years ago this April, Jill Robinson first walked onto a bear bile farm. On that day in April 1993, Jill could have walked away, but she chose to act and do what she could. Today, you also have a choice. If everyone reading this donated just US$20, it would pay for the care of over 150 bears at our China sanctuary for a full year. Please help us celebrate 20 years of progress. Donate US$20 today (or whatever you can afford).
The use and abuse of reptiles by people causes widespread suffering and threatens many species
The reptiles include a wide range of species, some of which are closely related to the dinosaurs, and many of which have remained relatively unchanged for milennia, having carved out successful ecological niches. However, because of human interference, many of these species are now in severe trouble.
Of the almost 9,000 species of reptiles which have been described worldwide, the conservation status of some 1385 had been evaluated by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) by 2008. Of these, 423 (31%) were classified as "threatened", with 86 species listed as "Critically Endangered".
The threatened species include 280 (24%) of the 1148 species of Squamata (lizards and snakes) evaluated, 10 (43%) of the 23 species of crocodilians, and an astonishing 132 (62%) of the 212 species of testudines (turtles and tortoises).
The threats to reptiles are many and varied, and include habitat destruction, climate change, and introduced predators. However, perhaps the most immediate threat to many is the massive trade that exists in these animals. Reptiles are caught, ranched, farmed and traded, as food, as medicine, and for the fashion and pet industries. This trade not only threatens the very survival of many species, but also perpetrates unimaginable cruelty towards these animals. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) lists many reptiles in its appendices, in recognition of the damage the trade is doing.
Recognition by the likes of the IUCN and CITES is all very well, but assessments for species take a long time, and continued legal and illegal trade can deplete many species very fast, so the development and enforcement of regulation cannot occur quickly enough to allow species to recover. Many reptiles are long lived, late maturing species that cannot reproduce quickly in order to recover from rapid population reductions - the Australian salt water crocadile matures at 12-16 years old and less than 1% make it to adulthood, yet the trade continues!
The numbers of animals involved in the trade are staggering:
From 2002-2005, more than 30 million live native turtles (both captive bred and wild caught) were exported legally from the United States alone. Almost 70% were destined for the meat markets of Asia with Hong Kong being the main port of entry. Most of the remaining 30% were destined for the pet industry in Europe and elsewhere
Consumers in China alone are estimated to eat more than 30 million turtles per year. Demand has resulted in the decimation of many local Asian species, and Chinese traders have gone further afield to maintain supply
The European Union is the biggest importer of reptile skins for the fashion industry. Between 2000 and 2005 it is estimated that skins from some 3.4 million lizards, 2.9 million crocodiles, and 3.4 million snakes were imported into the EU. One factory in Italy handled some 50,000 snake skins in 2008!
In spite of industry claims, it is estimated that up to 90% of all snakeskins come from wild caught snakes
Crocodile farming and ranching is now widely practiced in Australia, the US, and beyond. In the Australian state of the Northern Territories alone there are an estimated 60,000 crocodiles on farms
In the US in 2005 it was estimated that 11 million reptiles were held as pets
Recently published research suggests that at least 165 species belonging to 30 families of reptiles are used in traditional folk medicine. Some 53% of those species are listed as endangered
Trade threatens reptile species in a number of ways. The sheer volume of trade in some animals is depleting their numbers towards critical levels. Several of the 23 species of crocodilians were brought to the brink of extinction through exploitation for their skins and as meat. Now they are subjected to horrors of intensive farming and ranching, although claims that this activity helps to protect wild populations are contradicted by the continued collection from the wild to stock farms. Reticulated and Burmese pythons from South East Asia are heavily hunted for their skins, and concerns about the impact of the trade on populations has led to the species being listed on Appendix 2 of CITES, restricting legal trade. Even so, the continued legal removal of the largest and most sought after individuals is having a big impact on breeding populations; the regulations may prove too little, too late for these and many other overexploited species.
The depletion of one species in the wild can have profound effects on others, causing the disappearance of predators which rely on the depleted species for food, or the overabundance of prey species; the massive take of wild pythons in Asia for shoes, handbags, and clothing has resulted in infestations of rats, which spread disease to humans and damage crops. Upsetting the ecosystem balance can have very far reaching consequences for all kinds of fauna and flora.
The legal trade also hides a huge market for illegally captured and traded animals. It is estimated that for each legally traded snakeskin, at least one is illegally traded. "Regulated" legal trade has been shown time and time again to be an ineffective way of protecting wild populations of animals - the legal trade simply helps to mask the poaching.
Traded animals exotic to the areas in which they arrive are sometimes released, either accidentally or deliberately. These animals can affect the indigenous species in the area, through introduction of disease, or by colonisation and competition for resources.
Cruelty and animal welfare
Many people working in the reptile trade do not give any consideration to the welfare of the animals they are handling. They claim they are "cold blooded", and are not capable of feeling pain. Reptiles are not "cold blooded", but are ectothermic - they possess only very limited ability to regulate their own body temperature, so their body temperature is largely determined by the ambient outside temperature. They also possess nervous systems, and responses to both single and repeated painful stimuli, that mirror those of mammals (including our own). So there is every reason to believe they feel pain in much the same way we do. Reputable veterinarians specialising in reptiles recognise their ability to feel pain, and insist on the use of anaglesia (pain relief) during any potentially painful procedures.
Indeed, one thing that reptiles posess that we don't, is a high tolerance to low levels of oxygen. This means that if you mortally injure or decapitate a reptile, it may remain conscious with the ability to feel and respond to pain for some considerable time (over an hour in some cases after decapitation). So it could be argued that in some circumstances they suffer for longer than we would following mortal injury.
The capture of wild reptiles and their transport for sale is in most cases at best inadequate, at worst barbaric, from a welfare standpoint. Potentially dangerous animals such as crocadiles may have their jaws tied for hours so they can barely breath. Many are transported over large distances and stored on ice, a wholly inappropriate means of treating reptiles.
Animals destined for the pet trade are indiscriminately sold to "owners" who have little or no knowledge how to keep or feed them appropriately; it is estimated that more than 90% of wild caught reptiles destined for the pet trade die within a year of capture. Many are abandoned or mistreated by their new owners.
Animals destined for the meat trade suffer an horrendous fate when it comes to slaughter. Because of the tolerance of reptilian tissues to low oxygen levels, some of the methods used to slaughter other types of animals are entirely inappropriate for reptiles. Decapitation, a technique often used, can result in a long, slow death. Many turtles are eviscerated live and allowed to die a slow and agonising death, a process that is still practiced in Chinese supermarkets, even in those Hymall stores owned by Tesco, the UKs largest retailer! Tesco claim that it is "wrong" to impose western cultural beliefs on the Chinese system, but there is evidence that many Chinese people are appalled at this and other acts of animal cruelty in their country, and surely even Tesco must concede that culture is no excuse for cruelty.
Crocodiles and alligators held on ranches or farms in the US and Australia are commonly slaughtered by clubbing the head, or driving a chisel through the upper spine. Many are still alive when they are skinned. Farm workers are not usually supervised during slaughter procedures, and are often inadequately trained. The methods used are horrendous for the animal, and dangerous for the workers. Shooting through the skull, which is arguably quickest and most effective method of slaughter if carried out accurately by suitably trained personnel, is often not used because of the potential to damage valuable parts of the animal. Profitability, rather than concern for welfare, dictates the method.
Wild caught pythons in Asia are often engorged with water to blow them up to facilitate the removal of the skin, then skinned alive. Their discarded bodies may take hours, even days, to die from dehydration and shock.
Few laws or codes of practice exist regulating the welfare of reptiles. In Australia, only Queensland has state codes of practice relating to the welfare of crocodiles, and they only cover the capture and transport of wild crocodiles. Farmed animals are not covered. People who collect, keep, farm, or ranch reptiles for commercial purposes rarely recognise the behavioural needs of the animals, instead often keeping them in overcrowded conditions (used as an excuse for preventing aggressive "terratorial behaviour" by crocodile farmers), feeding them inadequate diets, keeping them indoors in overheated conditions to maximise growth or increase activity. The emphasis is always on profit, rather than welfare.
Risks to people
The trade in reptiles poses a risk to the people involved, from the collector, poacher or farmer, to the consumer. Many reptiles are venemous or dangerous, and many carry diseases that can affect people. The ban on the sale of small turtles as children's pets in the US was motivated not by animal welfare concerns, but by the very real risk of salmonellosis in children who handled the animals; it is estimated that the ban has helped prevent hundreds of thousands of cases of this severe, potentially fatal infection in children. Other potential health risks include mycobacteriosis and chlamydiosis.
Animals Asia's position
The trade in reptiles is huge, and severely damaging to many species. There is far too little regulation and enforcement, and far to little emphasis on animal welfare. Claims by the meat, pet and fashion industries of "legality", "regulated trade" and "use of farmed animals" fly in the face of the evidence for a huge illegal trade in wild reptiles. These industries promote the legal trade, and in doing so increase the illegal trade.
Animals Asia believes that it is wrong to use animals for food production using methods of capture, production, transport or slaughter which compromise the welfare of the animals, or which deplete or threaten wild populations of animals.
Animals Asia believes that the production and trade of animals for the companion animal industry, should only involve those animals which lend themselves to human companionship, and should not compromise the welfare of animals concerned. Animals Asia believes that the capture, transport, and trade in wild animals for the pet trade is cruel and unnecessary. Animals Asia fully supports the education of the public in terms of responsible pet ownership.
Animals Asia believes that the use of animals and animal parts in the production of textiles, clothing, jewelry, trinkets and ornaments, is entirely unnecessary, and in many cases the production methods inflict unimaginable cruelty and suffering on the animals concerned, and can have dire implications for endangered species. Animals Asia supports and participates in initiatives to educate the public about the practices of the industries concerned, to change public perception of acceptibility of these items, and to promote animal-friendly alternatives.
Animals Asia believes that animals or animal parts should not be obtained, traded or used for the manufacture of traditional medicines or other non-medicinal products. Animals Asia works closely with traditional medicine communties, and with the public through information and educational programmes, in Asia to promote alternative herbal or synthetic medicinal products.
Sources and further information:
Alves, R.R.Da N.; Vieira, W.L.Da S.; and Santana, G.G. (2008) Reptiles used in traditional folk medicine: conservation implications. Biodiversity and Conservation 17: 2037-2049
Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. http://www.cites.org
Endangered Species Handbook (2005), Animal Welfare Institute. http://www.endangeredspecieshandbook.org/trade_reptile_lizards.php
Gibbons, J.W.; Scott, D.E.; Ryan, T.J.; Buhlmann, K.A.; Tuberville, T.D.; Metts, B.S.; Greene, J.L.; Mills, T.; Leiden, Y.; Poppy, S.; and Winne, C.T. (2000) The globan decline of reptiles, deja vu amphibians. Bioscience 50 (8) 653-666
International Union for the Conservation of Nature. http://www.iucn.org
Scientists oppose Tesco turtle sales in China. Care for the Wild International 2008. http://www.careforthewild.com
The Reptile Pet Trade. Animal Aid 2006. http://www.animalaid.org.uk
Warwick, C. (1986) Euthanasia of reptiles - decapitation: an inhumane method of slaughter for the class Reptilia. Canadian Veterinary Journal 27: 34
World Chelonian Trust http://www.chelonia.org