Conservation and Herpetoculture
In a recent article someone asked should new species that are discovered be kept secret. Without reading the actual article personally but recognizing the photo of the Lao newt Laotriton laoensis and knowing the background of the discussion; I would tend to agree that the decision is well founded to keep the locales of new species secret.
I don’t believe anyone has the data on numbers collected for the herpetoculture trade on a private keeper/breeder level. Insofar as where reptiles are wild caught and then used for breeding stock in private collections. To my knowledge, C.I.T.E.S. only tracks international export and import of flora and fauna; not those commercially collected remaining in the country of origin for breeding or commercial purposes. Such as is explained in great detail in the Color Morph Guide by Stephen Broghammer.
I can recall several stories about herpetoculturists/field collectors entering a habitat with crow bars etc. to collect all the Rosy Boas Lichanura trivirgata they found, they did this by bringing friends therefore subverting the collecting limits. They may have now over collected to a point of potentially decimating a specific habitat of what may or may not be a keystone species and this is a huge issue. As is shown in David Quammens Song of the Dodo it need not be a ‘keystone’ species to set off a trophic cascade.
Essentially, a trophic cascade in its most basic form says, once you remove a species by any means outside of natural selection this can and does lead to population explosions in specific prey of the species that was removed. This then has a ‘cascading’ effect that disrupts the entire food chain, which in turn impacts the habitat, this continues on an ever-growing and decisive ripple effect.
Conservation or Pillaging?
Field collectors/herpetoculturists will sometimes claim they are conserving a species by collecting then breeding a species to be sold to the general public at large. This may be true and I somewhat agree with this, however, it’s not necessary to collect so many at one time. The Department of Fish and Game sets collection limits for a reason which are fairly well based in biological field studies of collection impacts as seen in the larger picture of the habitat and the biological systems operating within it. This means they have actually had the forethought to plan out that there are X number of young which will take X number of years to reproduce etc. If field collectors collect all of those found this disrupts a delicate balance.
This does not take into account the fact that the more colorful or aberrant patterned species sell better to general public. Aberrant patterning can begin with a crooked stripe or even a slight color difference which may appear as nothing to the average eye can mean thousands of dollars to a breeder.
This then allows the originator stock (normals) to fall by the wayside because if breeders are not making money they are likely to give up and move on to a species which is making money. This is something which our community sees all too often. Yes, there are exceptions to the rule but they are rare.
Some may argue (and yes I have heard them do it) that facilities such as Zoos house rare or endangered species so therefore the public should be able to do the same. This is a hollow argument as Zoos and other accredited facilities are generally working with the country of origin to reintroduce the species to the wild if possible. I have also heard people argue that private citizens can and should do the same. This again is a misnomer as there are population studies and much more work than meets the eye when reintroducing a species into a habitat, even if it was once prolific there. As species decline through natural selection other species move in and fill the niche or evolve to fill the need once fulfilled by the exiting species. As I said above if this is done by a means other than natural selection then this can and does lead to issues such as trophic cascades. As we can see there are many more factors than just dropping a species into a proper environment and expecting it to survive much less thrive.
With all that being known I am in no way making the presumption that all field collectors/field herpers go about destroying habitat and raping the land as it were looking for reptiles to keep. There are those that do just that; as a field herper, herpetoculturist, and amateur herpetologist, it’s my responsibility and yours to stop that behavior if you see it. I recommend calling local conservation organizations, universities, and land trusts in your community who may have herpetological studies going or coming up that you can offer your skills to. As a matter of fact, I know of one entire research project that was inspired by a field herpers observations! There was a time not long ago when zoo’s, academia, and herpetoculturists were more open with one another than they are today. I am positive that the major contributing decline in that communication was due in fact to the field collecting practices that arose.
Field Herping with Style
When you go field herping do so with some style and ethics. If you’re in the field and you flip something over turn it back to its original place. If you find something photograph it, then tell a story about it, that way someone else can have that same ecstatic feeling when they see that same reptile in the wild. For more on Field Herping Ethics check out Melissa Coakley of Snake Hunting Chick she wrote a piece foe Herpetoculture House eZine which we published in our January issue and specifically linked to this piece for you to read. She’s basically outlines what we are talking about and states it plainly.
My Two Cents
We can all agree we have limited resources and while some may subscribe to conservation through collection I disagree with this. We can collect on a managed level and not destroy the resources and still obtain a working knowledge which should then be made public and shared freely with any interested parties not in scientific journals that have a limited audience.
Thank you to my friend for inspiring this post even though they asked not to be mentioned I needed to thank them so there it is.