A short while ago, temporarily frustrated by the situation in my home city in the UK, I thought about emigrating "down under". To a Briton with a love for wildlife and nature, Australia has plenty to recommend it: wide open spaces, little congestion, lower prices (especially compared to the south-east of England) and a good chance of making a decent living. However, as we have always been people to take our pets (and chattels) with us, we enquired about the situation for bringing our pets with us. I E-mailed the Immigration and Customs people, and was stunned to receive their reply.
No reptile pets.
Cats, yes, dogs, yes, but no reptiles. Period. Unless you are a zoo.
This was the final factor that compelled me to think about writing this article, a train of thought that began some two years ago when I began reading excerpts from Raymond Hoser's "Smuggled" books. This page contains some of my thoughts about Australia and its wildlife laws, relating particularly to reptiles and amphibians.
Let's just make one thing clear before we go on: this is not an exercise in "Aussie-bashing", nor some sinister royalist plot to get back at the Lucky Country for their republican referendum. I have had the pleasure of meeting many Australians on my travels and I can't think of a single one that I have actually taken a dislike to. I still hope to visit the great continent (if they'll allow me in after this). Nor do I like criticising the laws of other people's countries, since there's always something to criticise in anybody's country (including your own). I am writing this not from a nationalist viewpoint but from the point of view of a herp lover.
I DO NOT CONDONE SMUGGLING! Smuggling encourages illegality, threatens wildlife and is also less than conducive to the welfare of the individual animals being smuggled. Smuggling endangered animals is particularly heinous: while the private sector has an important place to play in the reproduction of species, do not confuse "private" with "criminal".
From a historical point of view the current situation is understandable, even if one does not agree with it. As part of the British imperial mindset in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Victorians and Edwardians sought to make the newly-colonised land more like their home in the northern hemisphere. They did so in what would now be a completely unacceptable manner, namely by importing and settling and planting English fauna and flora. Foxes were brought in to give those with the inclination and money the opportunity to ride the hunt as if back in English shires. Far more damaging were the numbers of rabbits imported: with only limited numbers of (non-native) foxes and perenties to keep their numbers in checks, the rabbits multiplied wildly and became a major agricultural pest.
What seems to have cemented Australian attitudes, however, was not an English import but a South American one. The infamous Cane Toad Bufo marinus was imported into Queensland in the 1930s with the intention of using the species to control pests in the fields. The results were in fact disastrous: not only did the Cane Toads not control the targeted pests particularly effectively, but they multiplied explosively as the rabbits had done and competed with, or preyed upon, native species. In fact unlike the rabbits, which could at least be preyed upon by some creatures, the Cane Toads proved to be the nemesis of virtually any predator rash enough to attack one: their toxins are so poisonous that even in death they cause the death of whatever has swallowed them. Even large monitors and venomous snakes succumbed to this fate. Despite permanent open season being declared on these relentless invaders, the species continues to spread inexorably. At the time of writing this article (June 2005), serious consideration is being given to a species-specific virus as the only method of stopping it.
So I can well understand the Australian fear of another bludgeoning attack on their unique wildlife. I address the issue below.
One of the reasons for the ban on the export of Australian wildlife on paper appears to be the laudable aim of conserving native species, especially pertinent to Australia since it contains so many unique species (in many ways the whole continent could be considered a sort of reptile and odd mammal laboratory). Certainly nobody would want to see the incredible goannas, monotreme mammals or other species endangered by irresponsible selling of wildlife at bargain basement prices, as too often has happened in other parts of the world. However, consider the following:
What is one of the most common reptile pets in the world today? The Bearded Dragon, Pogona vitticeps, which ironically originates from Australia. I stand open to correction here, but I believe that there were only a handful of these in the West (principally Europe) when the curtain fell on Australian exports in the seventies. Through careful breeding this number was increased to the point where there is now almost a glut of these fantastic animals on the market. Remember, this boom took place after exports of the bearded dragon were halted from Australia. Far from endangering Pogona vitticeps, it does not seem to have affected it in its homeland in the slightest and in fact may have reduced any incentive to smuggle any out of the country. If through some tragedy all the bearded dragons in Australia were wiped out, there would be enough stock, as far as I can see, to repopulate the territory.
Nor are these the only success stories. I would not condone smuggling, firstly because I believe that laws should not be arbitrarily broken, especially not for simple profit, and secondly because smuggled wildlife often undergoes great hardship on its journey to its final destination. But from what is a similarly limited amount of stock, the Frilled Dragon, Chlamydosaurus kingii, is likewise becoming more widespread in captivity outside its native land. Blue- and Pink-Tongued Skinks, Tiliqua species, have already become well-established if still a little more expensive due to their lower breeding rate compared to the Bearded Dragon. Although at least one of the Tiliqua species can also be found on New Guinea, there seems little doubt that some if not most of the original stock came from Australia. Despite their high prices, Green Tree Pythons, Chondropython (Morelia) viridis are still eagerly sought, all the more so if they are captive bred. Turning to amphibians, who hasn't seen White's Tree Frogs, Litoria, for sale? Again, most if not all of these are now captive bred.
If it were the case that most of these creatures would find it difficult to survive outside their native environment, I too would be loathe to see them exported to any other than specialists or zoos. After all, I believe that gopher tortoises should be left in the deserts of the southern US for that reason, while most South African tortoises should likewise remain in their native environment. But such is not the case with all of the above lizards, snakes and frogs, all of which seem in fact to thrive equally well in the US or Europe, albeit with the aid of heating and UV light in more northerly climates.
To a large degree I do sympathise with the Australian legislators on this issue, although I don't agree with them. The deliberate introduction of the Cane Toad, Bufo marinus, to Australia some decades ago in a clumsy attempt at biological control of pests misfired horribly to the point where the Cane Toads are now a major pest and have endangered native wildlife which does not breed as prolifically as this tough amphibian. This, incidentally, has turned out the same in the southern US, where the Cane Toad has likewise made a nuisance of itself. Even in Great Britain, a country not renowned for zoological disasters, we have had our troubles with the Midwife Toad, Alytes obstetricians. In fact non-native wildlife of any class, not just reptiles or amphibians, can be a threat to native species. A large number of developed countries had trouble for many years with coypu (a type of rodent) that were imported for fur, only to escape and cause trouble in the wild, and today the US is having to deal with the dangerous fire ants. Potentially even more problematic are non-native plants, which can of course spread like wildfire given the right conditions.
However, a degree of selectivity is called for here. Certainly it would make sense to ban, or severely curtail, import of non-native species (including, unfortunately, many amphibians) which are known to be prolific and ready breeders. At the least those people importing such species should be made to register them and to bear responsibility for them, including a stiff penalty if ecological damage could be laid at their door. However, a blanket ban on imports of reptiles hits equally at those species which do not deserve such treatment. Leopard geckos may breed readily in captivity, but they can still only lay two eggs per clutch. Even if a pair were to escape into the wild, I do not think their offspring would find it easy in the presence of competition, not to mention predation, from native Australian reptiles and other vertebrates. Green Iguanas may lay a large clutch of eggs, but they do not breed as readily in captivity - for a start, how many people do you know who keep more than one of these giants? In fact a better case could be made for banning the import of cats and dogs, which can sire huge numbers of descendants in a few years.
The Latin above means roughly "Who will guard the guardians?". I bring this up not because I think Australia somehow suffers more than other nations but as an object lesson in how governmental regulation of wildlife can actually cause a lot of problems. From reading Raymond Hoser's book one gets the impression that it is all too easy for a small group of officials entrusted with power to become a self-serving club, or worse, a criminal outfit. The problem in Australia seems to have gone unchecked for a number of years. (Similarly, there have been concerns in this country over whether the RSPCA are gettting a bit too overbearing for their own good). Of course we need legislation regarding the position of, and often protection of, wildlife: but when the balance tips too far, then those entrusted with those powers can all too easily abuse them. If that position is a government official, then it is often hard for an individual to get justice.
Dr Allen Greer, Australian academic and curator of the Australian museum in Sydney, wrote the following words in his book The Biology and Evolution of Australian Snakes (1997):
"The people in the faunal control agencies that are responsible for the decisions that effectively exclude interested and competent unpaid herpetologists from easy access to local herpetofauna are ignorant, incompetent, or working to some hidden, non-scientific agenda.... These functionaries need to be weeded out of these agencies, and the agencies themselves made to realise that unpaid herpetologists are a vital part of the effort to learn about and to conserve the Australian herpetofauna."
Remember, these are just my thoughts, rather than a closely argued thesis. If anyone wants to put me straight, throw in a suggestion or criticism or whatever, then please do. But one thought I have had is to have monitoring of herptile captives, rather than over-regulation. I have no quarrel with buying permits for my animals: in fact if done properly such a system would be helpful both for legal reasons and for information concerning who is buying what at any given point in time. Those species deemed high-risk (eg certain amphibians with a high breeding rate, or large lizards or snakes that could threaten native wildlife through being able to compete over-effectively in the wild) could either be restricted or their owners made to pay a higher cost and to submit to an inspection on a periodic basis. Bear in mind, however, that this would have to be done fairly - no arbitrary swoops and confiscation of wildlife to be mysteriously disposed of, as in some cases I have heard of. Persistent offenders against the permit system, or those people too lazy or otherwise unsuited to prevent frequent escapes, could have their permits revoked (again, the courts would have to be scrupulously fair in this area).
It seems to me that herpetologists in Australia have much to offer the world in terms of their knowledge of their own incredible species, but they are unfairly restricted, often illegally, and denied the chance to study legitimate "objects of desire". A compromise system, perhaps similar to the one suggested above, would allow them that chance while still protecting Australia's unique and precious fauna.
Mr Owen Proudfoot, a very courteous man, sent me some comments on this article and some information re the changed state of the laws since 2002. Although some of my reservations still stand re export, I understand rather more now the reasons for some of the laws, even if I don't necessarily agree with them, and I am happy to say that he has corrected my view that the Australian internal wildlife laws are unremittingly harsh. I have published Owen's reply on the following page, and I strongly encourage the reader to check it out. Many thanks to Owen for his kindness.
Click here for Raymond Hoser's "Smuggled" websites. I have not read all of this site, and this link is placed here so that you can access it and judge for yourself. I certainly can't vouch for the state of the taxi industry in Victoria!
Import of Rodents into Australia. Note that rodents, which are far more prolific breeders than most reptiles, are allowed into Australia.
General rules re import into Australia of animals
New Zealand also operates a strict policy on the import and export of wildlife. Damon Bailey offers some interesting thoughts on the fate of those animals intercepted.
Part 2 (Owen's reply) | Back to Issues | Back to Herpetology | Back to Animals | Back to Homepage