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Crime script analysis of the illegal sales of spiny-tailed lizards on YouTube


The oil derived from the spiny-tailed lizards (STLs) is illegally sold as an alternative medicinal aphrodisiac that is claimed to cure male sexual dysfunction in addition to other bodily ailments. The high demand generated from this illegal trade is rapidly depleting the species from its natural habitat. The goal of this research is to uncover the process of cyber-enabled illegal trade in STLs. To achieve this goal, this research uses data from a total of 127 videos and 4608 comments associated with these videos and the crime script analysis technique to outline and detail the steps taken to poach, prepare, and sell oil derived from spiny-tailed lizards (STL) and other protected wild animals on YouTube. The results indicate that sellers, operating primarily from Pakistan, employ a variety of techniques to attract buyers, such as preparing the oil by dissecting alive STL while being captured in the video to show the authenticity of the product. In addition to YouTube, sellers use other social media platforms, including WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter/X, to communicate with potential buyers and to advertise their products. These products are shipped around the world using international courier services, such as DHL and TCS, with primary markets in South Asia and the Middle East. The sellers accept money transactions from Western Union, MoneyGram, and PayPal. They also seem to operate without any major restrictions from local authorities or host social media platforms. Based on these findings, this research proposed various recommendations for policy and practice.


Southwest Asia, the Arabian Peninsula, and the African Sahara are home to 20 different species of spiny-tailed lizards (STL) (Dutta & Jhala, 2007). The majority of these lizards belong to the Uromastyx genus, while three species fall under the Saara genus, including the Indian spiny-tailed lizard. Unfortunately, some of these species are facing extinction, with five of these classified as ‘Near Threatened’, and three as ‘Vulnerable’ by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. The Convention on the international Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) has listed the entire Uromastyx genus in Appendix. Some of the serious threats faced by the genus are climate change; illegal poaching; and trade for meat, medicine, and the pet industry (Gondhali & Petrossian, 2023). spiny-tailed lizards are especially susceptible to adverse climate change effects due to their specific habitat preferences and limited mobility: up to 75% of these species are at risk due to this threat (Kechnebbou et al., 2021). Habitat loss, poaching, and illegal trade have added additional pressures on the species and contributed to their population declines (Ali et al., 2020), highlighting the urgent need for increased conservation efforts to protect the species (Khalil et al., 2022).

Eating STL meat and the use of their oil are common practices in some countries of the Arabian Peninsula and South Asia. For example, for many years, spiny-tailed lizards, known locally as ‘Dhab’, has been consumed in South Asia and is considered ‘Halal’ in accordance with Islamic tradition (Sutriyono, 2020). There is also significant demand for their oil that has been traditionally used to treat various body ailments, including muscular and joint pain, blood circulation, and male sexual dysfunctions. These practices stimulate the demand for its oil not only within the local market but also on a global scale. Despite regional and international regulations aiming to protect the species, illegal poaching remains rampant in Pakistan (Gondhali & Petrossian, 2023).

Sellers of STL oil in South Asia have been using social media as a platform to reach a wide customer base and generate more demand through videos that claim the oil’s alleged medicinal properties. Gondhali and Petrossian (2023) investigated the operations of these sellers who used YouTube to further the illegal trade of STL oil via this online platform. Their study revealed some important broader insights into the trade dynamics and patterns. Drawing from these insights, the current research engages in more in-depth investigation into the key players and their roles, the different stages of the species removal from the wild, the trade in STL oil (which involve both offline and online aspects), and the patterns of interaction with sellers. In order to gain this critical information on the procedures involved in the illegal trade in spiny-tailed lizards using YouTube, this research employs crime script analysis.

Theoretical framework: crime script analysis

Using crime script analysis to examine criminal activity is becoming an increasingly popular method in both research and practice (Chainey & Berbotto, 2022). This analytical technique is based on the theoretical underpinnings of the rational choice perspective (Cornish & Clarke, 1986), which emphasizes the importance of considering offender decision-making at each phase of the crime, where offenders make decisions when presented with the opportunity to commit a crime. These decisions involve not only estimating the costs and benefits of crime but also assessing the circumstances, opportunities, and situations, as well as strains (e.g. time, skill, accessibility) within which they operate.

In essence, if rational decision-making is at the core of offending, then, according to Cornish (1994), one can express the commission of a crime in a set of steps and procedures involved in constructing the crime from the point of preparation to the point of completion. Carefully scrutinizing the sequential steps involved in criminal activity through this lens allows not only for the identification of specific anchor points of intervention at each phase of the crime continuum, but also the design of tailored crime prevention efforts that can be implemented at each phase. Understanding the process involved in committing a crime and using proven crime prevention strategies will lead to building lasting interventions (Clarke, 1980).

The crime ‘event’, or the actual act that is criminalized, is only one of the ‘events’ in the process leading to and after that ‘event’ (Cornish, 1994). The crime ‘event’ requires planning, which may include the acquisition of necessary tools, the selection of specific locations and targets, and a multitude of other decisions that need to be made before the actual criminal act. Similarly, once the crime is committed, there is a series of post-crime actions that need to be taken to complete this act, such as taking measures to safeguard oneself from getting caught, disposing of the evidence, disposing of a stolen/illegal property, and so on (Petrossian & Pezzella, 2018). In other words, careful and logical steps need to be taken before, during, and after the crime ‘event’ to ensure the successful completion of it. Crime script analysis can be used to capture these logical, sequential steps that need to be taken by offenders to prepare for, undertake, and complete a crime (Chainey & Berbotto, 2022), as well as to devise intervention entry points.

Crime scripts require the descriptions of the actual acts undertaken by offenders, and these acts can be organized into scenes that involve the offenders, facilitators, and the settings where these acts take place (Chainey & Berbotto, 2022). The original crime script proposed by Cornish (1994) involved seven sequential stages that were organized in relation to “facets”Footnote 1 and choice-structuring conditions required for a criminal activity to unfold. These included preparation (e.g. getting necessary tools, selecting co-offenders), entry (e.g. entering setting), pre-condition (i.e. enabling conditions), initiation (e.g. locating or selecting the crime target), actualization (multiple functions), doing (the act of crime), post-condition (i.e. enabling conditions for the successful completion of the crime, such as leaving the crime scene undetected), and exit (e.g. completion of the crime, such as disposing of the stolen item) (Cornish, 1994).

Until 2010, there was limited use of crime script analysis in both research and practice, and scholars argued that this is due to the original proposed scripting methods being complex, difficult to validate, and lacking clarity (e.g. Basamanowicz & Bouchard, 2011; Sytsma & Piza, 2018). To improve the practical utility of the crime script analysis tool, Tompson and Chainey (2011) introduced a new approach that retained the core conceptual principles of Cornish’s originally proposed method but was simple in both application and practice. The researchers proposed a method of scripting that focused on the key stages involved in committing a crime, rather than the “facets” defined by Cornish (1994). They identified four core stages of a crime: preparation, pre-activity, activity, and post-activity. This research uses these four core stages to create a script for the illegal sale of spiny-tailed lizards on YouTube.

The application of crime script analysis to crimes against wildlife

While crime script analysis has been primarily applied to study traditional crime types, such as auto theft (e.g. Tremblay et al., 2001), sex offending (e.g. Leclerk et al., 2011), insider trade and fraud (Willison & Siponen, 2009), and arms trafficking (Chainey & Guererro, 2019), its applications to crimes against wildlife have grown significantly in recent years. The foundational study conducted by Moreto & Clarke (2013) on crime script analysis of transnational illegal markets in endangered species lays important groundwork for the adaptation of crime script analysis to study wildlife crimes and trade. This framework allows researchers to identify key actors involved in wildlife crimes, as well as the trade routes, the targeted species, and the derived products. Crime script analysis has since then seen growth in its application to various crimes against wild animals and plants, examples of which include internet-mediated wild plant trafficking (Lavorgna, 2014, 2015); illegal ivory markets (Moreto & Lemieux, 2015); the illegal removal and landing of fish, and seafood fraud (Petrossian & Pezzella, 2018); illegal harvesting of live corals (Sosnowski et al., 2020); jaguar paste production (Lemieux & Bruschi, 2019); rhino poaching, as well as rhino horn and live pet trafficking (van Doormaal et al., 2018; Viollaz et al., 2018); and amur tiger poaching (Skidmore, 2021).

A more recent study conducted by Chainey & Berbotto (2022) explored the applications of Open-Source Intelligence (OSINT) and proposed a structured framework for using open-source data for a crime script analysis to study organized crime. Such data on the internet is a great source of intelligence that can inform policy and practice. Therefore, this study relies on data collected from publicly accessible and non-proprietary online sources to build the proposed crime scripts.

In the past, no studies have taken account of crime script analysis to study illegal wildlife trade on the surface web using open-sourced data. Our research is, therefore, the first to apply such techniques to study the illegal wildlife trade of spiny-tailed lizards over YouTube, relying on the data extruded primarily from YouTube videos and associated comments from the users to build detailed crime scripts. These are discussed in more detail in the following section.


Data source

The preliminary steps of this study involved a comprehensive scanning of literature, including incident reports, online news, and published articles related to the poaching of spiny-tailed lizards. Searches were predominantly conducted through ‘Google News’ using the following keywords: ‘spiny-tailed lizard poaching’, and ‘spiny-tailed lizard hunting.’ The review of the extensive literature suggested that STL poaching was prevalent in the Indian subcontinent (India-Pakistan), the Arab countries (Saudi Arabia and UAE), and Indonesia (APP, 2018; Ghanghar, 2020; Mandhro, 2021; Rimal, 2022; TNN, 2020). This review also helped us identify the search terms used in local languages to locate products derived from STL on online marketplaces.

To search for videos associated with spiny-tailed lizard on YouTube (, we generated the search keywords and terms in Hindi, Urdu (Sanda ka tail), Arabic (Dhab oil), and English (Sanda oil), and these included: Sanda (common name for STL in India and Pakistan); ‘Saande ka tail’ (STL oil); ‘Sanda oil’; ‘spiny-tailed lizard oil’; ‘Dabb oil’ and ‘Dabb lizard’ (Dabb is common name for STL in Arabic); and ‘ubat dhab’ and ‘dhab sinai’ (which means medicine of Uromastyx spp. in the Malay language).

Video selection criteria and procedures


For the purpose of the analysis, the final YouTube videos were selected based on the following inclusion criteria:

  1. a.

    The videos must describe a process of capturing and fat extracting. The aforementioned process can provide insights into the modus operandi of the illegal trade.

  2. b.

    The videos explicitly offer Uromastyx spp.-based products for sale. This selling process may reveal invaluable information on the nature of the trade.

  3. c.

    The videos are spoken either in Hindi or Urdu due to linguistic limitations.

Based on these selection criteria, we identified three (3) YouTube channels: Original Sanda Oil, House of Herbal, and Yaseen Super Power Tilla Center, containing 127 videos that shared information on medicinal products derived from Uromastyx spp. Based on the information shared by the video makers, such as the narration language in videos, we were able to identify that these YouTube channels were operated from Pakistan.


Video transcription

All 127 videos were transcribed and translated into English for subsequent analyses. All videos were scrutinized individually and coded manually. We analyzed both verbal and visual content from the videos. The verbal content provided information that a video maker willingly disclosed, such as product making, benefits, and delivery. On the other hand, visual content included dissecting, the condition of the animals shown in the video, and spatial and temporal attributes.

Viewer comment extraction

To gather more detailed information regarding the sale process, as well as the date, time, and likes for further analysis, comments of selected videos were extracted using the Comment Picker.Footnote 2 Viewers often disclosed information about their geographic location, either by overtly asking for product delivery or availability in a particular city or country, or by providing their phone number to be contacted. The comments were predominantly written in English and regional languages, such as Hindi and Urdu. One of the authors, a native speaker who understands both regional languages, assisted in the translation of these comments. However, a small proportion of the comments were typed in Arabic, Punjabi, and Gujarati. Given the basic nature of the comments, we used ‘Google Translate’ to convert them into English. After translations, additional information from all 4608 comments were also incorporated into the crime script.

Building the crime scripts

The process of creating a crime script involved three stages: creating the template, populating data, and consolidating the information from all videos and comments into a master script. Using Tompson and Chainey’s (2011) simplified crime script template, the team used the translated transcripts, comments, and visual contents to populate the script. Data for each phase was coded using guiding questions provided in Table 1.

Table 1 A crime script analysis template and guiding questions to facilitate the process of populating the script


In our initial exploration of the collected video data, we examined the YouTube videos’ views and likes across channels, months, and seasons and revealed notable trends (see Appendix or comprehensive details on descriptive statistics by channel, month, and season). April emerged as the month with the highest views and likes, followed by October. Seasonally, the spring season exhibited notable engagement. The channel “Yaseen Super Power Tilla Center” garnered significant views and likes, particularly during spring. The top ten most viewed videos were predominantly from the channel “Yaseen Super Power Tilla Center,” with a distinct seasonal pattern that showed a preference for uploads during the spring and summer seasons. On the other hand, the channel “Original Sanda Oil” uploaded the most videos but garnered fewer views and likes compared to others. Overall, these descriptive statistics provided crucial insights into viewer trends, engagement metrics, and seasonal variations in STL sales videos on YouTube, which set the stage for our further investigation of the video content using crime scripts.

Crime script analysis

In our analysis of the YouTube video content, we identified three major crime scripts describing the process of illegal sales of spiny-tailed lizards using information obtained from YouTube video content and their corresponding comments. Our analysis of the YouTube videos included not only the verbal content but also the visual content. Additionally, we examined the content in the comment sections of those videos to gather more information associated with the crime script steps. The three crime scripts depict the lizard poaching stage (Table 2), the lizard oil extraction stage (Table 3), and the lizard oil sale stage (Table 4), respectively. The section concludes with a summary of the sales pitches of spiny-tailed lizard oil on those YouTube channels (Table 5).

Table 2 A crime script on the process of spiny-tailed lizard poaching
Table 3 A crime script on the process of spiny-tailed lizard oil production
Table 4 A crime script on the process of spiny-tailed lizard oil sales via YouTube
Table 5 Sales Pitches of Spiny-Tailed Lizard Oil on YouTube Channels

The process of spiny-tailed lizard poaching

Preparation and pre-activity stages

As illustrated in Table 2, the initiation of the spiny-tailed lizard poaching process requires several steps of preparation with the necessary tools and knowledge. The first step involves obtaining materials essential for constructing traps, which include strings and wood sticks. The preparation also involves gaining proficiency in knot tying and trap setting. Furthermore, a crucial aspect of the preparation involves acquiring knowledge on identifying the geographical areas where spiny-tailed lizards reside. Understanding the habitats of these lizards is vital for successful poaching. In conjunction with this, individuals involved in this process learn how to locate holes and burrows within the identified geographical area to target the specific species of spiny-tailed lizards.

The chosen location for lizard poaching is the grassy countryside of Pakistan, as shown in the YouTube videos, with hills and mountains visible in the distance. The time of day specified for these preparatory activities is daylight, indicating the need for visibility and efficiency in trap setting. However, the choice of the time of year ranges from the winter, spring, and summer seasons. While one YouTube channel’s poacher expressed the difficulty of finding lizards in the winter, another YouTube channel’s poacher claimed that lizards were more readily available in the winter and their fatty tissue was thicker during this season than in the summer. The selection of the time of year for lizard poaching is probably influenced by the geographical distinction between the northern and southern regions in Pakistan.

Activity and post-activity stages

The primary activity stage of spiny-tailed lizard poaching involves a series of careful and methodical steps to ensure a successful catch. The first action in this stage is to check if the trap string is taut, ensuring its readiness for potential catches. If a lizard appears to be caught in the trap, the next steps include using a stick to dig out the hole where the lizard is ensnared and then carefully pulling the trapped lizard from its hiding hole. The outcome during this stage ranges from zero to eight lizards in a single day, likely depending on environmental factors and successful trapping techniques. An important aspect of the catch is the awareness of potential risks, particularly avoiding the lizard’s claws and spikes on its tail, which have the capability to cause cuts. The process of capturing spiny-tailed lizards highlights the hands-on and subtle aspects of poaching, emphasizing the need for both skill and caution in executing each step of the process.

Once the lizards are captured, the next step involves placing the captured lizards in a cloth or duffel bag for transport. Some poachers choose to break the backs or hip bones of the lizards in order to disable them while keeping them alive. This method may be employed as a means of immobilizing the lizards for easier transport or handling later. However, other poachers choose to maintain the lizards in their intact state after capture until the time of fat extraction. The contrasting approaches in this post-activity stage reflect different considerations concerning the purported quality of lizard oil and its portability and handling convenience. In fact, one lizard oil seller on a particular YouTube channel lamented the post-capture methods of poachers who broke the backs of the lizards to restrain them and then sell them to others for oil production. The seller claimed that this method created inferior oil. This seller further advocated for not torturing lizards by breaking their backs. Interestingly, some viewers’ comments on various YouTube videos also asked sellers not to torture the lizards.

The process of spiny-tailed lizard oil production

Preparation stage

In the preparation stage of spiny-tailed lizard oil production, as illustrated in Table 3, the process begins with an order placed by a customer seeking lizard oil or the store owner determining the required oil supply for retail sales, thereby dictating the quantity of lizards needed to meet the specified amount. Subsequently, the essential step involves acquiring spiny-tailed lizards, commonly referred to as sandas. With the spiny-tailed lizards captured, the production phase proceeds by obtaining the necessary tools and supplies tailored for oil extraction. The common oil extraction equipment includes a specialized pot, kindling for heating, a stove, matches, a knife (possibly a Nakiri), a spoon for stirring, and bottles with stoppers or tops for storing the finished oil.

Pre-activity and activity stages

When the demanded quantity of lizards is met and the equipment is ready, both dead and live lizards may be used to produce oil. The pre-activity steps include the identification of male lizards, precise slitting of their abdomens, and removal of two fat deposits from each lizard. Variability exists among channels, with one employing a Halal method for killing lizards before extraction, while another channel choosing not to demonstrate the killing method. Entering the core activity stage of oil production, the production process involves igniting a fire in a stove or lighting a gas burner, followed by placing fat deposits in a pan. The fat deposits are cooked over a fire, be it wood, gas, or coal, with continuous stirring to form oil. The remaining chunks of fat organs are removed. A range of ingredients, such as red mites, tiger’s fat tissue, turtle’s fat tissue, fish fat tissue, black scorpions, cloves, and a mixture of herbs, may be added to enhance its quantity or quality. Such preparations were referred to as ‘Tilla’ in the local language. They were promoted as cures for various ailments. Overall, the oil extraction steps can be completed by a single person.

Post-activity stage

The final steps of spiny-tailed lizard oil production after the oil has been extracted include oil bottling and packaging. The practice of bottling the oil while it is still hot and immediately shipping is implied as part of sellers’ advertisement strategies, particularly for specific customer orders. However, not all channels within the spiny-tailed lizard oil business choose to showcase or discuss this bottling and shipping process. Notably, one YouTube channel demonstrates the bottles used for packaging, which are marked with pre-printed labels displaying the brand name “H.Y. Super Power.” This indicates a more sophisticated branding strategy. Interestingly, in earlier videos of the production series, the use of branded bottles was not evident, suggesting a potential evolution or refinement in the business’s packaging approach over time. This could also suggest that the actual profit they have made from sanda oil sales enables the advancement of marketing.

The process of spiny-tailed lizard oil sales via YouTube channels

Preparation stage

As illustrated in Table 4, the illegal sanda oil business launches its sales process by preparing for online and retail transactions and advertisements, which involves strategic organization of various aspects.

Firstly, in the preparation of online transactions, the business sets up communication channels through cell phone and WhatsApp, creates payment accounts utilizing Moneygram, Western Union, and bank transfers, and arranges shipping logistics with international couriers, such as DHL, and Tranzum Courier Service (TCS) for domestic shipments.Footnote 3 Secondly, in the realm of retail transactions, the business takes steps to establish a physical retail store, ensuring it is equipped for walk-in customers interested in purchasing sanda oil. These steps may include buying or renting store space, setting up displays, and operating the store during business hours.

As for the marketing preparation, it starts with creating a YouTube channel linked to potential social media accounts, such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, with video content primarily captured on a device with filming capability, likely a cell phone. The planned video content ranges from exhibiting lizard trapping methods, showcasing live lizards, demonstrating oil production, and emphasizing sanda oil’s health benefits. Some of the business’s YouTube channels adhere to YouTube violent or graphic content policies on animal abuse content, blurring images of bloody lizards and avoiding live animal cutting in videos. Overall, they carefully plan the video script, incorporating sales pitches, anecdotal information, subscription reminders, contact details, purchasing guidelines, and delivery information. The filming process involves assembling supplies for lizard oil production or other demonstrations, finding a suitable location, and securing someone to film the video. After filming, the video requires editing to transform it into an advertisement, with regular displays of contact information and logos in bold letters and colors.

Lastly, transactional and advertisement preparations require logistical considerations in terms of time and location. Choosing a business base with a reliable internet connection is essential for smooth transactions. Advertisements can be filmed in several locations at different times. For example, poaching videos of lizards in their natural habitat are preferred in outdoor locations during daylight hours. Videos featuring sanda oil and related activities, on the other hand, offer more flexibility on time and place: while most of them are filmed in the retail store at any time of the day, few videos are purposefully produced outdoors, especially when promoting fresh oil production. In general, all channels’ videos are likely shot in Pakistan, reflecting a localized focus of this sanda oil business.

Pre-activity and activity stages

Once all transactional and advertisement preparations have been finalized, the sanda oil business proceeds with its operations, commencing with pre-activity tasks that are mainly focused on the publication of advertisement videos on their YouTube channels, as well as the responses to the associated comments. These openly published YouTube videos of sanda oil sales create a platform for potential customers to connect with the business. Concurrently, the business ensures a responsive online presence by addressing inquiries and questions in the YouTube comments section.

Following a customer’s decision to purchase the sanda oil product through a particular channel, the core activity may involve multifaceted sales processes both in the virtual and physical spheres. Through cell phones and WhatsApp, the business may engage in a dynamic sales process, facilitating order placements, explaining payment options, and obtaining shipping information. Similarly, walk-in customers at the retail store may experience personalized interactions aimed at facilitating sales. The business seems to adopt a flexible payment approach, taking advance payments for international online oil orders via Moneygram, Western Union, and bank transfers. For local transactions, cash-on-delivery orders are accepted in Pakistan. Notably, customer anonymity is not an issue throughout these transactions. Both the sellers and the customers are willing to share their name and contact information in the video content and the comments section. Overall, this combined online and offline strategy highlights the business’s adaptability and open approach to navigating diverse sales avenues.

Post-activity stage

Following successful transactions, the sanda oil business proceeds with post-sale activities to ensure efficient order fulfillment and customer satisfaction. The process may involve careful packaging of the oil bottles, employing bubble wrap, cello tape, and waterproof bags for international shipments, while simpler single bags suffice for domestic orders within Pakistan. Shipping is facilitated through DHL for international deliveries and Tranzum Courier Service (TCS) for local shipments, with the option for cash on delivery. For international orders, the business supplies the necessary documents to facilitate smooth deliveries abroad. Subsequently, customers express their experiences by leaving reviews in the YouTube comments section or conveying feedback directly to the sellers via text messages. The seller, in turn, actively responds to customer reviews, fostering a responsive and customer-centric interaction. It is worth noting that not all channels provide detailed information on these post-sale activities. Therefore, it remains unclear how different businesses may handle this post-sale customer service differently.

Importantly, the YouTube video content of the sanda oil sales and associated comments explicitly discuss the availability of international shipping services to various destinations, including the U.S., Canada, the U.K., Germany, Netherlands, Australia, Singapore, Malaysia, Nepal, UAE, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Bangladesh, and multiple locations within India (such as Mumbai, Amritsar, Punjab, Jammu Kashmir, Haryana, and Patiala). Domestic shipping within Pakistan is also accommodated, covering major cities like Islamabad, Karachi, Lahore, and Rawalpindi, among others. However, it is noteworthy that shipping to Israel is explicitly excluded from the service offerings. This implies the global nature of the illegal trade network, demonstrating that sellers are actively engaging with an international customer base.

Sales pitches of spiny-tailed lizard oil on YouTube channels

The advertising strategies for spiny-tailed lizard oil are multifaceted (see Table 5). Primarily, the oil is promoted for its purported medicinal benefits, addressing various aspects of male sexual function, relieving joint and muscle pain, and claiming miraculous medical effects. The product is positioned as a versatile solution with applications for both specific health concerns and general well-being.

The quality of the product is emphasized as pure and original, with an insistence on using unadulterated oil to maximize its benefits. The advertising further highlights the immediate production and delivery of the oil, as well as its reasonable pricing. Positive consumer reviews and a commitment to business responsibility are also presented to instill confidence in potential customers.

The benefits of using wild male sandas are prominently featured, suggesting that the oil derived from these creatures is more potent than that from domesticated ones. Religious justifications also play a significant role in advertising, framing the product as a divine gift bestowed by God. Additionally, some sellers promote the blending of sanda oil with other animals and plants, introducing a diverse range of components like black cobra, black scorpion, tiger fat, turtle fat, and fish fat. This mixture of different oils appears to contradict the alleged benefit of pure sanda oil, but it may appeal to a distinct group of potential customers who value the other components.

Overall, the advertising strategies aim to position spiny-tailed lizard oil as a holistic and potent remedy, combining purported health benefits, quality assurances, religious justifications, and a distinctive blend of ingredients.


Summary of findings

Prior research has established that the poaching and trade of spiny-tailed lizards (STLs) is rampant in many of the regions they inhabit (Ilyas, 2016). In 2023, Gondhali and Petrossian extended this research by investigating the use of YouTube channels to sell STL products produced in Pakistan and Malaysia (Gondhali & Petrossian, 2023). This paper continues their study by using crime script analysis to better understand the activities depicted in the YouTube videos, and to propose potential interventions.

The three YouTube channels examined in this study were operated by separate individuals in Pakistan. However, each seller targeted the same group of consumers, namely male individuals seeking a traditional remedy for sexual dysfunction, using videos that function as infomercials. As noted in prior research, pharmaceutical treatment of male sexual dysfunction (such as Viagra and similar medications) is banned in Pakistan (Rimal, 2022). As a result, these vendors market their products to those who seek medicinal treatment but have limited options. By using an online sales platform, oil sellers reach potential customers outside of Pakistan as well.

Several YouTube videos provide an unguarded depiction of poaching methods, following a man as he locates, traps, and captures numerous STLs in the wild. The video narration focuses on the heightened effectiveness of wild lizard products. Along with establishing the authenticity of their STL oil products, these poaching-centered videos and the emphasis on wild lizards may be a response to competitors’ products made from domestically-bred lizards. STL farming for the purpose of oil production appears to occur largely outside of Pakistan, in countries such as Malaysia (Gondhali & Petrossian, 2023), and is a successful alternative to hunting lizards in the wild.

Oil producers appear to use several production models. Some videos demonstrate a process where oil is made-to-order to fulfill the request of a specific customer. Other videos display quantities of pre-filled oil bottles, suggesting a larger scale of oil production predicated on maintaining a supply on hand. Oil production models may have a significant impact on poaching practices. In the oil-for-order model, lizards may be captured based on producers’ needs, resulting in a more controlled approach to lizard poaching. In the inventory model, where oil production is designed to create a stock of continually available merchandise, indiscriminate and high-yield poaching may be encouraged.

The torture of STLs is a factor in the viability of these production models. As noted earlier, poachers routinely break the lizards’ spines to immobilize and control them. Paralyzed lizards can live for long periods of time, and therefore remain “fresh” for use in oil production long after the poaching occurred. Indeed, some sellers tout the lizards’ ability to remain alive without ingesting food or water as evidence of their strength, and therefore the efficacy of the oil produced from their fat deposits. The use of paralyzed lizards to produce STL oil may increase the amount of poaching. When lizards can be stockpiled and used at later times, poachers may be incentivized to keep hunting.

STL oil producers prefer to use the fat of male STLs in marketing a cure for erectile dysfunction. This practice suggests negative consequences for the wild population, such as disproportionate destruction of male lizards, overpopulation of female lizards, and over-poaching of all lizards to secure a sufficient supply of males. Poachers capture lizards before knowing their gender, and lizard gender is determined by size, weight, and possibly coloration (Khalil et al., 2022). It is unclear whether lizards that poachers believe to be female are released or kept for other purposes, or whether female lizards are killed for oil production, and then discarded when dissection reveals their gender. The poaching impact on lizard gender disparity is a potential area for further study.

The global reach of these video advertisements is significant. As described in the results earlier, the videos from three sellers were viewed by millions of people, with tens of thousands of viewers actively engaging with the content through “likes” and comments. Data indicates a consistent concentration of video creation and viewer engagement during the Spring and Summer months. In some of the videos discussing the hunting of wild STLs, the seller-narrators offer their thoughts on the optimal season for poaching. One seller indicated that lizards can be trapped more easily during the summer; another claimed that winter was the ideal trapping season. This difference in opinion may reflect regional disparities based on local climate, as well as methods of trapping that might be seasonally dependent.

Oil sellers operate as legitimate businesses and, as established in the companion study, STL oil-trafficking occurs openly on the surface web (Gondhali & Petrossian, 2023). The use of international communications, payment and shipment services to facilitate the sale of STL oil is notable. Oil vendors in this study rely on YouTube, WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter/X to communicate and advertise about their products. These services are operated by U.S. companies (Meta and X). Some of the YouTube channels are monetized, meaning YouTube shares revenue with the oil sellers from advertisements that run alongside their videos. For international transactions, sellers accept payment through three U.S.-based financial services companies—Western Union, Moneygram and PayPal. And to send oil to international customers, the sellers utilize DHL, a major shipping service based in Germany.

Selling STL oil is a crime in Pakistan, and buying STL oil is illegal in many of the destination countries to which the oil is being shipped. STLs are listed in Schedule II of Pakistan’s Wildlife (Protection, Preservation, Control, and Management) Act, 1972. This schedule prohibits the use, hunting, trade, or possession of STLs. These lizards also are included in CITES’ Appendix, meaning that any international trade requires a CITES permit.

Despite these prohibitions, oil sellers conduct themselves without fear of enforcement action. Beyond the open use of online services and platforms, little to no efforts are made to remain anonymous or conceal identity. Two of the oil sellers identify themselves by name in their videos. All three reveal their faces. Over the course of several videos, one seller discusses and displays the location of a retail location from which he sells products derived from STLs and other protected species (including tigers). Viewers of the study videos also exhibited little fear of repercussions for purchasing STL-derived products. Thousands of comments contain users’ real names, locations, and account information traceable to identifiable individuals.

Recommendations and conclusion

As seen firsthand in the study videos, STL poaching and oil production is relatively easy to accomplish, typically by a single person using minimal, inexpensive tools. The ease of these activities underscores the high level of threat to STLs. Nevertheless, to prevent these crimes, various situational crime prevention techniques can be applied, examples of which are provided below.

Given so few natural or logistical barriers exist, reducing STL poaching can be accomplished by increasing the risks of apprehension. This can be accomplished by strengthening formal surveillance through enforcing Pakistan’s existing protection laws. Additionally, removing excuses can be carried out by alerting public’s conscience and changing public attitudes about the impacts and circumstances of the illegal use of STL products and encouraging them to engage in the efforts to protect the species.

Over the period of this study, a distinct surge of video creation and viewer engagement is observable in the Spring and early Summer months. Further study is needed into potential causes of this trend, such as lizard behavior, climate activity and cultural events. If poaching is seasonal in certain geographic areas, then increasing the effort can be achieved through focused surveillance and interdiction by hardening targets and controlling access to facilities (i.e. known poaching locations) during those time periods to reduce the volume of lizard hunting.

The reviewed YouTube videos contain quantitative data that can aid researchers interested in the impact of oil production on the STL population. Captured spiny-tailed lizards, both alive and dead, are seen in all but a few of the 127 reviewed videos. Production videos show that oil derived from the fat of one lizard typically fills one bottle sold to consumers. In addition, comments left by people who have viewed the videos provide a window into the customer demand for STL oil. Sellers often kill lizards to fulfill specific customer orders, so the demand for oil has a measurable and direct impact on the lizard population. All of this information about the three observed oil sellers offers the opportunity to extrapolate and quantify the number of lizards being captured annually by these sellers, as well as others working in a similar manner. Importantly, this information offers insights into how intervention efforts can also focus on reducing the demand through reducing provocations. This can be achieved by discouraging imitation via targeted messaging (e.g. through advertisements, billboards, education materials and campaigns) that undermine the utility of the STL oil as a panacea for the medical conditions it claims to cure.

The fact that STLs can be raised domestically is a promising opportunity for preserving the wild population and assisting those who are economically dependent on poaching activities. Government and conservation efforts can focus on removing excuses by assisting compliance through the promotion of STL farming as a viable replacement for poaching to protect lizards while also offering a realistic alternative for lizard poachers who might have no other livelihood. Combining these efforts with educational campaigns demonstrating the physical equivalency of wild and domestically-bred lizards could counter the appeal of wild lizard oil.

As discussed earlier, the study videos contain sales pitches appealing to men seeking treatment for sexual dysfunction. In light of governmental and religious prohibitions of pharmaceutical treatment options, we recommend interventions focused on desensitizing dialogue about sexual wellness and discrediting the effectiveness of STL-oil (i.e. reducing the rewards by denying benefits). Cultural influencers, such as religious leaders, doctors and educators, could lend persuasive authority in debunking the value of STL-oil for sexual dysfunction. YouTube and other online platforms could be used to improve awareness in a manner that reaches potential consumers, such as by using similar keywords that will prompt discovery of content from both STL-oil vendors and educators.

Raising awareness or alerting conscience among consumers about the vulnerable status of STLs also can discourage purchases of oil, particularly among international customers who may not know that lizards are being hunted unlawfully.

Importantly, the online services facilitating oil trafficking must increase the risks by utilizing place managers to engage in combating this trade. As described in the earlier study (Gondhali & Petrossian, 2023), social media and communication platforms, payment processors and shipping companies that are informed about the oil sellers’ sales model can take significant steps to block the trafficking of wild STL-oil. In addition, these companies should be encouraged to join the ‘Coalition to Prevent Wildlife Trafficking Online, a group convened by TRAFFIC, the World Wildlife Fund and the International Fund for Animal Welfare. The Coalition partners with online companies in various industries in the effort to stop the global online illegal wildlife trade. Prevention efforts by the services that enable cyber transactions could make an important impact on ending the illegal wildlife trade.

Study limitations

This study was limited to the video postings of three STL-oil sellers over a period of approximately 3 years. As such, its findings come from a small sample size of limited duration. Nevertheless, the total videos posted by these sellers, combined with more than 4,000 comments associated with these videos, provide insight about the modus operandi of the online sales of spiny tailed lizards, as well as the processes of consumer engagement with these videos. Future research can expand analysis to include more sellers and possibly videos for longer time periods, both of which are likely to offer even more information about the scope of STL exploitation.

Concluding remarks

The trade in oil derived from the spiny-tailed lizard illustrates how, in the age of the Internet, local customs impacting a threatened species can quickly develop into a global force, pushing the species towards extinction. The videos that are the subject of this study provide a clear demonstration of wildlife trafficking that occurs openly online, enabled by an array of communication, payment, and shipping services. Analysis of these videos suggests several avenues for prevention of this illegal trade, as well as areas for further research.

Availability of data and materials

The data that support the findings of this study are available on request from the corresponding author, UG.


  1. Cornish (1994, p. 173) defines “facets” as ““alternative methods of carrying out the action particular to each scene”.

  2. The Comment Picker is a platform of social media tools that allows users to export and download YouTube comments and related data in Excel or CSV format.

  3. For example, a seller from one of the YouTube channels said in the video: “We are delivering our product worldwide. Whether you are from Pakistan or anywhere else, we will deliver you our best quality product. In Pakistan, it is coming through TCS and in other parts of the world through DHL courier service.” (Audio transcript from Video #3). Another example was a potential buyer who left a comment below one of the STL oil sales videos, asking: “Brother, I want it, can I get it? Please make a WhatsApp call in Ludinya 8********2” (Comment left under Video #96).


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We thank the anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments.


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Correspondence to Ulhas Gondhali.

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Appendix: Descriptive statistics by channel, month, and season

Appendix: Descriptive statistics by channel, month, and season

The comments and video content provide insight into the behavior of those who poach spiny-tailed lizards (STL). Before providing the analysis using the crime scripts, this section discusses baseline information on YouTube videos. This preliminary exploration includes the views and the likes for the videos by channel, by published months, and by published seasons, as seen in Tables 6, 7, and 8.

Table 6 Descriptive statistics by channel
Table 7 Descriptive statistics by month
Table 8 Descriptive statistics by season

Table 6 provides an overview of views and likes for three YouTube channels: “Original Sanda Oil,” “Sahara Herbal Center,” and “Yaseen Super Power Tilla Center.” The Yaseen Super Power Tilla Center has substantial views of 5,917,599 and 71,398 likes of the 21 videos, an average of 281,790 views per video, and 3400 likes for each video. The “Original Sanda Oil” channel has garnered 1,846,765 views and 10,218 likes for its 93 videos. On average, each video received 19,858 views and 110 likes. “Sahara Herbal Center”, while having a total number of 13 videos, had a total of 616,672 views and 13,124 likes. The mean number of views per video and the mean number of likes per video are 47,436 and 1010, respectively.

Table 7 presents an overview of the STL poaching videos on YouTube, categorized by months. In April, there were a total of 12 videos posted, accumulating 4,923,192 views and 56,380 likes. Throughout this time frame, the videos in April had an average of 410,266 views and 4698 likes per video. Overall, the highest number of views and likes were in the month of April. October was the month with the second highest number of views and likes, recording 1,409,319 views and 6222 likes across 19 videos. The average views per video and average likes per video were 74,175 and 327, respectively.

Table 8 presents the descriptive statistics of the videos classified based on the different seasons in Pakistan (World Bank Group, 2021). In the Spring (Warm & Dry) season, a collective sum of 5,013,491 views and 58,103 likes were recorded across 23 videos. Each video in this season has an average of 217,978 views and 2526 likes. This suggests a significant level of involvement during the Spring season, with notable averages per video. During the Summer (Rainy & Monsoon) season, a total of 1,542,001 views and 24,680 likes were recorded across 38 videos. The mean number of views per video and the mean number of likes per video during this season are 40,579 and 649, respectively. During the Fall (Retreating Monsoon) season, the videos accumulated a total of 1,427,472 views and received 7074 likes from 22 videos. The mean number of views per video and the mean number of likes per video were 64,885 and 322, respectively. Lastly, during the Winter (Cool & Dry) season, a total of 398,072 views and 4883 likes were recorded for 44 videos. The mean number of views per video and the mean number of likes per video were 9047 and 111, respectively. Although there was a greater number of videos, the engagement metrics per video were relatively lower in the Winter season.

Table 9 highlights the top ten most viewed videos of the 127 videos. Notably, the channel “Yaseen Super Power Tilla Center” has the most popular videos, with six of its videos securing positions in the top ten most viewed list. Further analysis reveals a seasonal pattern within the top ten most viewed videos. A predominant presence of eight videos published during the spring and summer seasons signifies heightened interest and viewership during these warmer periods. Conversely, there is a comparatively lower representation, with only one video, each from the Fall and Winter seasons, securing a spot in the top ten.

Table 9 Top ten videos ranked by views

Figure 1 displays the monthly statistics for the count of videos, average views, and average likes by channel. The channel “Original Sanda Oil” uploaded the most number of videos, with the majority of them being published in October and January. Despite the fact that the videos from Channel “Original Sanda Oil” comprise the largest number of videos, they have garnered the fewest views and likes. The channel “Yaseen Super Power Tilla Center” has the second highest number of videos out of the three channels. The videos were primarily posted between April and June, and garnered the maximum number of views and likes from April to May. The YouTube channel “Sahara Herbal Center” consistently uploaded their videos throughout the months, but received the majority of their views and likes in August.

Fig. 1
figure 1

Counts of videos, views, and likes by channel and by published month

Figure 2 Illustrates the patterns of released videos according to their published seasons. In the top-left figure, The channel “Original Sanda Oil” had the highest number of videos, especially in the winter season. Nevertheless, a notable discrepancy arises, as the number of views and likes does not correspond proportionally to the large number of videos posted. Moving to the top-center, “Yaseen Super Power Tilla Center” demonstrates a surge in published videos during the summer, although videos posted in the spring earn the maximum number of views and likes among all three channels. Significantly, this difference implies that viewers have a seasonal inclination towards specific content. Lastly, in the top-right of the graph, the channel “Sahara Herbal Center” distributed their video publications throughout the spring and summer seasons, and the number of views and likes that they received closely corresponded to their publication pattern.

Fig. 2
figure 2

Counts of videos, views, and likes by channel and by published season

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Gondhali, U., Merzon, A., Nunphong, T. et al. Crime script analysis of the illegal sales of spiny-tailed lizards on YouTube. Crime Sci 13, 8 (2024).

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