of her pet lynxes, a bobcat, a serval, as wells as racoons and sand cats. Valeyeva also keeps an instagram account - katyabobcat.
In Viviparous Geckos of My Dreams clip, she shows three species of Naultinus geckos that she now breeds in her facilities in Russia. She mentions having had them for about 3 years.
In the clip, Valeyeva says that she had been told by European dealers that acquiring Naultinus geckos was not realistic. She adds that she would never have imagined being able to have an opportunity to “touch and work with” these lizards. She does not explain how her good fortune came about.
She then shows (1:37 of the video) a male and two females of Auckland green gecko (Nautilnus elegans). Holding the lizards, she calls them “velvety and very, very nice to touch” cooing over their “cutie faces”.
Valeyeva holding a breeding pair of Auckland green geckos (Nautilnus elegans).
Screenshot from Частный Экзотариум YouTube channel)
“Females breed, God willing, once a year. In our experience the gaps (in breeding) are around 2 years, and they have one or two young – maximum,” says Valeyeva, who then talks about the difficulties breeding Naultinus geckos, that give birth to live young, in captivity.
Valeyeva demonstrating a stripy pattern on the back of Auckland green gecko (Nautilnus elegans).
The second species she shows (5:00), has recently bred in her facilities, according to Valeyeva. She claims that this species has not yet been described in science, calling it “yellow-lipped gecko”.
Valeyeva holding what she calls a “yellow-lipped gecko”.
She says that two "yellow - lipped geckos"- one green, one with white stripes, have been recently were born in her facilities. She then shows the striped juvenile (7:58 of the video) and the green one (8:50). Both, she says, are 2 weeks old.
Valeyeva holding a born in captivity striped juvenile of a Naultinus species she calls “yellow-lipped gecko”.
The third species shown in the clip (9:30) is a pair of jewelled geckos (Naultinus gemmeus) that Valeyeva calls “endemic to the Otago peninsula.” The previous year, she says, one gecko was born to the pair.
A pair of jewelled geckos (Naultinus gemmeus) in Valeyeva's collection.
Not only does Valeyeva's collection contain animals whose import and export are illegal or require permits, the way she handles animals is cruel and reckless.
In a 2016 clip, she blows soap bubbles into the face of a large king cobra that her and her ex-husband Arslan Valeyev let out for exercise in their garden. In another video, from 2017, a very stressed monitor lizard, seen hissing and lashing out, is paraded outside for filming. In a recent clip, a tegu lizard on a leash is made to swim in a pool, with people.
A screenshot from a 2016 video where Valeyeva is "hypnotising" a pet king cobra.
Ekaterina’s ex-husband, Arslan Valeyev, one of Russia’s best-known reptile enthusiasts, died in 2017 from a bite from a black mamba he had in his collection after separating from Ekaterina. It was an apparent suicide which he streamed live on his YouTube channel.
After their divorce, Ekaterina apparently took up with Kravchenko, whom Arslan despised. Arslan claimed that when they were still married, Valeyeva was already having an affair with Kravchenko.
Valeyeva herself has been implicated in the smuggling of reptiles. In May 2018, a piece of check-in luggage, a single suitcase, was left unclaimed in an international airport in Russia. It had arrived from Vietnam via Istanbul. The suitcase was sent back to Turkey, where the customs found it was full of reptiles, many on the verge of death by asphyxiation - plastic lunch boxes were packed solid with snakes.
The media reported that the suitcase belonged to a passenger called E. Valeyeva, who for some reason had not claimed it on arrival. The case was reported by the media in both Russia and Turkey. Valeyeva told the Russian press that it was indeed her suitcase but refused to discuss the matter further.
Before his death in 2017, Arslan Valeyev posted on-line (in Russian) claims of joint smuggling activities of Ekaterina Valeyeva and Krill Kravchenko. According to Arslan, the pair sold their catch in Germany, at Terraristika reptile fair, flying there directly from their reptile catching expeditions, such as one to South Africa in 2017.
Kirill Kravchenko. This photo, from Kravchenko's profile on Russian-language social network VKontakte, was transmitted by Russian media after the live-streamed death of Arslan Valeyev.
This year, Valeyeva has been posting videos of a large, modern purpose-built facility she had built on a plot of land in the countryside. It will house reptiles, amphibians, insects and arachnids. Price lists for Valeyeva's animals are published in private groups on VKontakte - the Russian analogue of Facebook.
There are reports that a lynx and a serval that belong to Valeyeva have died from feline panleukopenia and that her pet fox had its ear chewed off by a bobcat. Netizens claim it was due to negligence and lack of qualified care.
In her recent videos where she poses with her exotic snakes and big cats, Valeyeva makes no mention of the fate of Kirill Kravchenko who is now languishing in Brazilian jail.
Reptile collecting has now become a grave threat to species and ecosystems. More than a third of reptile species are now in trade and newly discovered species appear on sale within months of their description. Species Victim Impact Statement (SVIS) Initiative have drafted SVIS for many reptile species, and we are now working on SVIS for Naultinus geckos.
Click here for more information on Species Victim Impact Statements (SVIS).