Full Title Name:  Overview 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 overview discusses the nature of the international trade in wild reptiles and the impediments to enforcing those laws that protect reptile species. The concerns of ownership, such as zoonotic disease, injury to the animal itself, and threats to public safety, are also presented.


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. Most of the world’s terrestrial biodiversity comes from the tropics, the area of land between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn, across the globe. These “hot spots” of animal, and reptilian, diversity lead a great variety of desirable species. While many of these animals are exquisite in their markings, and unique in their morphology, the sheer fact they are “exotic” may be enough to make them desirable. Moreover, the sheer number of species available from these regions lends them to be involved in the pet trade.  

However, most of the reptile keepers, herpetoculturalists, reside in more temperate zones: Japan, most of Europe and the United States. It is not coincidental that the countries in these regions are considerably wealthy. Residents of these regions have money to spend and typically seek something exotic. The normal progression of people who keep reptiles tends to involve an initial experience with a native species, followed by forays with increasingly more attractive, more rare, more venomous or more lengthy species.

As most of the regions where the most desirable reptiles may be found are third world countries, an innate socio-economic characteristic interjects itself into an already dicey situation. As people from wealthier countries continue to desire reptiles from less wealthy countries, the economic demand will surely continue to propel some to engage in the wild-caught trade. This then creates a host of ethical and legal issues in the never-ending game of supply and demand.  

The trade of wild-caught amphibians and reptiles is largely unregulated, with only a small minority of species monitored by an international convention known as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES). Furthermore, the removal of wild-caught organisms, including CITES-listed species, generally occurs in a void of knowledge with respect to each species' ability to tolerate current levels of take. 

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 Endangered Species Act (ESA), enacted in 1973, is one of the country's most significant wildlife laws. ESA authorizes a listing of wildlife species considered by the Federal Government to be in imminent danger or threat of extinction, and requires government action to restore populations of those species.

CITES is an international agreement to which countries adhere voluntarily. Countries that have agreed to be bound by the Convention are known as parties. Although CITES is legally binding on the Parties, in other words they have to implement the Convention, it does not take the place of national laws. Rather, it provides a framework to be respected by each Party, which must then adopt its own domestic legislation to ensure that CITES is implemented at the national level. However, most importing and exporting countries do not adequately enforce CITES requirements. In the United States, fewer than 25% of live animal shipments are inspected by FWS agents.

The Lacey Act, enacted in 1900, is the United States' oldest national wildlife protection statute. The Lacey Act applies to all "wild" (i.e., not domesticated) animals, alive or dead, and to any part, product, egg, or offspring. The Lacey Act attacks wildlife trafficking by making it unlawful to import, export, transport, sell, receive, acquire, or purchase any fish or wildlife already taken, possessed, transported, or sold in violation of state, federal, American Indian tribal, or foreign laws, or regulations that are fish or wildlife-related (the so-called "underlying law" or "predicate offense.   One unique feature of the Lacey Act is its ability to incorporate foreign laws as an underlying law or predicate offense to "trigger" a Lacey Act violation.

Several high-profile cases in recent years have centered around the Federal Government’s “crackdown” of this highly profitable trade and has reiterated the U.S., and other countries determination to protect many endangered species. 

While some cases show a successful application of the Lacey Act, the road to conviction is still quite difficult.   Still, constitutional attacks upon Lacey Act have been largely unsuccessful.   Further, challenges to the predicate law upon which the Lacey Act was applied have also been rejected by courts

In addition to the Lacey Act, Congress has provided other avenues of prosecution for individuals illegally tracking in reptiles. Some Title 18 offenses, dealing with crimes and criminal procedures, are particularly well suited for prosecuting wildlife traffickers' conduct. The smuggling statute is a charging option whenever wildlife is illegally imported into the country.

State agencies have been acting to reduce the amount of traffic in wild-caught reptiles.   Other countries have imposed equally strict standards.

More recently, local units of government in the United States have begun to restrict residents’ ownership of reptiles and other exotic pets. Such measures are generally accepted as valid exercises of police powers, as a public health and safety concern. Many states, cities and towns have prohibitions on ownership of reptiles.

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 species can become established in our environments, upsetting delicate ecosystems and may even lead to the extinction of our native species. Further, reptiles may 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 trade in wild-caught reptiles is truly global in nature. Millions of animals are imported and exported each year. However, the trade in wild-caught reptiles should be separate and distinct from the trade in reptiles, mutually exclusive on a ban of all reptiles as pets. Granted, inspectors viewing a reptile have no true way of determining whether a particular individual is wild-caught or captive-bred. But, improved regulations, especially documentation may help ameliorate this. Improved education of customs inspectors and more frequent inspections may also aid in limiting this trade. 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.

For a more in-depth, legal discussion, see the Detailed Discussion of the International Trade in Wild Reptiles .



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