The second biggest threat to biodiversity—after changes in land and sea use—is the direct exploitation of species, including the international wildlife trade, according to United Nations’ recently-released IPBES report.
Unfortunately, not everyone is heeding this dire warning, including the alligator and crocodile industry. In fact, they’re taking us a step backwards by pushing AB 719, which would allow the commercial import and sale of crocodile and alligator parts and products in California to continue until 2025, despite the fact that such activities are scheduled to be banned on January 1, 2020. AB 719 is coming up late in the legislative process after an earlier attempt, AB 527, failed to pass committee before the deadline.
Since 1970 California law (Penal Code Section 653o) has banned the import or sale of alligator or crocodile parts and products (e.g., meat, leather, handbags, shoes) to protect highly imperiled crocodilian species threatened by global wildlife trafficking. However, the state legislature has carved out an exemption and allowed sales to continue since 2006, primarily due to the idea that commercialization of crocodile and alligator products encourages sustainable management of American Alligators, which were severely depleted from the leather trade in the early 1980’s.
It’s true that the situation for the American Alligator has improved immensely. However, other crocodilian species, which include alligators, caimans, crocodiles, and gharials, have not been as lucky. Indeed, wildlife trafficking currently threatens more than 20 crocodilian species from the Siamese Crocodile to the Mugger. These species face a multitude of other threats as well—so many, in fact, that eleven of the 23 crocodilian species are classified as threatened with extinction (i.e., vulnerable, endangered or critically endangered) on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List. All crocodilians are also listed in either Appendix I or II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), meaning the global community has recognized that they are threatened by trade.
Continuing to allow for a legal trade in crocodilian parts, even if limited, will put another nail in the coffin for these species by exacerbating the parallel illegal trade in these products. Indeed, the fact that skins from alligators and crocodiles, as well as caimans and gharials, look a lot alike, combined with inadequate tracking of legal harvest, makes it almost impossible to distinguish between products made from legally farmed versus wild-caught endangered animals. As such, traffickers illegally harvest skins from the wild and enter them into the legal market under the auspices of legal, farmed animals. As with elephant ivory, a legal market has facilitated an illegal market, making a ban on imports critically important to the survival of these animals.
Why should we care about these species? Because we are facing massive biodiversity loss, as the above-mentioned IPBES report outlined. Indeed, that report estimated that one million species face extinction due to human actions, many within decades. Massive biodiversity loss will not only have devastating impacts on wildlife itself—but also on humans. In fact, many scientists assert that the destruction of nature is as dangerous to human life as climate change – and may threaten human life sooner than global warming—because it can result in cascading effects that reduce overall ecosystem functioning. These alarming predictions are based on business as usual, clearly showing that the status quo—including existing conservation efforts and regulatory mechanisms—is not working.
California should lead the way in reversing global biodiversity loss by refusing to accept the status quo and banning the importation of alligator and crocodile parts, as scheduled. Thanks to the IPBES report, we know the future we’re facing and it isn’t pretty. International trafficking in wildlife, particularly endangered animals, is a significant problem in California as well as the rest of the United States. If we’re going to work together to stop it, every single species makes a difference. We must start now. There’s no time to waste.