Wildlife traffickers are exploiting a legal grey area to trade in highly lucrative protected lizard species at the world’s biggest reptile fair, a Guardian investigation has discovered.
Endangered animals from Latin America, New Zealand and south-east Asia are being offered for sale at prices of up to €5,000 (£3,200) a pair on the sidelines of the quarterly Terraristika fair in Hamm, Germany. Their trade in Europe is estimated to be worth millions of euros.
At the September trade fair, the Guardian posed as a potential buyer and was offered earless monitor lizards and arboreal alligator lizards, both of which are protected species in their home countries of Indonesia and Mexico and Guatemala respectively. The next fair is on 12 December.
“The trading of nationally protected species may only be a small part of the reptile business, but it could easily drive highly threatened species to extinction,” said Sandra Altherr, the co-founder of Pro Wildlife, a German conservation group. “Some of these creatures have already been confined to tiny areas of territory in their native lands.”
The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) will hear proposals to ban the international trade in earless monitor and some arboreal alligator lizards at its next conference in South Africa in 2016.
In the meantime, while collecting the species in the wild and exporting them is illegal in their countries of origin, they may be freely bought and sold in Europe without a crime being committed – and no extradition treaties apply.
Nonetheless, the trade in endangered species at Hamm goes on at the fringes of the main fair. The Terraristika organisers ban photography, so it is hard for anyone not there to know which species are changing hands.
The cavernous warehouse into which Hamm welcomes thousands of visitors is itself an exotic territory. Teenagers, travellers, anarchists and alternative pet shop owners roam the huge convention site, which is filled with stalls containing many thousands of often venomous snakes, frogs, lizards and spiders.
Some visitors carry large white boxes under their arms. Others sport “recovering reptaholic” t-shirts that are equal parts spiv and goth – a bit like Only Fools and Horses with face tattoos.
“Lanthanotus borneensis? I know a friend who has them,” said stallholder Jurgen Schmidt, referring to the Latin name for the earless monitor lizard. “They’re about €5,000 a pair, captive bred, about this size,” he said, holding out his fingers about 20 centimetres. “I can call him and ask if he’s here?”
Another trader that operates at the Hamm fairs is Robert Seipp, a German teacher, keeper and trader of reptiles which, according to his Facebook page, include the prized Borneo lizard.
In 1993, Seipp was the only member of a group of four German lizard enthusiasts to emerge unscathed from a gun battle with Madagascan authorities, that left two of his party dead, and a third blind in one eye. One Malagasy police officer was also killed, reportedly shot by accident by another cop.
Two of Seipp’s employees have been prosecuted and jailed in New Zealand for taking rare gecko species from the wild, according to a letter from the government’s conservation department to Pro Wildlife, which the Guardian has seen. It said that Seipp had not visited the country and he was not prosecuted.
“It would be an understatement [to say] that we remain concerned for any continuing smuggling of any and all of our protected wildlife (flora and fauna),” Geoff Owen, the department’s Cites enforcement manager wrote. Jewelled gecko populations had declined by 95% in a 15-year period, he said.
Owen said there is a growing problem with desirable species being smuggled out of the country by dealers and collectors: “New Zealand has taken a number of prosecutions against what has been a disproportionate number of German nationals for attempting to take protected geckos from New Zealand. The number of events has noticeably grown in recent years.”
Sources with knowledge of the Hamm fair say that Seipp and another German trader, Markus Schaub, bought and sold jewelled geckos at the Terraristika trade fair in June. Selling them in Europe is not illegal but taking them from New Zealand would be. Seipp did not respond to a request for comment. Schaub, who says that he is a conservationist, denies that he sold the species.
At the trade fair, Schaub, was eager to talk when asked if he had any rare abronias (arboreal alligator lizards). “You’re looking to buy?” he said. “I have abronias here, but only that I got from one customer to ship to another. I just do the transport.”
Schaub handed over a business card with an email address for his partner, Maciej Oskroba, and said: “If you’re interested, just write me an email so I can let you know if people are offering abronias. I have customers calling me, saying ‘Markus, I’ve got a deppii’ and I’m expecting a fimbriata [two species of abronia].”
Oskroba was caught trying to smuggle more than 400 frogs, lizards and snakes out of Costa Rice last year. He was held for a few days then deported. “In my 20 years working at the airport, this is the largest wildlife trafficking case we’ve seen,” Carlos Viquez, the chief of Panama airport security was quoted as saying at the time.
In reply to an emailed request ostensibly from an enthusiast interested in purchasing rare lizards, Oskroba wrote: “I will let you know in a few weeks how it should works [sic] on abronias. Please wait a bit for further information.”
Schaub and Schmidt both denied that the reptiles they were offering had been caught in the wild.
But captive breeding is not possible for all species. International experts believe that rare species such as earless monitor lizards could not be captive-bred for sale in trade fairs. “All the specimens available outside Borneo have been illegally obtained and brought there,” said Mark Auliya, the co-chair of the IUCN’s monitor lizard specialist group. “For the people who harvest and collect lizards, it’s like additional pocket money. The main money is made by syndicates of importers and exporters – the profit margin is extremely high,” he added.
The more rare and exotic the species, the higher the asking price. The IUCN says that one contemporary trend for “mutants” has created bizarrely multicoloured frogs and snakes without scalation that bleed if they try to move on a rough surface.
Lanthanotus borneensis is a truly enigmatic, subterranean species that is sought by collectors for its unique features such as blue eyes and a lack of visible ears. Campaigners and vendors both say that a drop in their retail price from €8,000 a pair at the start of the year to €5,000 in September suggests an increase in supply.
“Those animals were like the holy grail for many years because no one believed they really existed,” one seller said. “Now that Borneo is destroying the habitats where they lived for palm oil plantations, you can find them in the rice fields, in every channel where water flows between one field and another. At first they were expensive but no one is bringing them in anymore. It’s cheaper to breed them here.”
But the argument that lizard traders are protecting animals threatened by habitat loss in the wild was “complete nonsense,” said the IUCN’s Mark Auliya, who is currently based at the Helmholtz centre for environmental research in Leipzig.
Pro Wildlife’s Sandra Altherr agreed: “Preservation in captivity would only make sense if the smugglers planned to release these animals into the wild one day and of course, they do not.”
In private, traders admit that the rearing of lizards for sale is not always played by the book. “Taking species from the wild is frowned upon nowadays. It’s all about captive breeding but you have to have new blood to liven up the gene pool,” explained one London-based reptile seller.
Another trader compared the reptile industry to stamp collecting. “We’re all aware that there are animals coming to Europe from sources that are working on the grey line,” he said. “We have a big problem in that you can trade Cites species without any controls, just a hand-written note saying ‘I’m a breeder and I sold you an animal’.”
The Guardian approached the organisers of the Terraristika trade fair but they declined to comment.
Reptiles are not the most charismatic of protected species, but they can play a vital role in ecosystems. Herbivorous species can be important seed dispersers, especially on islands and other lizards may eat rodents and insect pests. Reptiles can also act as pollinators for rare plants. In food chains, lizards play a role as predators and prey, and their removal can severely impact upon other wildlife populations, and ecosystems in general.
Ceratophora stoddartii: Rhino horn lizard
This slow-moving arboreal lizard has bright orange lining inside its mouth that it reveals when threatened. Native to Sri Lanka’s cloud forests, all exports of the endangered stoddartii are forbidden. All the same, it has been traded in Europe since at least August 2013 for around €1,200 a pair.
Lanthanotus borneensis Borneo earless monitor lizard
Endemic to Sarawak and West Kalimantan in Borneo, Lanthanotus is thought rare, although little is known about the cryptic lizard with a morphology that has been linked to a 70 million-year-old Mongolian fossil. The reptile, which sells for around €5,000 a pair, is a protected species in Indonesia. Punishment for its theft can go as high as a five-year prison sentence.
Abronia fimbriata: Fringed arboreal alligator lizard
The IUCN classifies Guatemala’s fimbriatas as endangered, and they are found in less than five locations, at high altitudes. On the market, they sell for €2,800 a pair. Like the Lanthanotus, these have been traded in Europe since last May, and have also been proposed for a Cites listing.
Cnemaspis psychedelica: Psychedelic gecko
Psychedelica was discovered in Vietnam in 2011 – and began retailing in Europe’s reptile market in October 2013, at prices of around €3,500 a pair. Endemic only to Hon Khoai island, it has not yet been given a protected status but could be approved for an “appendix 1” listing at the next Cites conference.
Ctenosaura defensor: Yucatán Spiny-tailed Iguana
In European trade fairs, defensors sell for €1,200 each. The unusual iguana is classified as vulnerable by the IUCN, mainly due to the loss of its jungle habitat in Mexico, and the lizard trade. A decade ago, the IUCN predicted that its numbers would fall by 30% within 10 years.
This article was first published by The Guardian on 11 Nov 2015.
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