Full Title Name:  Brief Summary of the International Trade in Wild-Caught Reptiles

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James M. Green Place of Publication:  Michigan State University College of Law Publish Year:  2005 Primary Citation:  Animal Legal & Historical Center

This brief summary overviews the problems associated with the international illegal reptile trade.


Wildlife smuggling is certainly on the rise.  The wildlife trade business is the second-largest illegal trade in the world after drugs.  The World Wildlife Fund states that the global trade, both legal and illegal, is estimated to be around US$159 billion per year in declared import values.  Reptiles play largely in the realm of exotic trade and illegal trade, but the reptiles that appear to be affected the most are the wild-caught reptiles. 

While a total ban may neither be feasible nor warranted, certainly the trade in wild-caught reptiles is too prevalent in our global economy.  Reptiles are animals.   Moreover, under most legal definitions, reptiles are considered to be animals as well.    Poor capture techniques, compounded by poor shipping methods or inadequate care, kill many reptiles before they reach the pet store.  An estimated 90% of wild-caught reptiles die in their first year of captivity because of physical trauma prior to purchase or because their owners cannot meet their complex dietary and habitat needs.  Reptiles are among the most inhumanely treated animals in the pet trade.  Because they are cheap and easily replaceable, dealers, captive breeders, and retailers factor huge mortality into their operating costs.  

The trade of wild-caught amphibians and reptiles is largely unregulated, with only a small minority of species monitored by an international convention.  Congress has enacted the Endangered Species Act (ESA) as an effort to help wildlife and the Lacey Act (a federal law that makes criminal the illegal trade in wildlife).   Concerns over public welfare have factored heavily into restrictions and ordinances enacted by states and localities.  Further, as situations become more problematic, the federal government has not been reluctant to intervene.  Reptiles and public safety can intersect in a variety of ways.  Reptiles can not only inflict harm or death themselves, but they can also carry diseases , which can contracted by humans (zoonoses).  Further, non-indigenous, or non-native species can become established in our environments, upsetting delicate ecosystems and may even lead to the extinction of our native species.  Reptiles may even carry disease that could potentially affect us as an agent, either through a natural “terrorism” or bioterrorism, carrying a disease that could affect humans or have a significant affect on our supply of beef. 

The current system, permitting several legal avenues for prosecutors to pursue when charging those involved in the illegal trade of reptiles appears to be in place, at least structurally.  Through more local regulation and education, the current legal net could be significantly tightened to drastically reduce the number of reptiles entering and exiting our borders.   More severe punishments and fines, i.e. making examples of those who break the law, on all levels - from the importer/exporter, to the courier, to the ultimate owner, should further decrease the number of illegal reptiles to pass through our borders.  Sadly, the fact remains that as long as the demand is high and buyers are willing to purchase a wild-caught reptile, the trade will surely continue.   Educating the public on laws and ecology may stifle some of this demand.  By attacking both ends of the trade, the supply and demand, with a simultaneous attack on the middle through stricter regulation at the state or locality level regarding keeping and selling reptiles, the goal might more readily be reached.  


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