2013 – Year of the Snake

According to the Chinese Zodiac, 2013 is the Year of the Snake. However this is not a cause of celebration for the growing business of exotic pet trade. According to new research, the trade is largely associated with illegal practices, high levels of mortality during transportation and little compensation for the hunters collecting the animals in the forests. Is there anything that can be done to improve these opaque supply chains?

year of snake
2013: Year of the Snake, but not a lot to celebrate for the snake itself

During the recent CITES CoP 16 in Bangkok, I met two herpetologists Jessica Lyons and Daniel Natusch from the Boa and Python Specialist Group of the IUCN. They have just published research in Biodiversity Conservation on the trade in reptiles.

Jess and Dan, both in their 20s and graduates of Sydney University spent six months talking to traders and communities in provinces of New Guinea, Indonesia. They paint a picture of a trade that is largely illegal. Many of the animals traded normally die in transit. Hunters do not benefit much financially from the trade, although some communities are harvesting reptiles sustainably with traditional techniques in spite of pressure from traders seeking out as many animals as they can find. Despite the poor return for the communities, the consumer is paying hundreds if not thousands of dollars for endemic, rare species from this region.

The two researchers report that nearly half the species they found being traded were illegally traded, i.e. were under CITES protection or had not been allocated a harvest quota. The illegal trade is driven by inadequate understanding of species and facilitated by poor monitoring and enforcement at key trade hubs.

One way that traders evade detection is to declare wild-caught snakes as captive bred. Customs authorities possess limited skills and knowledge in species identification and thus traders can convince them that protected species are just colour variants of legally tradeable species.

In terms of combatting illegal trade, the authors recommend the need for increased monitoring and enforcement, improving the knowledge base of species traded and educating consumers about the trade.

Another herpetologist present in Bangkok, Mark Auliya, described to me how Germany is the main trade destination with four trade fairs a year in Harm. What role is there for the authorities there and NGOs to force traders to demonstrate sustainable sourcing and to ensure humane and sanitary transport conditions?

In terms of contributions that an international agency could make, there is a need to map out the supply routes and to record what species are being traded, their level of protection and the sourcing policies of the traders present.

For more colourful stamps celebrating the Year of the Snake go to the Boa and Python Specialist Group of the IUCN.

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