The European Union, currently at 28 member states, forms one of the largest consumer markets for wildlife and wildlife products in the world and is a significant consumer of species regulated by the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES). In 2011 alone, the estimated value of EU imports of CITES listed animals or animal products was 449 million euros, with 70% of this financial value thought to be attributed to reptile skin and leather products (UNEP-WCMC, 2013).
Of international seizures of CITES species that occur in the EU, approximately 10% are illegally smuggled live reptiles and around 7% are bodies, derivatives or parts of reptiles (TRAFFIC, 2013). Due to its criminal nature, it is very difficult to obtain reliable figures to estimate the scale of illegal wildlife trade and any estimated numbers are likely to be conservative.
Unfortunately, on top of the unambiguously illegal wildlife, there is also a large proportion of the illegal wildlife that is passed off as legal. For example, an enormous challenge is the laundering of wild species that are listed as captive bred or farmed (where wild adults are collected and their offspring are then bred in the country of origin, or eggs are taken from the wild and incubated) in order to dodge legislative obstacles and fees. This is often identifiable by a sudden increase in exports of captive bred species from countries that have not had much history of captive breeding of that species, particularly after changes in legislation, such as the trade ban on wild caught Horsfield’s tortoises that came into effect in the EU in 1999.
Furthermore, following inspections by TRAFFIC staff of facilities where many “farmed” reptiles are supposed to have been bred in their countries of origin it was apparent that in almost all of the cases many of the operations were not capable of producing commercial quantities of reptiles. There was often insufficient equipment, insufficient knowledge and in some cases no actual specimens of the species that they were allegedly breeding. Thus it appears that captive breeding was unlikely to be occurring at the reported levels in these facilities, which unfortunately means that almost certainly most of the animals they are exporting are wild caught.
The unsustainable harvest of reptiles for the pet trade often has stark impacts on wild populations. For example, in Indonesia, island populations of the green tree python (Morelia viridis) a valuable, high-demand, species in the pet industry has been documented to be declining and having skewed demographics. This in turn means not only are the green tree pythons in these areas likely to have lower survival and reproductive rates, but the depletion of these predators may also be having knock on effects on the surrounding ecosystem.
Furthermore, these wild caught animals can carry diseases, (this is particularly problematic in amphibians that can carry deadly Chytridiomycosis) which can then pass these on to other stock, especially if they don’t undergo any kind of quarantine. Worse still, if any of these animals escape or are released later in their life by disillusioned owners, these diseases can be spread to wild populations of other species. A classic example of this is the North American bullfrog (Lithobates catesbeianus). Large numbers of live bullfrogs are transported around the globe for the food trade. These animals are resistant to Chytrid, so do not suffer any symptoms, but can carry the disease and have been a key factor involved in the spread of some strains of Chytrid to populations of wild frogs (Schloegel et al. 2012). In the case of rare or endemic frogs, this can be disastrous and even has the potential to wipe out entire populations.
What can be done to curb the illegal wildlife trade and ensure that legal wildlife trade is kept at sustainable levels?
Firstly, though there are a variety of governing bodies involved in wildlife trade, such as CITES and DEFRA, legislation needs to be tightened and enforced. Through education, awareness needs to be raised at all the different levels in the chain, from the farmer in Indonesia going out and collecting pythons, to governments, to customs officials, to pet shop owners and consumers. A better understanding of the legislation and what it is trying to protect may help individuals to make more responsible choices. Furthermore, training customs officials for identifying different species and educating people on the importance of wildlife conservation may motivate people to take wildlife crime more seriously and to enforce legislation. Between governments, customs officials and NGOs there needs to be more transparent communication and shared intelligence, in order to be as efficient as possible in tackling the illegal wildlife trade.
On a local level, particularly in underprivileged areas in developing countries, there needs to be an incentive for people, financial or otherwise, not to harvest animals in an unsustainable manner. This could be through activities such as tourism, more sustainable farming practices or alternative sources of income or compensation. Potentially the animals could be bought at higher value when proven to be captive bred or have a high standard of welfare.
At the consumer level, consumers need to be encouraged to be better informed about welfare, disease and conservation and to question sellers thoroughly before purchasing. In the UK a closer monitoring of the welfare conditions and sources of animals being sold in pet shops is needed. Pet fairs and shows need more regulation and could potentially be licensed. Again, this would need to be incentivised in a way so that they weren’t just carried out illegally, this could be through education about conservation or with financial incentives.
Froglife is a charity that is committed to conserving our native reptiles and amphibians in the UK and we are very aware the impact that wildlife trade, both legal and illegal, can have on these animals. We hope to help raise awareness about these issues through education and community outreach.
By Alexia Fish
UNEP-WCMC (2013). Analysis of European Union and candidate countries’ annual reports to CITES
- 2011. UNEP-WCMC, Cambridge, UK.
Schloegel, L.M., Toledo, L.F., Longcore, J.E., Greenspan, S.E., Vieira, C.A., Lee, M., Zhao, S., Wangen, C., FERREIRA, C., Hipolito, M. and Davies, A.J., 2012. Novel, panzootic and hybrid genotypes of amphibian chytridiomycosis associated with the bullfrog trade. Molecular Ecology,21(21), pp.5162-5177.
TRAFFIC (2013). Overview of important international seizures of CITES-listed specimens in the
European Union – January to December 2012. TRAFFIC briefing for the European Commission