Endangered Species Handbook

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Reptile Trade: Crocodiles and Alligators

     All 23 species of large crocodiles and alligators have been overexploited by hide hunting; they are now in varying degrees of threat and listed on Appendix I or II of CITES.  South American caimans were so abundant in the early 1950s that millions were killed for export to Europe and the United States.  Their hides are fashioned into shoes, handbags and suitcases for the luxury trade.  Elsewhere, crocodiles in Africa, Asia and Australia came under similar pressure, as did the American Alligator (Alligator missippiensis).  In fact, the depletion of wild crocodiles which began in the 1950s caused reptile hide traders to turn to turtle skin, lizards and snakes, continuing their record of massive overexploitation.
     One Colombian conservationist said that prior to this massive slaughter, it was easy to see 200 adult caimans on the banks of the River Ariari and elsewhere in Colombia, but within a few years, they had disappeared (Anon. 1981).  In the 1950s and early 1960s, 6 to 8 million skins were traded per year, resulting in the near-extinction of the American Alligator and many other crocodilians (King 1994).  One Brazilian state exported 5 million hides in 1950 (King 1994), and in that year 12 million Black Caiman (Melanosuchus niger) skins were taken from the Amazon basin (Fitzgerald 1989).  By the late 1960s, Brazil and many South American countries had prohibited export of wildlife.  The Black Caiman, a member of the Alligatoridae family, was listed on CITES Appendix I in 1975, along with most other large crocodiles, members of the family Crocodylidae.  This designation officially bans international commercial trade among member countries. 
     Combined with CITES protection, these trade restrictions allowed some species to recover, but much of the trade went underground, involving the smuggling of hundreds of thousands of caimans poached in Colombia, Venezuela and Brazil.  The skins were hidden in shipping crates, or transshipped from other countries.  Paraguay, in spite of its export ban, was a major conduit for illegally taken wildlife, and remains so today.  Another species that was highly sought after for its soft skin was the Broad-snouted Caiman (Caiman latirostris).  This crocodile also became endangered from the trade and is on Appendix I, but during the 1980s, a black market for its skins was uncovered in West Germany, supplied by 20,000 skins poached annually in Brazil (Fitzgerald 1989).  In 1980 alone, a Frankfurt, Germany, company imported--under false documentation--some 200,000 caiman skins of various species from Paraguay (Fitzgerald 1989).  Many caiman skins came from the Pantanal, a vast wetland in western Brazil that once teemed with these reptiles.
     Approximately 85 percent of the world's crocodilians became endangered by the reptile product trade of the 1950s and 1960s.  New World species were especially targeted.  Besides the South American Black and Broad-nosed Caimans, two subspecies of the Spectacled Caiman (Caiman crocodilus)--the Yacare Caiman (Caiman crocodilus yacare) and the Apaporis River Caiman (Caiman crocodilus apaporiensis)--declined so precipitously that they were listed on both the U.S. Endangered Species Act and CITES Appendix I.  Exploitation of the remaining subspecies of Spectacled Caiman continues, however.  Identification of reptile products by subspecies is nearly impossible, thereby preventing proper protection of this species.  In 1986 alone, the United States imported more than 65,000 Spectacled Caiman skins and more than 530,000 caiman handbags, shoes and other leather products (Fitzgerald 1989).  A large portion of the trade in Spectacled Caiman is illegal, with violations including the poaching of endangered Yacare from Paraguay and caimans from national parks and other protected areas. 
     Other endangered New World species include the American Crocodile (Crocodylus acutus), whose range includes the Florida Keys; the Cuban Crocodile (Crocodylus rhombifer); Morelet's Crocodile (Crocodylus moreletii) of Mexico, Belize and Guatemala; and the Orinoco Crocodile (Crocodylus intermedius) of Colombia and Venezuela.  All the latter species are listed as endangered on the U.S. Endangered Species Act.  An additional 10 species and subspecies from Africa, Asia and the Philippines are also listed on the Act.  Fifteen species of crocodilians are listed on Appendix I of CITES.  All other alligators and crocodiles are listed on Appendix II.
     Many of the CITES listings include exceptions that allow trade in some populations or subspecies.  Also, some crocodile species are ranched, or raised in captivity expressly for commercial slaughter, in South America, Africa, Madagascar, Australia and Asia.  Eggs laid by wild crocodiles are taken to supply these farms, and a percentage of the young crocodiles are released back to the wild.  In Brazil, for example, the Yacare, an endangered subspecies of crocodile listed on the U.S. Endangered Species Act, is being exploited for the reptile products trade through ranching.  Licenses are granted by the government to remove eggs based on the number of nests on each property.  The eggs are hatched and raised in captivity, and 10 percent of the 1-year-old Yacares are returned to the wild (Bampi and Dal'Ava 1994).  Through this ranching, 80,000 crocodile hides were produced between the 1992 and 1994 seasons (Bampi and Dal'Ava 1994).  Brazilian Government officials maintain that in nature, fewer than 10 percent of the young would survive and, therefore, this is an environmentally benign activity (Bampi and Dal'Ava 1994).  These animals, however, produce hides that are different from wild Yacare (Bampi and Dal'Ava 1994) and may differ in many other respects from their wild counterparts.  They have been raised in unnatural conditions, and captive-raised crocodiles may not be able survive in the wild.  The natural selection of crocodile egg and hatchling survival is also interfered with, negating the "survival of the fittest" principle with the possible effect of weakening the species.  Another effect of ranching programs is the role that newly hatched crocodiles and alligators play in food chains; they provide a major food source for many waterbirds and are fed on by a variety of animals.  By removing a large percentage of wild crocodilian eggs of a species, adverse ecological consequences may result.
     A major trade in American Alligator hides began in the 1950s, and in the 1960s, state laws were passed banning killing and trade because of steep declines in its populations.  In 1973, it was listed on Appendix I of CITES.  In 1979, the species was removed from CITES Appendix I and placed on Appendix II, allowing trade.  The federal U.S. Endangered Species Act originally listed it as Endangered, but reclassified it as Threatened throughout its range in the Southeastern United States under the Similarity of Appearance clause.  Under this designation, some states may harvest Alligators.  Louisiana supplies the largest number of skins, and also farms this species.  The meat is also marketed in restaurants.  Many Alligators that wander out of national parks and reserves are immediately killed as pests and threats to humans, and their skins are sold.  In Florida, private companies respond to citizen calls about Alligators being present in waterways, and they send personnel in vans to capture and kill all Alligators over a minimum size limit, whether or not they present a threat.  Although alligator hides entering trade must be marked by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as legally taken according to management regulations, shipments are rarely inspected, and once out of the country and turned into handbags and shoes, their legality cannot be verified.
      After 25 years of legal protection, about one-third of all alligators and crocodiles, or eight species, have increased their populations (King 1994).  Many of the latter species are reentering trade, and advocates for the trade are stating that they are now "harvestable" (King 1994).  This is being called a great conservation success, in spite of the fact that two-thirds of the species remain critically endangered, or "safe" but unharvestable (King 1994).
     The incentive is high to poach crocodiles for this luxury trade.  Crocodile handbags sell for as much as $3,000.  Briefcases can cost $10,000 or more.  Major markets for these products have been Tokyo, Singapore, New York, Los Angeles, Frankfurt, Berlin and Rome.  By purchasing crocodilian products, one may be contributing to the overexploitation of a species, or unknowingly buying an endangered species product.  Moreover, crocodilians have an important ecological role to play in nature.  Adult crocodiles and alligators are at the top of their food chains.  They weed out overpopulated fishes, including the voracious piranha, and dig water holes in times of drought that save the lives of numerous animals.  In fact, when populations of South American caimans were decimated in the 1960s, piranhas increased to epidemic proportions.  They also present a wildlife spectacle when large groups of caimans sun themselves on river banks, and are one of the prime attractions for ecotourists who travel to the tropics.  If calculations were made of their value in ecotourism and in ecological systems, they would be considered worth more alive than dead.

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