Poachers Abuse an International-Law Loophole to Sell Some of the Rarest Animals on Earth

How can you tell the difference between a captive-bred turtle and a wild-caught one? (You can’t.)

A critically endangered Palawan forest turtle

Rhinoceroses, pangolins, and hornbills are among the most endangered animals on earth. As such, they, along with about 1,200 other species on the brink, are listed in Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES). This conservation category includes creatures so close to extinction that the 181 CITES-compliant countries have banned them from international trade.

There is, however, a loophole. A bit of alchemy written into the law concerning captive breeding turns animals typically found under Appendix I into Appendix II animals, which can be bought and sold across borders. The idea behind this exception is that commodifying animals born in captivity won’t diminish wild populations. Some of the law’s proponents also argue that captive breeding reduces pressure on wild populations, though not everyone agrees (as evidenced by my colleague Austin Merrill’s previous coverage for onEarth of the debate over legalizing the rhino horn trade).

The thing is, poachers and smugglers take advantage of the law by falsely labeling wild-caught animals as captive-bred. This poses a serious problem for enforcement agencies: How can you tell the difference between a gecko caught in the wild and one hatched in a licensed facility? You can’t.

Tokay geckos are popular in the pet trade and as an ingredient in Traditional Chinese Medicine

From tortoises and turtles to snakes, lizards, birds, and mammals, the list of species being laundered in this manner is long and diverse, says Chris Shepherd, the Southeast Asia director for TRAFFIC, the World Wildlife Fund’s trade monitoring program. And while supporters promote commercial captive breeding as a moneymaking conservation strategy, the truth is that most animals just aren’t cut out for it—whether due to their slow maturity rates, specialized diets, or just generally poor adaptability to life in captivity.

Better oversight and enforcement are needed to stem the abuse, says Zak Smith, an attorney specializing in wildlife issues for the Natural Resources Defense Council. Currently, CITES investigates breeding facilities only when a problem surfaces, as when authorities stumble onto a turtle death camp (more on that later).

But a new proposal already garnering wide support from green groups, such as NRDC, Defenders of Wildlife, and Humane Society International, seeks to change that this fall when the parties to CITES convene in South Africa. Smith says the plan would create regular reviews of data submitted by captive breeding operations in an attempt to root out illegal operations before they grow too large. To some degree, we’ll always be reacting to the tricks of those who want to make a buck off wildlife, but a little bit of proactivity could go a long way.

Pit of Doom

In June 2015, at a “captive breeding facility” on the island of Palawan in the Philippines, authorities confiscated nearly 4,000 critically endangered forest turtles. For six months the football-size animals had been kept in horrendous conditions: piled a dozen turtles deep in a dry concrete pond inside a warehouse, kept without food or water. The captives were likely destined for pet and food markets elsewhere in Asia. Nearly 100 of the turtles were already dead. Many of the survivors suffered from open wounds, ulcers, bone infections, blindness, and septicemia.

On top of these atrocious conditions, this scenario had another glaring problem: Captive-bred Palawan forest turtles don’t exist.

But not for lack of trying. Two conservation organizations, the Katala Foundation and Wildlife Reserves Singapore, have been attempting to establish a back-up population for these reptiles for years. The conservationists have gotten as far as coaxing the turtles, which lay only one or two eggs at a time, to produce several clutches. Unfortunately, not one of those little ping-pong balls has ever hatched. Scientists suspect that living in captivity stresses the would-be parents out too much for them to do their thing as they would in the wild.

The reason the groups continue to go through the trouble is because so few of these turtles remain. Before the bust last summer, estimates put the wild population at around 2,500. That means those individuals found rotting away in that cement pit, all 3,831 of them, may have been the vast majority of Palawan forest turtles left on the planet.


Authorities confiscated 3,831 turtles from a "captive breeding facility" in the Philippines in June 2015

Some Birds Aren’t Meant to Be Caged

More than 54,000 parrots and other birds were exported from the Solomon Islands to China between 2000 and 2010. All of the 35 species involved—including Pesquet’s parrot, the chattering lory, and the blue-eyed cockatoo—belong to Appendix I. The exporters, however, declared the birds “captive bred,” so their transactions escaped notice. That is, until members of the TRAFFIC program started poking around.

Turns out, no substantial bird-breeding facilities exist in the Solomon Islands. What the country does have is a lot of government-registered “breeders” whose facilities serve as holding cells for birds that are caught in the wild and then shipped overseas. Imagine that.


Blue-eyed cockatoo

Credit: Steve James/Flickr

The Most Efficient Gecko Factory on Earth

The Tokay gecko is a small, nocturnal lizard popular in the pet trade, but also as an ingredient in Traditional Chinese Medicine. It is not listed under the CITES Convention, but the Indonesian government does set strict quotas on how many of the animals can be taken from the wild each year. Captive-bred geckos are allowed, though, the law stipulates that such animals are to be sold alive. (As opposed to dead and dried, which is what you do to geckos when you want to consume them to cure HIV or acne or whatever they’re saying dried geckos are good for right now.)

In 2014, the Indonesian government issued permits to six companies allowing them to breed and export approximately three million Tokay geckos a year for the pet trade. (Note: This number far exceeds the wild-caught quotas, which are to the tune of 50,000 geckos per year.) In the opinion of the Indonesian government, a sustainable captive breeding industry is preferred over plundering wild populations—which is all fine and good until you consider what it would take to make that many geckos from scratch.

According to TRAFFIC estimates, the companies would somehow need to come up with 140,000 females, 14,000 males, 30,000 incubation containers, and 112,000 rearing cages. Not to mention a helluva lot of crickets for food and hundreds of staff to run the operation. To turn a profit, the breeders must do all of this at a maximum cost of $1.90 per gecko—and that’s with a 100 percent survival rate. This business strategy would be impossible to pull off, said Shepherd in a statement last November.

The alternative, of course, would be to just nab the geckos from the wild and say they were born in captivity. Bam—consider your lizards laundered!

Off-the-Record Reptiles

When TRAFFIC employees started conducting surveys, making site visits, and analyzing the data surrounding the Indonesian reptile trade—the kind of review that NRDC, WWF, and other groups would like to see become mandatory—they quickly realized the numbers were screwy. Legal breeding facilities in the country had enough Timor monitor lizards to produce 175 young each year under optimal conditions. But government records showed Indonesia exported some 580 “captive bred” individuals that year (2006), more than three times as many lizzies as biology tells us are possible.

And that’s a mild example of the fraud taking place under this loophole. The same documents showed 192 spiny turtles being born in captivity and then exported that year. With mama turtle capable of spawning five hatchlings a year, it would take approximately 38 sexually mature females to produce 192 of the animals.

How many adult turtles, male or female, did TRAFFIC find in the country’s breeding facilities? Exactly zero.

* * *

As the international community debates later this year the question of how best to shut down these illegal, harmful businesses hiding in plain sight, there’s one thing the rest of us can do to help: Be better consumers. Is that adorable baby turtle in the pet shop window listed by another name by the International Union for Conservation of Nature or CITES? Do the online sellers claim that their animals are all captive-bred?

“If in doubt, do not buy,” says Shepherd.

Be skeptical. Do your Googles. Because owning a pet is an act of caring for another creature, one that shouldn’t come at the cost of needless suffering (remember that heap of dying turtles?) or needless extinction.


This article was originally published on onEarth, which is no longer in publication. onEarth was founded in 1979 as the Amicus Journal, an independent magazine of thought and opinion on the environment. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. This article is available for online republication by news media outlets or nonprofits under these conditions: The writer(s) must be credited with a byline; you must note prominently that the article was originally published by NRDC.org and link to the original; the article cannot be edited (beyond simple things such grammar); you can’t resell the article in any form or grant republishing rights to other outlets; you can’t republish our material wholesale or automatically—you need to select articles individually; you can’t republish the photos or graphics on our site without specific permission; you should drop us a note to let us know when you’ve used one of our articles.

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