By Jithendri Gomes
Reptiles are sourced in great volumes around the world for both legal and illegal markets and for a variety of purposes including food, leather, as pets, and for use in traditional medicines. This has been a problem for a very long time and it is one that is not spoken of very often. There is also only a limited amount of information available regarding this trade, although it has been happening for decades.
Dr. Anslem de Silva has written or contributed to around 400 publications on various aspects of the herpetology of our country. According to his most recent study, it’s been found that the demand for these exotic reptiles is only increasing over the years and engaging in this illegal trade will soon play a vital role in the extinction of these animals. De Silva is also an avid photographer and has worked tirelessly over the years to bring attention to this problem and emphasise the rising need to protect our lizards and reptiles in general.
In Sri Lanka
De Silva generously shared with us the study he has done along with a colleague – Jordi Janssen – titled “The presence of protected reptiles from Sri Lanka in international commercial trade” which is to be released on 3 May. The study itself explains that it “aims to provide evidence of Sri Lankan species currently found in international trade to assess the threat level that trade might pose to individual species and, in so doing, evaluate the need for the listing of certain species in the appendices of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES)”.
The study states: “Sri Lanka is a humid tropical island with many natural ecosystems comprising forests, grasslands, sand dunes, wetlands, and mangroves which support a high diversity of wildlife including 219 reptile species, a large percentage of which are endemic to the country (Altherr, 2014, de Silva and Ukuwela, 2017); collection and trade in all reptile species is prohibited, with a few exceptions.”
It moves on to maintain: “During the past few years, there is evidence of organised animal trafficking in Sri Lanka. Unpublished data provided by the Customs Department and other law enforcement officials including the Navy, the Police and Air Force indicate that at least 3,130 star tortoises (Geochelone elegans) were seized between 2015 and 2017 alone (Malsinghe et al., 2017; de Silva pers. obs., 2017).
Further, some 124 black-spotted turtles (Geoclemys hamiltonii) being smuggled through Sri Lanka were confiscated by law enforcement agencies in 2015.”
The study also claims that most of the buyers are from a European background. Germany is said to be the country with the highest number of vendors for Sri Lankan reptiles. Illegal traders from Spain, USA, Canada, Switzerland, Costa Rica, Poland, Slovakia, Czech Republic, France, Austria, Italy, Slovenia, and Malaysia are also said to be in the list of top vendors for Sri Lankan reptiles. Each reptile is supposed to have a different value point in each of these countries, so the leading vendor per reptile differs because of it.
This study reports that trade in Sri Lankan reptiles is booming, and more species seem to have been introduced into trade in recent years apart from the more popular star tortoise. It quotes: “The Sri Lankan authorities have submitted four CITES proposals to the 18th meeting of the Conference of the Parties (CoP18). The proposals relate to the black-cheek lizard (Calotes nigrilabris), Pethiyagoda’s crestless lizard (Calotes pethiyagodai), horned lizard (Ceratophora spp.), pygmy lizard, knuckles pygmy lizard, and hump-nosed lizard (Lyriocephalus scutatus), all proposed to be included in CITES Appendix I. The findings of this study, which document these species in trade, reinforce the need for consideration of their inclusion in the appendices. Moreover, this study also shows that the trade in Sri Lankan native species involves many other species whose status in the wild may be at risk from trade.” The Appendix I list has listed all the species that are considered to be vulnerable to this trade, especially those in danger of extinction and loss of habitat.
The conference was to be held this May in Sri Lanka and unfortunately has been postponed indefinitely because of the prevailing situation. This was confirmed and announced by the Ministry of Tourism Development, Wildlife, and Christian Affairs.
Prevention is best
Samantha Gunasekara is the former deputy director of Sri Lanka Customs who was also among those who initiated and lead the world’s first Biodiversity Protection Unit (BPU) in Sri Lanka, which monitors and controls biological materials and wildlife trade at borders. His experience on wildlife detection, investigation, and prosecution is said to have greatly helped to build this model, known to be the first of its kind in the world. He too shared his thoughts with The Sunday Morning Brunch. “I believe it is important to start protecting these animals in the wild, without waiting till we catch them ready to be exported. Collection in the wild is what should be stopped,” Gunasekara shared. He plays a major role in the CITES conference that was to be held this month and also said: “It has been postponed indefinitely because of the situation in the country.”
CITES is an international agreement between governments. Its aim is to ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival.
Annually, international wildlife trade is estimated to be worth billions of dollars and to include hundreds of millions of plant and animal specimens. The trade is diverse, ranging from live animals and plants to a vast array of wildlife products derived from them, including food products, exotic leather goods, wooden musical instruments, timber, tourist curios, and medicines. Levels of exploitation of some animal and plant species are high and the trade in them, together with other factors such as habitat loss, is capable of heavily depleting their populations and even bringing some species close to extinction. Many wildlife species in trade are not endangered, but the existence of an agreement to ensure the sustainability of the trade is important in order to safeguard these resources for the future.
CITES was drafted as a result of a resolution adopted in 1963 at a meeting of members of IUCN (The World Conservation Union). For many years, it has been among the conservation agreements with the largest membership, currently comprising 183 parties. It is an international agreement to which states and regional economic integration organisations adhere voluntarily.
Good and bad news
Mendis Wickramasinghe is an ecologist, herpetologist, and master wildlife photographer. He is a lecturer and the environmental awareness advisor of the Institute of Multimedia Education (IME). He explained to us about the importance of these reptiles and shared his thoughts about the matter. “Biologically, every animal is important. Even the smallest animal like the amoeba contributes to the natural system and there have been a lot of studies being done on these animals. They are used for two reasons mainly – for scientific studies and as domestic animals. The second is where the problem lies.
“There are many traders and suppliers that do it illegally. Unlike countries like Thailand and Indonesia where selling these species is considered normal, in Sri Lanka it is very different. We have a system that protects these animals lawfully. Apart from that, the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) also takes measures to protect these animals. It is stated clearly that it is illegal to sell and export these animals. Unfortunately, these laws are not practised properly.”
Wickramasinghe furthered that there are also places where they are breeding animals that cannot be found easily in order to sell them. “In fact, there are 19 species of lizards that are native to our country. Four kinds are found in the Knuckles mountain range, three in Rathwana, three in the Central Mountain Range, two in the dry zone area, and six in the wetland areas. These species are only found in these areas in the world. So there is a big value for these animals both economically and scientifically. This results in smuggling these animals to other countries. There have been many cases where foreigners, with the help of their guides or locals, have tried to smuggle these animals because of their value.”
The good news is that Sri Lanka, in comparison to most countries, has more laws in place to protect endangered animals and reptiles. The Fauna And Flora Protection Ordinance is in place to “provide for the protection, conservation, and preservation of the fauna and flora of Sri Lanka; for the prevention of the commercial exploitation of such fauna and flora; and to provide for matters connected therewith or incidental” (Acts Nos. 38 of 1949. 44 of 1964).
The bad news however, is that illegal trade continues to happen regardless of these laws in place. As proposed by de Silva, perhaps it is time for more efforts to be put in place in order for us to protect our reptiles from these illegal practices.