Endangered Species Handbook

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Reptile Trade: Lizards and Snakes

     The use of lizards in the reptile products trade began growing when crocodiles declined and became protected.  Millions of Red Tegu (Tupinambis rufescens) lizard skins, exported from Argentina, have been used in the exotic leather trade.  Heavy exploitation of this species and the Common or Banded Tegu (Tupinambis teguixin) of South America caused an overall decline in populations throughout their range (Fitzgerald 1989).  All tegu lizards, Tupinambis spp., are listed on CITES Appendix II.  Several Asian monitor lizards, extremely large reptiles including the world's largest lizard, the ten-foot-long Komodo Dragon (Varanus komodoensis), are listed on CITES Appendix I.  The Bengal Monitor (Varanus bengalensis), Yellow Monitor (Varanus flavescens) and the Desert Monitor (Varanus griseus) are all endangered species.  When they were added to Appendix I in 1975, Japan refused to abide by the listing and filed a reservation on these lizards, not lifted until 1994.  All other monitor lizards (Varanus), which occur in Asia, Australia and Africa, are listed on Appendix II of CITES.  In spite of the latter listing, African monitor lizards are killed in very large numbers for the reptile products trade. 
     The Caiman Lizard (Dracaena guianensis) is listed on Appendix II of CITES because it is threatened by exploitation, along with related lizards of its genus.  In 1995, skins and boots of this species worth $1 million wholesale were confiscated from the Tony Lama Boot Company of El Paso, Texas, by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  Among the seizures were 907 pairs of Caiman Lizard cowboy boots and 2,554 pairs of boot vamps.  A 15-count felony indictment for smuggling and violations of the Lacey Act was issued by a Grand Jury against two people who sold the skins to Tony Lama, using fraudulent export permits obtained in Mexico.  The Lacey Act prohibits importation-- without permits--of species protected in their country of origin.  This lizard is native to the Amazon Basin, and its lustrous skins are highly prized for boots, which can retail from $700 to $1,000 per pair.  Four lizards are used to make one pair of boots.  More than 13,800 Caiman Lizards were killed and sold to the Tony Lama Boot Company for the manufacture of the boots and skins seized.  The indictment was the result of an undercover investigation by the Fish and Wildlife Service, begun in 1993.
     Millions of snakes are killed for the reptile product trade, mainly in Asia.  Indian Whip Snakes (Ptyas mucosus) and Oriental Water Snakes of the family Acrochordidae are heavily exploited.  In the late 1970s, India supplied more than 3 million snake skins.  India listed the Indian Whip Snake on Appendix III of CITES in 1984, indicating that it was protected by national law.  After this export ban, a single government company held 5.7 million snake skins which it exported in what was supposed to be controlled trade; smugglers removed thousands of snakes from India illegally, however (Fitzgerald 1989).  The Indian Government made a seizure of one such smuggling operation with 150,000 snake skins destined for West Germany (Fitzgerald 1989).  This system of controlled trade did not succeed in ending India's exports, since the stockpile actually grew to 6 million skins by 1979, after exports of hundreds of thousands of skins from this supposed stockpile (Fitzgerald 1989).  Wild Whip Snakes continued to be killed and added to this stockpile, causing population declines and increases in grain-eating rodents.
     Pythons are among the most popular snakes for shoes and handbags, and one subspecies of Indian Python (Python molurus molurus) is listed on CITES Appendix I, while other subspecies enter trade.  This listing is totally ineffectual because of confusion with other subspecies of this snake.  All pythons (Python spp.) are listed on Appendix II, but this has done little to slow the trade in their skins.  The massive take of wild pythons in Asia for shoes, handbags, and even clothing has resulted in infestations of rats, which spread disease to humans and damage crops.  Peter Brazaitis, a herpetologist and former curator of animals at the Central Park Wildlife Center in New York City, commented:  “I think we have to ask ourselves, what is the value of a python?  Is it as a pair of expensive pants?  Or is it as a means to check exploding rat populations in nations where communicable diseases are rampant? (Chivera 2000). 
      Likewise, Argentine Boa Constrictors (Boa constrictor occidentalis) are listed on CITES Appendix I, and other subspecies on Appendix II.  Once made into reptile products, races of Boa Constrictor resemble one another, making the CITES listing meaningless.  The largest Boa Constrictors, which are the oldest, have been a prime target for skin hunters in South America, and the enormous snakes of this species, once commonly seen in tropical forests, have disappeared as a result of this trade.  Many are also taken for the pet trade.  Retail prices indicate the popularity of snakeskin for luxury leather goods.  A python handbags sell for $300 or more, and a python belt costs $120.
     Lizards consume large quantities of insects and are extremely vital to ecosystems.  Reptiles play an important role in nature, and the killing of millions of these useful animals is disrupting the balance of nature in many parts of the world.
     The luxury reptile leather trade has pushed many species toward extinction, and it shows no signs of declining.  Lizard and snakeskin products are now being sold in the volume that turtle and crocodilian leather once were.  Handbags, wallets and shoes from these reptiles can be seen in department and shoe stores throughout the world.  The endangered reptile species of tomorrow can be seen in the advertisements and luxury shops of today.

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