Well, it is not the evil dragon, but his namesake- a living, breathing dragon-like species found in South Africa.
Any pop-culture fan worth his salt would know about dragons, the mythical beasts of yore with flaming nostrils and unimaginable strength.
This species of spiky lizards are named after the dragon Smaug in The Hobbit fantasy series by Tolkien. The on-screen Smaug, boosted by the voice of Benedict Cumberbatch, was a tough nut to crack and a great antagonist. However, his namesake real-life dragons are critically endangered, facing the dual threat of developing landscape as well as poaching.
Known by their current name Smaug Giganteus– they are a group of girdled lizards, within a larger category of reptiles who have armor-plates around their bodies. They do go by a lot of names for instance- giant zonure, sungazer, giant dragon lizard, etc. Before 2011, they were grouped with other girdled lizards of their kind, known as Cordylus, before finally getting a name of their own. The reason these dragons are named after Tolkien’s character is that this family of lizards too have their origin in South Africa, the same as Tolkien.
And just like Smaug, they prefer to spend most of their time being underground. They are prevalent in South Africa’s Free State and Mpumalanga provinces. They can be found as much as 0.5 meters below the surface of the earth.
Appearance-wise, their body is covered with bony spikes, which are sharp to touch. They are sharp enough to keep away birds of prey, jackals, and well-meaning scientists who want to study them.
Sadly, this is not enough to keep them from harm’s way. The regions they call home are undergoing development rapidly and the ground is giving way to buildings and roads. The locals too are complicit in the depleting population of these sungazers, as they use this animal in making love potions. Even fashion enthusiasts crave Smaug’s beautiful skin to adorn their wardrobe.
Though they are protected internationally under CITES and nationally under Threatened or Protected Species (TOPS) list, these dragons are still in grave danger from poaching and the likes. Research institutes and NGOs alike are looking for ways to better protect these glorious reptiles.