From Re-Wilding To Un-Wilding

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Illustrations by R. Kikuo Johnson

Yesterday our attention was riveted by heroic efforts in the Highlands to re-wild, and today it is back to the sadder topic of un-wilding. Thanks to Rachel Nuwer for this article on a topic long of interest in these pages:

That Python in the Pet Store? It May Have Been Snatched From the Wild

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R. Kikuo Johnson

JAKARTA — In the market for a new pet? Maybe something a bit exotic? For many consumers, reptiles and amphibians are just the thing: geckos, monitors, pythons, tree frogs, boas, turtles and many more species are available in seemingly endless varieties, many brilliantly colored, some exceedingly rare.

Exotic reptiles and amphibians began surging in popularity in the early 1990s, not only in the United States but also in Europe and Japan. From 2004 to 2014, the European Union imported nearly 21 million of these animals; an estimated 4.7 million households in the United States owned at least one reptile in 2016.

But popularity has spawned an enormous illegal trade, conservationists say. Many reptiles sold as pets are said to have been bred in captivity, and sales of those animals are legal. In fact, many — perhaps most, depending on the species — were illegally captured in the wild.

“It’s the scale that matters, and the scale is huge, much bigger than people realize,” said Vincent Nijman, an anthropologist at Oxford Brookes University in England.

“Most conservationists are only focusing on charismatic species, but this trade is likely having a massive impact on ecosystems and populations of lesser-known animals.”

At a meeting last summer, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species — a treaty meant to regulate wildlife trade and ensure that it does not detrimentally impact species — identified 18 instances in which reptiles and amphibians are exported as captive-bred, but likely are not.

The examples included Indian star tortoises from Jordan; red-eyed tree frogs from Nicaragua; and savanna monitors from Ghana and Togo.

“These are the most blatantly questionable cases where we think something must urgently be done,” said Mathias Loertscher, chair of the Cites’s animals committee. “They are all critical.”

Dozens of countries export reptiles and other exotic animals labeled captive-bred, but Indonesia stands out. At least 80 percent of the 5,000-plus green pythons, for instance, annually exported from the country as captive-bred were caught illegally in the wild, depleting some island populations, according to a study published in the journal Biological Conservation.

As far back as 2006, Mark Auliya, a conservation biologist at the Zoological Research Museum Alexander Koenig in Bonn, Germany, surveyed 11 registered reptile breeding facilities in Indonesia and found that just one could plausibly be used for anything other than “laundering” animals that were caught in the wild.

“At most of these facilities, there was just no evidence of captive breeding actually happening,” he said. “And at the one where breeding efforts did take place, that only applied to one to three species kept at their facility.”

Five cases listed by Cites involve Indonesia, more than any other country. Officials here are now required to prove that certain animals to be sold abroad, including Oriental rat snakes and Timor monitors, are genuinely captive-bred. If they fail to do so, Cites may bar international trade in those species…

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