The online reptile trade is a free game that threatens thousands of species
Cave geckos illustrate evolution at its most fantastic. Some have blood red eyes and sport bright yellow stripes on their dark bodies. Others are Popsicle blue or have camouflage patterns of fiery orange and brown. Many species of these lizards are only found on a small stretch, such as a single limestone hill in China. More than a dozen are listed as endangered, some of them critically, by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
Yet, in part because they are rare and endangered, cave geckos are all the rage among reptile collectors. They are one of approximately 4,000 species of reptiles, including highly endangered species.which are regularly traded onlineaccording to an article published Tuesday in Nature Communication. The animals of 90% of these species, representing half of the individual reptiles traded on the web, are wild-caught, the authors found. And the majority of these species are not included in any international regulations aimed at guaranteeing the sustainability of their trade. “Right now, the status quo is that anything can be traded until you say it’s not,” says Alice Hughes, study co-author and ecologist at the Chinese Academy of Humanities. science. “That leaves thousands of species vulnerable to extinction.”
As the new document shows, no organization tracks global trade data for species that are not included in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), a global treaty. created in 1973 to ensure trade involving wildlife. don’t put them at risk. Hughes wanted to determine how representative CITES is in terms of the international reptile trade, which affects snakes, lizards, tortoises, tortoises, and crocodilians, among others. She and her colleagues compiled official data from 2000 to 2019 from CITES and US Fish and Wildlife Service records, then collated their own information from websites that sell reptiles. For the latter, they used an algorithm to identify and retrieve data from nearly 24,000 pages on 151 websites in English, German, Spanish, Japanese and French.
Researchers have listed 3,943 species, or 36% of all known reptile species, for sale online. Most were those that are legal to trade as pets. But the question of whether a given species can be legally traded internationally is not automatically linked to its conservation status. Over a third of the reptiles on the list, including the Borneo earless monitor lizard and the Madagascar monitor lizard Uroplatus finaritra, a leaf-tailed gecko – have not been assessed for their conservation status. This situation means that scientists have no way of knowing if the trade is having an impact on the survival of these species. Of those that have been assessed, more than 500 are listed by the IUCN as being in danger of extinction. This group includes more than 100 critically endangered species, such as the Lauhachinda cave gecko in Thailand and the Yamashina ground gecko in Japan.
The study’s findings further underestimate the true number of reptile species taken in trade, says Hughes, because his analysis did not include social media sites – where previous research has shown that high levels of wildlife trade take place. The paper also lacks results from websites in languages other than the five it examined.
Additionally, the research does not attempt to quantify how many individuals of each species are being sold online, says Vincent Nijman, a wildlife trade expert at Oxford Brookes University in England, who was not involved. in the study. “The paper highlights that indeed the trade affects a very large number of species,” he says. “But if you really want to change policy, you need to have a clearer idea of the actual volumes involved. This is not a critique of this study, but is ultimately where we need to go with future work.
Hughes and his colleagues found that 79% of reptile species sold online are not regulated by CITES. For these and other species not part of the treaty, the quantities would likely be impossible to determine, says Hughes, because no agency is tracking them.
To be listed under CITES, species must go through a lengthy nomination process—which, on average, takes more than 10 years to be completed, according to a 2019 Science paper. Nor is it enough to show that trade threatens a species to justify its addition to the treaty, because commercial interests take precedence over science, environmentalists have warned. “I attended the CITES conference last year in Geneva, and I was frankly amazed at how purely economic it seemed to be,” says Hughes.
Academia “perhaps underestimates the overall cost of regulating species under CITES,” the CITES Secretariat wrote in a statement to American Scientist. “It is probably true that the robust compliance mechanisms that CITES has developed over the years, and for which it is feared and famous, have more impact if species are involved that are commercially important” for the countries concerned where these species are found.
John Scanlon, former secretary general of CITES, who was not involved in the study, says he disagrees with the observation that treaty members often prioritize economic considerations over scientific ones. Lesser known species of birds, insects, frogs, lizards, rodents, snakes, turtles, etc. nominations,” he says. “CITES is imperfect, but it has proven to be quite effective.”
That said, “there are clearly gaps in our knowledge and data on trade in unlisted species, including reptiles,” Scanlon adds. “This report shows that parties should nominate more reptiles for CITES listing, which, in view of this report, seems warranted.”
However, Hughes questions whether the treaty is the best tool to quickly ensure that the pet trade does not endanger species. A more effective strategy, she says, would be for each country to pass legislation banning the import of certain wild-caught animals, as the United States and European Union have already done for many bird species. . At the same time, the pet industry could transition to captive breeding operations with the necessary oversight. “We’re not against keeping exotic animals as pets, but it should be sustainable,” says Hughes. “We need to develop better systems to ensure that the pet trade does not lead to species extinction.”