Banning exotic leather in fashion hurts snakes and crocodiles in the long run

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Yellow anaconda (snake) skins pegged to dry by indigenous people in Argentina.
Tomas Waller, Author provided

Daniel Natusch, Macquarie University; Grahame Webb, Charles Darwin University, and Rick Shine, University of Sydney

We are all familiar with the concept of “fake news”: stories that are factually incorrect, but succeed because their message fits well with the recipient’s prior beliefs.

We and our colleagues in conservation science warn that a form of this misinformation – so-called “feelgood conservation” – is threatening approaches for wild animal management that have been developed by decades of research.

The issue came to a head in February when major UK-based retailer Selfridges announced it would no longer sell “exotic” skins – those of reptile species such as crocodiles, lizards and snakes – in order to protect wild populations from over-exploitation.

But this decision is not supported by evidence.

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Too simplistic

Banning the use of animal skins in the fashion industry sounds straightforward and may seem commendable – wild reptiles will be left in peace, instead of being killed for the luxury leather trade.

But decades of research show that by walking away from the commercial trade in reptile skins, Selfridges may well achieve the opposite to what it intends. Curtailing commercial trade will be a disaster for some wild populations of reptiles.

How can that be true? Surely commercial harvesting is a threat to the tropical reptiles that are collected and killed for their skins?

Actually, no. You have to look past the fate of the individual animal and consider the future of the species. Commercial harvesting gives local people – often very poor people – a direct financial incentive to conserve reptile populations and the habitats upon which they depend.

If lizards, snakes and (especially) crocodiles aren’t worth money to you, why would you want to keep them around, or to protect the forests and swamps that house them?

Women raise Burmese pythons at a small farm on Hainan Island, China.
Daniel Natusch, Author provided

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Biggest man-eaters in the billabong

The iconic case study that supports this principle involves saltwater crocodiles in tropical Australia – the biggest, meanest man-eaters in the billabong.

Overharvested to the point of near-extinction, the giant reptiles were finally protected in the Northern Territory in 1971. The populations started to recover, but by 1979-80, when attacks on people started to occur again, the public and politicians wanted the crocodiles culled again. It’s difficult to blame them for that. Who wants a hungry croc in the pond where your children would like to swim?

Saltwater crocs are the reason many beaches are not open for swimming in northern Australia.

But fast-forward to now and that situation has changed completely. Saltwater crocs are back to their original abundance. Their populations bounced back. These massive reptiles are now in every river and creek – even around the city of Darwin, capital of the Northern Territory.

This spectacular conservation success story was achieved not by protecting crocs, but by making crocs a financial asset to local people.

Eggs are collected from the wild every year, landowners get paid for them, and the resulting hatchlings go to crocodile farms where they are raised, then killed to provide luxury leather items, meat and other products. Landowners have a financial interest in conserving crocodiles and their habitats because they profit from it.

Saltwater crocodile eggs collected in the Northern Territory, Australia.
Daniel Natusch, Author provided

The key to the success was buy-in by the community. There are undeniable negatives in having large crocodiles as neighbours – but if those crocs can contribute to the family budget, you may want to keep them around. In Australia, it has worked.

The trade in giant pythons in Indonesia, Australia’s northern neighbour, has been examined in the same way, and the conclusion is the same. The harvest is sustainable because it provides cash to local people, in a society where cash is difficult to come by.

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Decisions without evidence

A collector captures a yellow anaconda in Argentina.
Emilio White, Author provided

So the evidence says commercial exploitation can conserve populations, not annihilate them.

Why then do companies make decisions that could imperil wild animals? Probably because they don’t know any better.

Media campaigns by animal-rights activists aim to convince kind-hearted urbanites that the best way to conserve animals is to stop people from harming them. This might work for some animals, but it fails miserably for wild reptiles.

We argue that if we want to keep wild populations of giant snakes and crocodiles around for our grandchildren to see (hopefully, at a safe distance), we need to abandon simplistic “feelgood conservation” and look towards evidence-based scientific management.

We need to move beyond “let’s not harm that beautiful animal” and get serious about looking at the hard evidence. And when it comes to giant reptiles, the answer is clear.

The ban announced by Selfridges is a disastrous move that could imperil some of the world’s most spectacular wild animals and alienate the people living with them.The Conversation

Daniel Natusch, Honorary Research Fellow, Macquarie University; Grahame Webb, Adjunct Professor, Environment & Livelihoods, Charles Darwin University, and Rick Shine, Professor in Evolutionary Biology, University of Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Here’s what you need to know about exotic pets in Australia

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Red-eared sliders were once popular pets but are currently banned in Australia. These turtles are still regularly found in the wild and being kept as illegal pets.
Pablo Garcia-Diaz, Author provided

Pablo García-Díaz, University of Adelaide; Miquel Vall-llosera, and Phill Cassey, University of Adelaide

A taste for owning exotic animals can be addictive – the more flamboyant the better. Earlier this month border security agents found 50 live turtles and lizards smuggled in Lego boxes sent from Indonesia. In April customs officials found a parcel marked “2 pair shoes” that turned out to contain venomous vipers, tarantulas and scorpions.

According to the Animals Medicines Australia 2016 survey some two-thirds of Australian households have pets – more than 24 million animals in total. Not surprisingly, dogs and cats are the most popular (38% and 29% of households, respectively), whereas aquarium fish and birds rank somewhere in the middle (both 12%), and reptiles and less common mammals are kept in some households (both less than 5%).

The federal government largely legislates the owning of exotic pets. The law defines “exotic” as “animals that do not occur naturally in the wild in Australia” – which actually includes dogs and cats. However “domesticated mammals”, which also covers cows, sheep and other farm animals, are generally legal to buy and own. Commercial trade in exotic reptiles and amphibians, on the other hand, has been banned since 1999.

Whether an exotic animal is kept legally or not, some will find their way to the Australian wild through escape or release, posing a potential pest risk. There are some simple things governments and pet owners can do to improve the way this risk is handled, to keep animals and humans safe.

We don’t really know how many exotics are in Australia

Most local councils only require dogs (and sometimes cats) to be registered by their owners. Other pets, whether exotic or native, do not need to be registered. Indeed an owner of an exotic animal is not required to report or register the animal in any way. This means there are very little reliable data and it’s difficult to say how many exotic pets are kept in Australia.

We highlight two cases from our own research: birds and reptiles.

Bird-keeping is common in Australia, particularly of parrots and finches. More than half the bird species traded are exotic and mostly originate in South America, Africa and Asia. Rose-ringed Parakeets are one of the most commonly kept exotic pet bird, and the most frequently reported as having escaped. They are seen as a potential threat because they are a serious agricultural pest in its’ native and exotic distribution, and have a very high risk of establishing in Australia.

The Rose-ringed parakeet is a common pet in Australia and presents a potential biosecurity risk.
Dick Danies/Wikimedia

Reptiles – generally skinks, turtles and dragons – are less popular pets than birds. Nonetheless, judging from the posts on public trading webpages, a variety of native reptile species are kept and traded by hobbyists, also including crocodiles and snakes.

Unfortunately, little is known about native reptile trading in Australia and further research is needed. And while native reptiles can be kept legally, illegal exotic reptiles are a serious problem. In a previous article for The Conversation, we reported that 28 alien reptile species were illegally kept in Victoria between 1999 and 2012. More than a third were highly venomous snakes, posing a real risk to human safety.

Responsibly caring for exotic pets

If you own or want to buy an exotic pet, you must be aware of the regulations that apply to you (you can Google “exotic pet regulations” plus the name of your state or territory). Each jurisdiction keeps official lists of those species that may be kept within their borders, with or without a permit. These lists can be found on local government websites or obtained from their relevant departments.

People should also be able to register all of their pets, including exotic ones. Governments need to promote public awareness of the importance of registration (even if it’s not legally required), and ensure the processes are simple, accessible and affordable.

If you lose your exotic pet, it’s important to alert your state or territory biosecurity agency. Each jurisdiction has its own agency, but examples are the Western Australia Department of Agriculture and Food or Agriculture Victoria. If you want to recover your lost pet the best available option is to report your loss to one of the many missing animal websites.

Governments, when facilitating the registration process, will need to establish best practices to collect and analyse information so that the nature and extent of pet ownership may be better known, monitored and managed.

The ConversationUltimately, the burden of safe and responsible pet ownership should be shared. While public awareness is crucial, the key to a sustainable pet trade is mutual partnership between pet owner communities and governments. This is particularly important as pet sales and trade shift further to an online environment.

Pablo García-Díaz, PhD candidate in invasion ecology, University of Adelaide; Miquel Vall-llosera, Assistant Professor in Shinshu University, Japan, and Phill Cassey, Assoc Prof in Invasion Biogeography and Biosecurity, University of Adelaide

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.