CITES and the reptile trade

The leopard gecko. Due to the ease of breeding this species in captivity, wild populations are under very limited pressure.

As I’m sure a number of you are aware, exotic species of reptiles are popular pets in both Europe and the United States. Two of the most common exotic pet reptiles in Europe are the corn snake (Patherophis guttatus) and leopard gecko (Eublepharis macularius). These species are common in captivity and breed readily meaning they are able to supply the demand. As we’ll see there are some species which don’t breed as easily and the demand simply can’t be met with captive bred individuals. The popularity that is linked to the hobby is also a cause of concern for conservationists like myself. A number of exotic reptiles have been introduced to countries outside of their natural range; an example is the red-eared slider (Trachemys scripta elegans) which has been introduced too much of Europe and Asia. Another example is the Burmese Python (Python bivittatus) which has been introduced to the Florida Everglades. These introductions may have been accidental, on purpose or mediated through natural disasters. Whatever the introduction pathway, the species are likely to wreak havoc in their introduced environment if they have a lack of predators and are able to out compete the native species.

On the opposite side of the coin from introduction is eradication. Some species that are caught and traded are at risk of eradication and therefore extinction in the wild, thankfully there is international legislation that helps protect against this. This legislation is known as CITES (this stands for the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora). CITES is an important international agreement signed by 183 parties (182 states and the EU) and effective since 1st July 1975. The overall goal of the treaty is to ensure that the international trade in wild animals and plants doesn’t threaten the survival of the species in the wild. Roughly a total of 5,600 animal and 30,000 plant species are protected through CITES.

Each of the species (or in some cases populations) is listed on one of three lists called Appendices. Each Appendix has a differing level of protection and so the Appendix a species is listed on reflects the level of the threat facing it. Appendix I protects species that are most at threat from extinction and or may be affected by trade. Commercial trade in wild-caught specimens of these species is illegal. Some examples of species listed as Appendix I include the western gorilla (Gorilla gorilla), cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) and tigers (Pantera tigris). At the 17th Convention of Parties (24th September to 5th October 2016) all eight species of pangolin (Manis spp.) were unanimously listed under Appendix I.

The Burmese python. A species which has become a massive invasive problem in the Florida Everglades due to poor regulation and management of the captive population and its trade. This species now does better as a alien than in its natural home range in South-east Asia.

Appendix II lists species which may not necessarily be threatened with extinction but may become so if trade is not subject to strict regulation. Article VII of CITES states that Appendix I species bred in captivity for commercial purposes are treated as Appendix II species. This is a potential gateway to illicit trading that we will come back to later on. No import permit is required for the importation of Appendix II species but a non-detriment report and export permit are required by the exporting party. Examples of Appendix II species include the great white shark (Carcharadon carcharias), Aldabra giant tortoise (Aldabrachelys gigantea) and American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis). Finally, there are Appendix III species which have been listed after a member country has asked other CITES parties for assistance in controlling trade in a particular species. In all member countries, trade in Appendix III species is only permitted with an appropriate export license and a certificate of origin from the state that listed the species. Examples of Appendix III species include Russell’s viper (Daboia russelii), the common map turtle (Gratemys geographica) and the alligator snapping turtle (Macrochelys temminckii).

A large number of endangered reptile species are listed on CITES and the control of these species is very effective. Unfortunately however, individuals do manage to ‘slip the net’ due to ineffective or corrupt border control measures, or by using increasingly intricate methods of concealing animals. Another aspect of CITES which isn’t often discussed is that illegally smuggled animals may also be carrying diseases. The regulation of trade helps to stop the spread of wildlife diseases which may cause epidemics in native populations of susceptible hosts elsewhere. There are of course other species which aren’t listed under any of the CITES Appendices but are still at risk of extinction due to overexploitation, 90% of all reptile species aren’t listed on the Appendices. We’ll focus on these species next and look at what can be done to help protect the species.

In 2012 an attractive lizard was rediscovered on the island of Borneo. The lizard is slender, elongate and covered in granule nodule like scales. It inhabits lowlands near streams and agricultural landscapes. The expansion of palm oil plantations has recently pushed this species into the open making individuals easier for smugglers to obtain. The Bornean earless monitor (Lanthanotus borneensis) has recently become popular with collectors due to its prehistoric looks and small size. At this present moment in time, the species is only protected in its home range so once animals are smuggled out, there is little that can be done to stop the trade of them within Europe. It’s clear then that all earless monitors that are housed in captive collections have somewhere down the line originated from illegally obtained animals be it themselves or their parents. It isn’t only the earless monitor that is of risk of exploitation such as this; new and attractive species are also at risk – so much so that scientists are starting to omit the locations of restricted and aesthetically pleasing species from the scientific literature in a bid to protect them from smugglers.

As mentioned earlier, CITES is effective and does protect a number of reptile species but some of these are at a later stage than others. For example, smaller species are easier to smuggle and hide than larger bulkier species (especially within luggage) but these are usually picked up by border forces either in the country of origin or the destination country. Obviously animals do get through which is a shame. This may be down to ineffective countermeasures or corruption. Perhaps the employment of detection dogs in airports to find hidden animals are needed (much like how they are used to find concealed narcotics and explosives). In most cases where animals are recovered, those that are still alive are usually housed at nearby zoos and released back into the wild if possible. Unfortunately not all the animals survive this traumatic journey due to the cruel and inhumane conditions they are usually kept in during transit.

During the 2016 17th Conference of the Parties, lots of headway was made in terms of protecting reptiles. For example, two Columbian populations of Crocodylus acutus were downlisted to Appendix II, the Mexican population of Crocodylus moreletii were downlisted to Appendix II and finally in terms of crocodilians the Sarawak population of Crocodylus porosus were downlisted to Appendix II. The arboreal alligator lizards (Abronia anzuetoi, Abronia campbbelli, Abronia fimbriata, Abronia frosti & Abronia meledona) are now listed on Appendix I, all other species on Abronia are included in Appendix II. All chameleons of the generas Rhampholeon and Rieppeleon are now included in Appendix II. The geckos Cnemaspis psychedelica and Lygodactylus williamsi have been included in Appendix I. The gecko Paroedura masobe has been included in Appendix II and the lizard Lanthanotus borneensis (mentioned earlier) is also now included in Appendix II. The highly sought after Shinisaurus crocodilurus has been uplifted to Appendix I. The snakes Atheris desaixa and Bitis worthingtoni have been listed on Appendix II. The soft shell turtles Cyclanorbis elegans, Cyclanorbis senegalensis, Cyclanorbis frenatum, Cyclanorbis aubryi, Trionyx triungus and Rafetus euphraticus have all been included in Appendix II. Hopefully the listing of these reptile species will see them afforded better protection so that their populations can recover and grown.

Above I mentioned that there may be a potential gateway for illegal trading in captured wild animals if a species is listed on Appendix II. Imagine a species is listed on Appendix I, the trade of captive bred animals of this species is classed as Appendix II. This is where the route is open to exploitation. If someone were to smuggle individuals of our imaginary species out of their home country, they could easily claim that the animals in their possession are captive bred. In terms of the identifying paperwork, it isn’t too crazy to think that counterfeit documents are available on the black market. Criminals produce counterfeit passports, currency and other important documents so it’s reasonable to assume that someone somewhere specialises in the production of counterfeit CITES documentation.

With so many species under pressure from the potential of over-exploitation and people willing to pay extortionate amounts for the ‘Holy Grail’, is CITES working effectively? If not, what can be done to help strengthen protection of wild animals that may be targeted? CITES is working in some cases but traffickers are exploiting loopholes in the current legislation so this needs to be addressed. In the cases where CITES isn’t working such as the ploughshare tortoise (Astrochelys yniphora), further steps are needed to help stop the illegal trade of wild-caught specimens.

First of all education on the origins of the animals needs to be addressed, this is both at the dealer end and at the consumer end. The dealer may tell potential buyers that the animals are captive bred but how can the buyer really be sure? Can the dealer be sure where the supplier is getting their animals from? Buyers tend not to question where their products come from in a normal retail setting; the same probably applies for the purchasing of pets such as reptiles. If consumers want individuals of a particular species, do they really care where they are coming from? With the ploughshare tortoises, the animals were branded to make them less desirable, perhaps this is something that can be replicated on applicable species.

The Bornean earless monitor. Unfortunately a rare species currently overlooked by trade regulations. It needs protection immediately. Image courtesy of Chien C. Lee, Wild Borneo Photography.

The second thing that needs to be done is the strengthening of legislation protecting such species – especially those that breed very slowly. The penalties for smugglers and traffickers also need to be set higher in order to deter people from committing the crimes in the first place. In so, to prevent people from losing their livelihoods it may be possible to employ ex-smugglers to help monitor the species in the wild. If they’ve been able to find them to supply black market networks around the world, the smugglers obviously know where and when to look for the target species. This will provide a more stable income and provide job security for the reformed smugglers while helping to conserve the species. Even if smugglers and traffickers are caught, the underlying networks within the black market are largely unknown.

Finally a more radical and slightly controversial option would be to breed the animals in an institution for supply to the pet trade. This option can’t be applied to all species, but imagine a zoo is able to legally obtain a couple of breeding pairs of an endangered species which is highly sought after. The zoo then breeds this example species for two purposes. One is to boost the captive population and eventually lead to reintroductions (boosting the wild population); the second is to sell individuals legally on the pet market. Here the zoo may be able to undercut the price of the smuggled animals. The money raised can then be put back into conservation and the smugglers will slowly be pushed out of the market. In doing this, the zoo will be able to ensure a pure genetic bloodline (through the use of stud books) so that no future collections from the wild are needed. This is especially important as the total private collection may have become too genetically weak due to countless inbreeding.

This last option is controversial I know; it may also be extremely hard if not impossible in most cases. In a time when legislation such as CITES is needed at an all-time high, alternative countermeasures are needed due to the lag or such legislation being drafted and coming into effect. It’s clear that without the legal safety net of CITES and related international legislation then the world would be a very different place. We may not have African elephants (Loxodonta africana) or similar megafauna around today if it were not for laws prohibiting the trade of ivory. Similarly, there are a number of reptile species which may have vanished from the wild due to the nature of overexploitation. There is still a long way for CITES to go before it becomes the solution to all of conservation’s problems in terms of the issues it deals with. More focus needs to be placed on conservation instead of trade and politics if we are going to safeguard the most imperilled species for future generations to enjoy and experience.

About Steven Allain 11 Articles
Steve is a zoology graduate from Anglia Ruskin, Cambridge. He is the current chairman of the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Amphibian & Reptile Group (CPARG) and helps to organise and coordinate a number of amphibian and reptile surveys around the county to map the distribution of amphibians within Cambridgeshire. Steve has a blog and is an intern for IUCN SSC Amphibian Red List Authority since last summer. He has recently joined the SAVE THE FROGS! Task Force and is currently carrying out an amphibian based research project in Malaysia. Check out Steve on Twitter (@stevoallain) and find more of his work on ResearchGate.

3 Comments on CITES and the reptile trade

  1. Great article, Steven. The illegal pet trade is an unfortunate reality, and certainly should be something that should be discussed in more detail to the wider public. How many regular people know about the Asian Turtle Crisis? Very few, I would imagine. As a tortoise enthusiast, I think I should add that 80% of the world’s tortoise species are listed as at least ‘Vulnerable’, and that all tortoise species are listed on either Appendix I or II.

    I am now (mostly) against the pet trade for exotic animals. Yet, in reality, it was the pet trade that introduced me to the world of tortoises. Hermann’s Tortoises were one of my first pets growing up (still have them today). If it were not for them (and perhaps the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles), I imagine there is a very small chance that I would have been involved in tortoise research in the US or South Africa. I am certain that the pet trade has encouraged this enthusiasm for herpetology in countless others too.

    The world is in a sad state. There are so many different issues that are impacting our wildlife that most people don’t even consider the pet trade to be responsible.

    To any readers, though I’m sure it is an unnecessary statement, I encourage you to buy legally. If you are abroad and see wildlife for sale that you suspect was captured by illegal means, DO NOT buy and release. You are only fuelling the trade.

  2. Excellent piece Steven thanks for the share! I also couldn’t agree with you and Martyn more in terms of ethical and unethical trade. Same as Martyn if it wasn’t for starting out at a young age keeping red eared sliders and corn snakes I’m not sure I would have ended up pursuing herpetology as a career or research path. I still believe its vital to get hands on with these animals to encourage your passion. Luckily for me my sliders were rescues I re-homed and the corns (and later other species) were all captive bred from a very reputable ethical specialist reptile store. I’ve also thought something countries should consider is making pet shops that deal in reptile and amphibians (and other exotic animals) make potential buyers of these animals sit a examine on husbandry and finding out their genuine interest in buying these animals. At the end of the day it also nearly entirely boils down to supply and demand. If the demand was only coming from educated and ethical potential collectors and keepers they will not accept animals coming from illegal or cruel circumstances thus if the demand is fair the supply would be fair. Unfortunately I can’t see a appetite for such a scheme as there is just too much money involved.

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