By Jithendri Gomes
Reptiles are sourced in great volumes for both the legal and illegal markets and for a variety of purposes, including for food, leather, as pets, and for use in traditional medicines. This has been a problem for a very long time and one that is not spoken of very often. But as more cases have been reported since of recent, the battle to protect all these vulnerable species is soon gaining ground in conservative efforts. There is also only a limited amount of information available regarding this trade, although it has been happening for decades. It has now been found that the demand for these exotic reptiles is only increasing with time and engaging in this illegal trade will soon play a vital role in the extinction of these animals. With the recent withdrawal of the proposal at CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora), Sri Lanka has drawn a lot of attention for providing little protection for its vulnerable species.
Dr. Anslem De Silva has written or contributed to 400 or so publications on various aspects of herpetology in our country. He 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. Earlier this year, together with Jordi Janssen, he published a research paper titled “The presence of protected reptiles from Sri Lanka in international commercial trade”.
‘The booming illegal trade’
“There are growing concerns that considerable numbers of reptiles are being smuggled through or out of the country annually. Sri Lankan reptiles have previously been recorded in the European market. In 2010, German pet traders visited Sri Lanka to discuss export options for Sri Lankan reptiles, which were strongly opposed by local stakeholders, and in 2012, six foreigners were caught trying to smuggle Sri Lankan endemic reptiles and amphibians.
Sri Lankan reptiles are now regularly offered for sale on classified reptile websites, yet very little is known about the scale or extent of this trade.”
They go on to state that the purpose of this study is to provide evidence of Sri Lankan species found in international trade and evaluate the need for listing certain species in the appendices of CITES.
“Results show that Germany is at the centre of illegal trade of Sri Lankan reptiles, with 17 species observed during the study period. Authorities in Germany should be aware of the role Germany is playing in this trade and that these practices violate national legislation in the country of origin. As nationally protected species are not protected in the European Union (EU), the authors urge the EU to recognise the role this market plays as a destination and transit point for nationally protected reptiles.
The European Commission states that the “EU market should not fuel demand for species that have been harvested illegally or unsustainably” (European Commission, 2018). “The lack of legal protection for nationally protected species makes the EU a key player in this illegal trade. In order to combat illegal trade in species protected in their range states, it is essential that the EU recognises their status and provides the legal framework required for law enforcement to seize such specimens.”
The Sri Lankan authorities previously submitted four CITES proposals to the 18th meeting of the Conference of the Parties. The proposals relate to the black-cheek lizard, crestless lizard, horned lizard, knuckles pygmy lizard, and hump-nosed lizard; all proposed to be included in CITES Appendix I. The findings of this study, which document these species in trade, reinforce the need to consider their inclusion in the appendices. However, it was this proposal that was withdrawn at the last moment.
‘We must tackle it at the source’
Former Customs Deputy Director Samantha Gunasekara was among those that initiated and led the world’s first Biodiversity Protection Unit (BPU) in Sri Lanka, which monitors and controls biological materials and wildlife trade at the borders. He shared his thoughts with us: “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.”
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. 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.
The study also revealed that most of the buyers come 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, the US, Canada, Switzerland, Costa Rica, Poland, Slovakia, Czech Republic, France, Austria, Italy, Slovenia, and Malaysia are 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.
‘Training our own to protect our own’
Speaking to us, Ministry of Mahaweli Development and Environment Ecosystem Conservation and Management Project Environment Officer and International Union for Conservation of Nature Species Survival Commission Sirenia Specialist Group Regional Member Ranil Nanayakkara shared his thoughts about the state of illegal trade.
“In European countries, the US, and certain parts of South Asia, there is a huge demand for exotic animals. Most of these dealers or buyers come down as tourists to our country and take back reptiles that include a variety of lizards, spiders, and many more animals. Animals that can be easily transported, especially, get stolen. Most tour guides are unaware of this even happening and they lack the training to understand and identify illegal dealers. The guides also need to be taught about the legality associated with being part of illegal trade activities. These dealers pose the greatest threat to these animals.”
‘These animals play a vital role in our eco-system’
Ecologist, herpetologist, wildlife photographer, and Institute of Multimedia Education (IME) Lecturer and Environmental Awareness Advisor Mendis Wickramasinghe explained to us 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 were a lot of studies 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 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.
“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 practiced properly.”
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 and 44 of 1964). The bad news however is that illegal trade continues to happen regardless of these laws in place. As proposed by Dr. De Silva, it is time for more efforts to be put in place in order for us to protect our reptiles from these illegal practices and listing them in Appendix 1 of the CITES list may be a step taken in the right direction.