The commercial collection of reptiles can be defined as the taking of large numbers of wild herps for the purpose of sale in the pet trade. This includes both domestic collection and the importation of exotics from foreign collectors.
I think virtually everyone, except perhaps the commercial collectors and importers themselves, would agree that the mass collection of reptiles for the pet trade should be stopped.
This leads us to the questions of how, why, and with what alternative can we bring an end to this practice.
The why is obvious. There exists no reason for the importation or domestic collection on a large scale of hardly any species of reptile, and the practice serves no purpose except to make money for those involved in the trafficking of the animals.
It also serves to unnecessarily deplete wild populations and results in the death of many of the animals both during transport and from eventually being bought by less experienced keepers who despite their best efforts simply cannot acclimate the animals.
How we can halt commercial collecting is a harder question to answer.
While in theory restrictive legislation would be a benefit in this area, I am not in favor of it. Opening the door to laws always holds the possibility of getting more than you bargained for. The best way at this time to curb mass collection is to stop supporting it. By this I not only mean to stop buying imported reptiles, but to stop buying even captive born reptiles from those who also import in quantity. The only way to stop importation is to eliminate the market, and eliminate the dealers who preserve it.
Reasons for Large Scale Importation
Let’s be realistic for a minute. Is there any reason at all why there should be tens of thousands of ball pythons imported into this country every year? None whatsoever. The whole practice is ridiculous. The same is true with chameleons, monitors, and any other reptile imported in massive quantities. So then, why does the practice continue? There are basically two reasons:
1. They are cheaper in most cases than captive born young.
2. The people who are more concerned about the price they pay than the animal they are getting continue to buy them, usually from pet stores, or the parasitic dealers who will at this time remain nameless.
There is also the factor of the people who are new to the hobby simply not knowing any other way to get a snake than to visit the local pet store, and often bring home a little captive hatched ball python.
I’m not in favor of eliminating the importation of reptiles completely, (more on this in a minute), but it perplexes me how these dealers can, with a clear conscience, sell these animals by the hundreds with full knowledge that a high percentage of them will never make it through their first year, particularly in the case of chameleons and some of the more delicate snkes and geckos. All this in the name of profit.
A Bold Alternative
So what to do? Let me offer a possibility, one that will most likely not set well with some, and may even label me as an elitist.
First we must address the question of why isn’t there more effort put into breeding many of the most commonly imported species. The simple answer is money in most cases. While a devoted keeper with a genuine interest in the animals will reproduce their charges regardless of profit potential, the possibility of a large number of people deciding to start a breeding group of rough green snakes or flying geckos is remote. The reason for this is the lack of profit when having to compete with wild caught animals that sell for $10 at a herp show.
I don’t like this attitude of placing such an importance on monetary value, but I am simply being realistic. Ball pythons are one of the best examples. You can easily find captive born albinos, piebalds, and several other genetic mutations, but try to find someone producing normal balls in their collection in any numbers – you won’t. This is because captive hatched (from eggs of wild caught gravid females) are everywhere for as little as $5.
So how do we change this situation?
I propose that the sale of imported reptiles to the general public by pet stores and the aforementioned parasitic dealers should be stopped.
Importation should continue on a small scale to provide unrelated bloodlines and new species to the hobby, but there is no need for these animals to wind up in the hands of novices.
Should the availability of imported animals be severely restricted, the price of captive born would rise to a level that would encourage breeders to begin producing them in decent numbers. The imported animals would only go to those who have experience in breeding them.
If this upsets you because you don’t want to pay $50 for a hatchling ball python you can get now for $10, then too bad, you don’t deserve the animal to begin with and I make no apologies.
The main problem with this idea is it must begin with the importers themselves. Continuing to use our example of ball pythons, there is currently a more than adequate supply of normal balls to provide the numbers needed to begin a serious captive breeding effort.
The first step would be for the people in possession of these snakes to begin breeding these animals, while at the same time the importers will have to stop bringing in 98% of the number they are currently importing, and instead purchase the domestically captive born animals for resale to the public.
If you say the odds of the importers actually doing this are slim, I agree. To the dealers, the animals are nothing more than a commodity to buy and sell, and it is obvious that the impact on the wild populations as well as the individual animals themselves is not really a concern. Anybody who imports 500 hatchling balls and claims to be concerned about the snakes takes us for fools.
What can we do?
We can all begin to fight the practice of large scale importation.
First, stop doing business with those who practice it. Everyone will have to set their own limits. I personally don’t hold the sale of green anoles as feeders against a business, but if I’m at a show and I see a tub full of baby savannah monitors for $15 or a big tank full of balls for $10 I won’t buy anything off that table, no matter if it’s captive born or not.
A dealer who perpetuates the mass importation of the common species will not have my business. Be willing to go to the breeder and pay a little more for his efforts and bring home a healthier better acclimated reptile.
Second, if you are currently in possession of a pair of balls, or savannahs, or flying geckos, or what have you, make every attempt to breed them.
You may not get much money out of the babies right now, but if you are keeping the animals for the enjoyment, this shouldn’t matter. There are buyers who want true captive born young of these species, you will sell them, and everyone of them will be one less wild caught individual that was sold.
Take away the support of the pet stores. I have heard of a few captive born only pet shops, but I have never been in one. The vast majority buy the wild caught stock cheaply from the importers to gain the highest profit margin. If there’s a good pet store in your area that only sells quality captive born reptiles, then by all means support them and let others know. The attitudes will change with the dealers and other pet shops as profits decline.
I say this about the pet shops because only in rare cases does an experienced breeder purchase anything from a retail shop. The vast majority of pet store sale of reptiles is to the less experienced.
The change in the hobby will not come overnight, it will take time, but it can come if we want it to. It will be far better for us to bring the change ourselves than to do nothing and watch the government change it for us.
Importation and the collecting of wild herps is still needed to a degree, and I am opposed to a complete ban on it, but the fact is the days where there was a need of mass collecting and importation are gone. We have the pioneers in breeding to thank for our current ability to produce the majority of species we now have available in the hobby. It is from their work and devotion that we can now produce in captivity suffecient numbers of reptiles to provide the hobbyist with most anything they could want, the question is will we?