Live reptiles are easy to buy online. Colombian redtail boas, Mt. Koghis Leachianus geckos, and even Southern New Guinea stream turtles, a species only known to science since 2015, can be bought with a few clicks. Some species are common; others are rare, unique to particular islands or hills. For many of these species, whether or not this mostly unregulated trade threatens their population in the wild is unknown.
A study published today in Nature Communications finds the scale of that online reptile trade is larger than previously thought, and that many reptile species are traded without protections from international regulations. After scraping the internet for data on reptiles for sale, the authors found that 3,943 reptile species—more than 35 percent of all reptile species—have been traded over the past 20 years, 2,754 of them online. “We were just overwhelmed by the sheer volume of species,” says Alice Hughes, an ecologist at Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden in Yunnan, China, and an author of the study.
More than 75 percent of the species being sold are not regulated by any trade agreements. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, or CITES, the main body governing international wildlife trade, currently only regulates species that have been shown to be threatened by trade to ensure trade is sustainable. New or understudied species are left out, some of which could be threatened by the trade. Some species known to be threatened or endangered are also left out, as the complex process of negotiating trade regulations lags behind the science. “We didn’t expect it to be quite so easy to find so many endangered species that are openly available and legally available,” says Hughes.
To expand protection for these species, the authors suggest wildlife regulations be rewritten to require proof that a species can be traded sustainably before sale is permitted, rather than the inverse, in what they call a “precautionary approach.”
Mark Auliya, a biologist at Alexander Koenig Zoological Research Museum in Bonn, Germany, who was not affiliated with the study, said he was not at all surprised by these results. He believed the scale of the online trade was significant even if it had not been quantified in a robust way.
Of the thousands of reptile species described by science, more than 30 percent have not been assessed for the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) RedList status, which is the most comprehensive global inventory of the conservation designation of species. Those assessments are used to determine if species are threatened, and if they are, what is driving their decline. Reptiles, says Hughes, have received less attention and funding than other groups of animals.
“There are huge data gaps,” says Janine Robinson, a conservation scientist at University of Kent in the U.K., who was not a part of the study. “A huge problem in terms of understanding sustainability for trade is that we just we just don’t have the information.”
In order to show how gaps in data on reptile species can lead to gaps in protections, the authors of the Nature study looked to add data from online reptile sales to data already collected on species tracked by CITES and other regulatory frameworks, like LEMIS, which regulates the wildlife trade in the United States. By combining this information they hoped to quantify the scale of the reptile trade not captured by existing datasets.
The scientists collected data from 151 reptile sites on which species have been sold over the past 20 years. The search was conducted in five different languages and did not include reptile sales that occurred on social media or on the “dark web.” Hughes says that for this reason, the thousands of species identified in the study still do not capture the entirety of the trade.
Because most reptile sites don’t report the origin of their inventories, the authors looked to CITES and LEMIS, which monitor regulated species, to map where the animals were coming from. The team identified Southeast Asia and the Amazon as hotspots for sourcing reptile species. “We found it staggering that even in the most diverse parts of the planet like the Amazon basin, about 50 percent of the species that are there are still in trade,” says Hughes.
The scientists also looked to CITES and LEMIS to understand where the animals ended up and why the animals were purchased. The United States and the European Union were the biggest buyers of reptiles. More than 80 percent of critically endangered species listed by CITES were traded for fashion purposes. About ten percent were traded live, mostly for pets. The remaining 10 percent were split between food, decorative, and medicinal uses. While many traded animals were bred in captivity, more than 90 percent of species monitored by LEMIS were sometimes captured from wild populations.
While experts do not have good estimates of the total volume of the reptile trade, or its dollar value, Hughes says CITES and LEMIS data suggest millions of animals have been traded over the past twenty years, with prices ranging from $10 or $20 for a common species, to thousands of dollars for a rare specimen.
Some of the species most at risk are newly described reptiles, which are both likely to have small populations and to be sought after for their novelty. “If you are finding a species in 2020, it’s probably going to be endemic,” says Hughes. “It’s probably going to have a small range. So we know that these species may already be critically endangered. And yet, it’s legal to trade them.”
The study found that the average time between a new species being described and it appearing for sale online was only eight years, with some species appearing for sale online less than a year after becoming known to science. According to one study cited by the authors, more than 20 newly described species had their entire wild population collected after description.
The problem is bad enough that conservation-minded taxonomists sometimes don’t list location information when they describe new species to prevent traders from seeking them out, says Shai Meiri, a zoologist at Tel Aviv University in Israel who wrote a 2016 article in the Journal of Zoology on how newly described species are likely to be vulnerable to overexploitation.
“It’s very possible that if you just go and collect specimens you’re making a real dent in the entire global population of this species,” says Meiri.
The authors of the Nature study advocate for wildlife trade regulations to adopt a precautionary approach, where species would not be allowed to be traded until trade was proven to be sustainable to CITES. They argue that this approach would protect rare, infrequently traded species better than current regulations and would protect species left vulnerable to trade by the lack of data about them.
Robinson pointed out that that approach could amount to a ban on trade for many species and might have unintended consequences. For example, a ban on a species might deprive the source country of revenue it was using to fund protections for that species, and take away a source of income for people who collect the animals. Banning trade for certain species could also push trade underground, making it more difficult to track and monitor. “It’s not always that simple. It doesn’t always make for, ‘We’ll ban the trade and then there won’t be an issue anymore’,” says Robinson.
She emphasized the need to understand impacts of regulations on the whole supply chain, from suppliers collecting from the forest for extra income to fashion industry buyers. Robinson also said there is a need for more information on all species, and what’s threatening them—whether it is international trade, habitat loss, or disease. “You can’t presume that all those species there are actually threatened by the trade, because you don’t have that information,” says Robinson. “So some of them may be. Some of them may not be.”
Hughes feels differently, arguing that a precautionary approach is justified by the urgency of the global biodiversity crisis and the lack of knowledge about how trade impacts reptiles. “We’re not against reptiles as pets,” says Hughes. “We’re just against taking them from the wild where there is no assessment of the impact.”