Trade in exotic reptiles big business in SA
Posted by Miqe on May 20, 2007
By Christina Gallagher
The multimillion-rand international reptile trade in South Africa is growing, and experts have warned that, without the proper legislation in place, indigenous animals are at risk.
A senior source within Gauteng Nature Conservation estimates that South Africans involved in the illicit trade of reptiles in and out of the country are making profits of “a billion dollars a year” (about R7-billion), while the conservation organisation WWF estimates that the annual illicit international animal trafficking trade is worth $20-billion – with reptiles making up a sizeable proportion.
While official statistics are not available, specialists dealing with reptiles said the illegal smuggling of reptiles between South Africa, Europe and the US is increasing rapidly and they expressed fears that authorities don’t have the resources to combat the problem.
“From what I have seen at reptile expos and from word on the street, the diversity of species being smuggled into the country has increased greatly over the last [few] years,” said Graham Alexander, a reptile researcher at Wits University and editor of the African Journal of Herpetology.
“Snakes are still the most popular, but lizards are gaining popularity too.”
Last week, the Green Scorpions, the government’s environmental inspectorate, seized envelopes filled with 13 venomous snakes sent from the Czech Republic and Australia to a postbox address in Germiston.
The snakes, which were from Asia, the Middle East, and Papua New Guinea and estimated to be worth R10 000, were captured after the Green Scorpions received a tip-off.
The business is so profitable that callous traders are willing to risk the death of their cargo during the long-haul journeys. Illegal traders lure the snakes into inconspicuous devices such as wine boxes and bags. Once the snake curls itself into a ball, they trap it and send the reptile overseas.
The 13 snakes found by the Green Scorpions were kept in video cassette boxes for a week.
Snakes have been known to survive for up to a year without food, says Bev Nowikow, CEO of the South African Indigenous Reptile Conservation Association. Water, though, is needed every two to three days.
Exotic snakes coming into South Africa often have different eating habits to local snakes, says Nowikow. “Many of these snakes are specialised feeders and do not eat rats and mice. People are just looking in a book and saying they want that snake, but they are not researching their habits and what they like to eat.”
And non-indigenous, sometimes venomous snakes are increasingly found in the veld in South Africa after their owners discover they cannot take care of them properly, according to Nowikow.
Recently snake catchers found a deadly poisonous North American diamond-back rattler with a clutch of eggs in the veld in Honeydew, she says.
Snake catchers have also found other North American indigenous snakes such as corn snakes, California king snakes, red tail boas, and the venomous water moccasins in open veld in Gauteng and Mpumalanga.
Alexander says that once a feral population of exotic snakes escapes or is released into the wild, this usually leads to an uncontrollable epidemic.
“Smuggling reptiles could cause an epidemic that leads to the extinction of indigenous species.”
For example, frogs used for pregnancy tests and exported from Australia in the 1950s led to the extinction of some frogs on other continents because they had no resistance to the fungus that particular species of frog carried.
South Africa is one of the countries that has signed the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, a United Nations-sponsored conservation body. But while it is illegal to keep indigenous snakes, exotic snakes are not regulated.
“The law seems to be totally ineffective at controlling it and it is now a multimillion-rand business in South Africa,” says Alexander.
David Newton, director of TRAFFIC, which monitors international trading of wildlife, says that in SA, the monitoring of animal trade is a “mixed bag”. “The regulation of elephant and rhinos does very well, but less conspicuous trade like reptiles or hoodia (an indigenous plant) leaves a lot to be desired, and the government struggles to comply.”