JAKARTA, Indonesia — 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 affect 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 convention’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 Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species involve Indonesia, more than any other country. Officials here are 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, the convention may bar international trade in those species.
“If you have international demand for a species that only has a very small distribution, you have a big problem,” Auliya said.
In 2016, Indonesian authorities authorized the export of more than 4 million captive-bred animals. (About two-thirds were geckos.) Officials declined to say how many were sent abroad.
Many were almost certainly taken from the wild, according to Nijman and other experts.
Plucking animals from the wild is cheaper and easier than setting up a breeding operation. This is especially true for low-profit animals like Tokay geckos, which are traded at such high volumes that it would not make economic sense to invest in breeding them.
Generally, villagers capture animals in forests and fields, and sell them to middlemen who hand them off to legal reptile farms. The owners of the farms acquire government paperwork certifying that the animals were captive-bred.
In this country and many others, the most skilled traffickers in illegal wildlife, then, never need to smuggle anything. They simply apply for a permit and then ship the animals abroad legally.
An uncomfortable tour
Many of the legal breeding facilities are in and around Jakarta. But when I recently visited two registered reptile farms, I found innocuous suburban homes.
At one, wire cages were piled in the garage. The trader’s daughter answered the door and told me her father had just stepped out. But after calling him and explaining that a reporter had come to see him, she returned to say that he would be gone indefinitely, likely for days. At the second facility, which neighbors confirmed was home to “the turtle guy,” three nervous attendants admitted me. Rows of neat white tanks, each holding a small green tree python, lined several walls.
A couple of turtles crawled around a dismal enclosure; some monitor lizards stared at me from concrete cages, and a fat green frog huddled at the bottom of an outdoor sink. The staff declined to allow me to tour the rest of the facility and said that the owner could not be reached because he did not own a cellphone.
For facilities like these legally to produce the number of reptiles they export is highly unlikely, conservationists say. During the past few years, for example, Indonesia granted companies permission to export about 3 million captive-bred Tokay geckos annually.
Geckos caught in the wild can easily be bought for a few cents. But to breed just 1 million geckos, Nijman has calculated that a trader would need 140,000 females, 14,000 males, 30,000 incubation containers, 112,000 rearing cages and hundreds of staff. If this were done in a single facility, it would be “the size of an aircraft hangar,” he said.
“Yes, it’s theoretically possible to do this,” he added. “But I haven’t seen any evidence that such breeding facilities exist.”
Once a wild-caught animal is exported with paperwork certifying it as captive-bred, officials in countries like the United States have little choice but to allow it in.
“The infiltration of traffickers into the legal trade has been happening for many years,” said a senior specialist at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, who asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation. “These animals show up here in declared shipments, and we can’t do anything about it.”
While customs agents can challenge a permit’s legitimacy, they have little chance of success, the official said. The cases are time-consuming and difficult, and prosecutors do not want them.
“Wildlife inspectors will open up a box and find a bunch of beat-up, scarred tortoises that are 20 or 30 years old, with permits saying they were bred in captivity in 2016,” the official said. “But they’re forced by their supervisors to stamp ‘clear’ on the permit.”
A legal challenge
The problem is largely enabled by abuse of Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. The treaty prohibits species that are threatened with extinction from being commercially traded across borders unless they were bred in captivity.
These rules apply to the international pet trade, an important source of revenue for many developing countries. Each year, officials in exporting nations issue quotas for millions of captive-bred birds, amphibians, small mammals, insects and corals. Many are protected in their home countries, and their trade is governed by the treaty.
Reptiles are especially popular. Collectors often have an almost fanatical devotion to their animals and are willing to pay handsomely, especially for rare specimens, said Sandra Altherr, co-founder of Pro Wildlife, a nonprofit conservation group in Munich.
Unethical traders know that snakes, lizards and turtles do not rank as high priorities for law enforcement and customs officials in Western countries. “Reptiles are coldblooded and not fluffy, and the broad public — including politicians — just isn’t interested in them,” Altherr said. “Yet, there are huge, dangerous loopholes that allow for open trading of the rarest species.”
In addition, many exotic pets originate in developing countries where officials may lack the expertise, motivation or resources to verify that animals about to be shipped out were in fact bred in captivity.
“We don’t have a lot of resources here in the U.S., and developing countries have even less than we do,” said Phet Souphanya, a senior special agent at the FWS. “Corruption also goes into the permitting issue — there’s always someone to be bribed.”
Once imported, exotic pets can be legally sold or re-exported. “Those involved in trafficking wildlife know the loopholes inside-out,” said Chris Shepherd, executive director of Monitor, a nonprofit organization that works to reduce illegal and unsustainable wildlife trade. “They know enforcement agencies’ hands are tied, and they know policy change in favor of conservation does not happen overnight.”
In the United States, the government has to legally prove that animals are not captive-bred — something that is “very, very difficult to do,” said Marie Palladini, an associate professor at California State University, Dominguez Hills.
Even when it cannot be proven, there may be other telltale signs that animals were caught in the wild.
Some species sold as captive-bred are notoriously difficult to coax into reproducing. For example, leading zoos around the world over the decades have managed to breed fewer than 50 echidnas — strange, egg-laying mammals that resemble hedgehogs.
Yet, in 2016, Indonesian officials permitted PT Alam Nusantara, a Jakarta-based company, to export 45 “captive-bred” echidnas. FWS records show that as early as 2011, the exporter was shipping echidnas labeled captive-born to the United States.
That echidnas appeared on the quota list at all suggests that traders had a hand in setting the quota, Nijman said.
“Having been present at those meetings, it felt more like a negotiation between what traders wanted, what regional forestry departments could offer, and what was within acceptable limits for the scientific authority,” he said.
Because of this, he continued, a country’s list of permissible captive-bred animals often appears scattershot and illogical. Reisinger’s tree monitors and spotted tree monitors, for example, suddenly appeared on Indonesia’s list of permissible exports in 2015, only to be removed the following year.
“It doesn’t make sense to invest years and years into breeding a particular species, only to then suddenly no longer export it and change to another species,” Nijman said.
The more likely explanation? “New entries represent new demand for rare species,” he said. That is, traders received a request, lobbied for the species to be added to the list, found the animals in the wild and exported them — then moved on.
Indonesia’s quota list is tightly regulated and based on scientific data, according to Prama Wirasena, head of captive breeding at Indonesia’s Ministry of the Environment and Forestry.
Regional forestry officials visit farms each month to count breeding adults, he said, and those figures are used to set export quotas and to ensure the numbers add up. “We are certain there is ‘laundering,’ but it is less than 10 percent overall,” Wirasena said.
But a recent study in Conservation Biology suggests that number is considerably higher. The authors found that Indonesia’s quotas for 99 of 129 species were calculated based on biologically impossible parameters.
Wirasena protested that the study’s authors used low-quality data and made faulty calculations. But others at the ministry offered an alternate explanation.
“I know sometimes the traders bribe my staff,” said Wiranto, director-general of conservation of natural resources and ecosystems. Like many Indonesians, he uses only a first name.
Wiranto, who was recently promoted, said he hopes to implement reforms, among them a more robust monitoring system that includes unannounced farm inspections, corruption prevention measures and collaborative investigations with importers like the United States.
“We’re in the process of learning from past mistakes, so in the future, we won’t do the same,” he said. “The most important thing is to keep wildlife in its habitat.”
Encouraging better behavior
Meaningful change will not occur unless violators are systematically shut down, said Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of “The Extinction Market.”
“Doing that, you can produce competition among farmers to move toward better practices,” she said. “Those who behave better will come to control a greater share of the market and will profit.”
Not everyone agrees that uncontrolled harvest of wild reptiles is a problem. In certain instances, some traders say, collection of wild animals can be a boon for the species. Bearded dragons, for example, are one of the most commonly sold lizards in the United States, where they are captive-bred. All are likely descendants of specimens smuggled out of Australia. The offspring arguably have prevented the removal of animals in the wild.
Some scientists argue that the pet trade’s effect on many species is negligible.
“In the Indonesian context, there’s a hell of a lot of snakes and reptiles out there, and for most species the issue of laundering through breeding farms is not resulting in negative impacts on populations,” said Daniel Natusch, a herpetologist at the University of Sydney.
A study he conducted in Indonesia showed that abundance and size of pythons remained consistent over a 20-year period, even though they were being harvested and sold. Their capture is likely sustainable, he concluded.
Auliya stressed that most species caught up in the pet trade have not undergone similar analyses, and that there are “enormous scientific uncertainties,” making it impossible to say what impact, if any, wild collection is having.
But “just because we don’t have the data doesn’t mean it’s unsustainable,” Natusch pointed out. He recently called for Indonesia to promote legal, controlled harvests of certain species over captive breeding — a proposal that Auliya criticized as being “extremely unrealistic and questionable.”
Even if some species can be sustainably taken from the wild, conservation is only part of the problem. Flagrant abuse of CITES risks undermining the treaty’s integrity and compromising its ability to regulate sustainable trade. “It’s making a mockery of international conventions,” Shepherd said.