Reptiles! You either love them or are terrified of them. If you love them - would you have them as pets? If you are terrified - do you stay as far away from them as possible?
These scaly, slow-moving, slithering creatures have found their way into many a household across the globe. Like dogs, cats and parrots, snakes, lizards, chameleons, bearded dragons (I must admit that sometime in my life, I thought it would be cool to have a bearded dragon pet) iguanas and tortoises have been part of the pet trade for decades. They are wanted as pets and as live collectables by hobbyists, the rarer the species, the more sort after and pricier the specimen is.
Reptiles are also used for medicine, consumption, luxury goods like handbags and wait for it… instruments; yes leather percussion instruments are made out of reptile skins.
Reptiles! You either love them or are terrified of them.
When you think of wildlife trade, whether it be legal or illegal, the first things that might pop into your head are rhinos and elephants. Most of us don't realise that reptiles make up the largest percentage of animals trafficked worldwide. Between 1996 and 2008, 70% of wildlife seizures were reptiles while only 6% were mammals, I'm looking for a more up-to-date graph. Be that as it may, the hub of reptile trafficking is imported and exported mainly by Indonesia and the European Union, particularly Germany, which has a cultural tradition of collecting reptiles. Regarding Indonesia and other Asian countries, their main focus for reptiles is food consumption and traditional medicine with reptiles being traded for skins and pets.
This pie graph says it all
So why is it so easy for traffickers to import and export reptiles and other wildlife so easily? To begin with, let's look at a North American Act that was put through in 1900 called the Lacey Act
· Under the Lacey Act, it is unlawful to import, export, sell, acquire, or purchase fish, wildlife or plants that are taken, possessed, transported, or sold: 1) in violation of U.S. or Indian law, or 2) in interstate or foreign commerce involving any fish, wildlife, or plants taken possessed or sold in violation of State or foreign law.
In some countries the law protecting animals is great where as in other countries its a bit lacking
This Act works well; however, Asia and The European Union do not have any equivalent laws like this, and so in some circumstances, you can consider it as a free for all situation. I found even more concerning that the law in Vietnam protects its native species of wildlife but no rules about protecting non-native species entering the country. Another glaring loophole in reptiles' protection is that 75% of reptile species are not on CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora).
Law enforcement really pays off when done correctly
The boom of internet and social media has made it increasingly easy to communicate with potential clients and transfer money across far distances without even leaving your home. This trend has ballooned even more significantly with the current Covid-19 pandemic, yes, I bet you never even thought that even organised crime is working from home in lockdown just as we are.
Now before I get hate mail in my inbox, some species are legal to have as long as you have a permit. It comes from a sustainable captive-bred population; in other words, it's not the last remaining lesser-spotted mud iguana only found on the Swiss Alps.
Two last elements that cause trafficking of reptiles easier are 1) when scientific papers are published online of a new species of reptile found, they usually include the species' location with GPS coordinates. Its little wonder when these exact species are found on reptile pet sites. 2) In most circumstances, animals don't like breeding in captivity, particularly reptiles. It's a very long and expensive process, and it's much easier to rustle up a couple of poachers to do the dirty work. Sometimes fraudsters will say in the advertisement that it's a captive breed individual, but actually, it was caught in the wild a couple of days or weeks before the sale.
Some people really enjoy keeping snakes and other reptiles as pets
What is being done
One issue concerning reptile conservation and law enforcement is that they don't draw as much attention from the general public as charismatic animals like rhino's, whales and elephants. This means that they don't get enough campaigning or funding for protective laws and law enforcement. Even when a specific species population number is sitting at around a thousand individuals, any amount taken out of the wild can have dire consequences.
Despite this, researchers are exploring new ways of combating the illegal wildlife trade and finding the different routes and stakeholders involved. In 2018, as if taken out of a mission impossible movie, researchers planted decoy turtle eggs amongst real eggs laid by the turtles in the breeding season. These decoy eggs had a GPS tracker built inside; the GPS would ping its location once every hour back to the researcher's computer. Most eggs were taken near the local villages where they are either used in cocktail drinks or given to family and friends as gifts. In a different circumstance, the eggs were taken 137 km away, giving the researchers a brief view of what may have been a full chain of the trade from beginning to end. The researcher who made the device admitted she was inspired and got the idea from watch boxsets such as The Wire and Breaking Bad. So, there is the proof folks, binge-watching your favourite boxsets can lead to results in the real world.
I know what I'm doing this weekend
People are not concerned about buying reptiles as pets because they are unaware of or lack the understanding that they may be stolen directly from the wild. In one case a woman had purchased a lizard as a pet, when she later found out that it could have been poached from the wild, she couldn't live with herself and later released it. Whether it was a native species or not, is another question and a completely different topic on alien invasive species, which I won't be getting into now.
Sit smiley sit
I think I'll end off by saying what I said earlier; it's not illegal to have reptiles as pets. However, make sure you care for them properly. More importantly, it would help if you first did your homework on the species you want. If it's the lesser spotted mud iguana and there's only five left in the wild, perhaps it would be better if you chose a more common species that can be captively bred sustainably. Secondly, make sure you have the right documentation and permits to keep such animals as pets for yourself and check the dealer's documentation for the species. If the dealer doesn't want to show you these documents and licenses to trade, then walk away and report him. Lastly don't feel bad about reporting fraudsters who are breaking the law, you will not only be saving another person who fell into the same trap as you, but you will hopefully be saving a reptile's life.
(Nijman & Bergin, 2017) (Janssen & Krishnasamy, 2018) (Hübschle, 2017)(Shepherd, Gomez, & Nijman, 2020) (BIAWAK, 2016) ( et al., 2018) (Altherr & Lameter, 2020) (Welton, 2020) (Jolly & Webb, n.d.)(Mandimbihasina et al., 2020) (D’Cruze et al., 2020) (Title The desolation of Smaug: the human-driven decline of the Sungazer lizard ( Smaug giganteus ) Author names and affiliations Shivan Parusnath, n.d.) (Fonseca, Solé, Rödder, & De Marco, 2017) (Morgan & Chng, 2018)(Setyawatiningsih, 2018) (Sigouin et al., 2017)(Rajpoot et al., 2018)
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