The trade in reptiles

The  media report on the seizure of live baby crocodiles at Sibu airport is not a new incident.  A similar incident occurred in May 2018 in which an illegal shipment of 50 live crocodiles from Malaysia were seized by border officers at Heathrow Airport.
The shocking truth is the manner in which the year old juvenile saltwater crocodiles were transported.  These reptiles weighing around 40kgs, had not been packed in accordance with International  Air Transport   Association (IATA) regulations, invalidating their permit and making the importation illegal.

They were discovered in horrific condition  by Grant Miller, head of the national Border Force Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) at Heathrow who commented,  “It is just not acceptable for reptiles to be transported in this way.”

Each box only had room for four crocodiles but instead 10  foot-long reptiles had been packed into each one.  Due to very limited space the crocodiles started fighting each other during the flight resulting in the death of one saltwater crocodile.

Apart from contravening of CITES regulations, this is a clear example of how Malaysian wildlife exporters and traders are only into profits without any regard for animal welfare.  Squeezing as many reptiles into a box while limiting the number of boxes used in order to save costs is the norm for these wildlife exporters.

These crocodiles were believed to be meant for a farm in Cambridgeshire, where they were to be bred for their meat.  Fortunately the horrifying condition led to the confiscation of the remaining surviving  crocodiles which were cared for to be re-homed later.

In the Sibu case of the snapping live baby crocodiles in two white boxes labelled as frozen fish the truth was discovered when the package was intercepted at Sibu Airport thus saving the baby crocodiles from further ordeal.  In this case the particulars of the sender were all believed to be false.   In the first case there was no further news as to the identity of the crocodile exporters and from which state in Malaysia.  As for the latter the falsification of the sender’s particulars led to no further arrest.

The potentially large profits, combined with relatively minimal penalties if caught, especially for a first offense, have resulted in a large number of smugglers and a diversity of smuggling techniques.

Sadly while no one knows exactly what percentage of the illegal wildlife trade involves reptiles, it is thought to be substantial.  Smugglers will go to great lengths to conceal their activities.  One of the most routine and often effective strategies employed by smugglers moving animals is simply falsifying import and export documentation.  Enforcement of existing trade laws is often lax, so a great many illegally shipped animals simply go by undetected.

Unfortunately, failures in enforcement of CITES requirements have prevented the successful application of CITES as a conservation tool.  These as well as failures in the compliance IATA regulations have resulted in the inhumane treatment and the death of large number of reptiles.

Due to the fact that it is extremely difficult or impossible to identify the exact source of most reptiles, exporters may take in illegally caught animals, declare them captive-bred and sell them off at a bigger profit.

The internet has facilitated an increase in both the legal and illegal wildlife trade.  It has revolutionized the reptile trade by connecting sellers and buyers throughout the world in a way that was never before possible.

The above two cases serve as a reminder that enforcement is difficult and sometimes depends on nothing more than just blind luck.  No one really knows the true extent of this aspect of the trade.

The illegal trade is substantial and is believed to be equal to or greater in value than the legal trade.  Some illegally collected reptiles are laundered through so-called reptile farms or other facilities and labelled captive bred and then sent to buyers in other locations through a vast network of collectors, exporters, importers, wholesalers and retailers.  They represent the proverbial tip of the iceberg in the world of illegal reptile trading.

Sahabat Alam Malaysia (SAM) calls for an in-depth investigation by the relevant authorities into the two cases and bring the culprit to book.


Letter to Editor, 1 February 2019