Succesful action of CITES to preserve reptiles

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Les succès de la CITES dans la préservation des reptiles

Interesting sort of paradox, that it took developing a farming industry to protect wildlife. Nowadays, farms contribute actively to the conservation of species in their natural environment.


Crocodiles are survivors. Being part of a biological group dating back to the dinosaurs, they survived and evolved over 200 million years. And yet, their story could have ended in the 1960s, when the hunt for their skins reached industrial proportions.

The commercial success of leather from the Nile crocodile, the American alligator and others nearly led to their extinction.“After the Second World War, the crocodile trade grew extremely fast. It became a very big market; between 11 and 12 million crocodiles skins were sold every year,” says Dietrich Jelden, deputy chair of the Crocodile Specialist Group of IUCN.

Of the 23 species of crocodilians, which include crocodiles, alligators, caimans and gharials, 16 were endangered. Several countries took steps, either regulating or strictly prohibiting hunting, but it was not enough. Eventually CITES banned the trade in wild skins from unmanaged populations by listing these animals in its Appendix I or Appendix II. The near prohibition of international trade put a stop to unregulated and illegal hunting for skins, which was the main threat for those species.


National authorities, perceiving the urgency, started organizing censuses and taking protective measures, often in collaboration with CITES, and, with the trade prohibitions, the highly depleted global crocodile populations finally started to breathe again—to recover and expand.

But the CITES ban on commercial trade was only an emergency measure to prevent extinction. Other forms of conservation action were needed to allow recovering populations to be accepted as assets by the people living with them. The response of CITES had to be flexible, and it was. It helped countries to recreate crocodile skin industries that were sustainable and put value on having abundant wild crocodiles. CITES gradually allowed, the ranching of crocodiles, where wild eggs or hatchlings are legally collected in the wild and raised to commercial sizes in captivity. CITES then progressively moved recovering species from the Appendix I listing (all trade prohibited) to the Appendix II list (trade allowed, subject to regulation).

“In 1981, at the third Conference of the Parties meeting, the ranching system was set up. Initially, it had been designed as a tool for the conservation of sea turtles where like crocodiles, large numbers of eggs perish each year. But ranching proved more generally suitable for crocodiles,” says Dietrich Jelden. It initially allowed CITES to move some species from Appendix I to Appendix II.

After having come to a complete stop, commercial exploitation thus restarted slowly, this time under internationally agreed and controlled conditions that ensured the survival of the species. In the decade 2000-2010, 1.3 million skins were sold annually, from thirty different countries. The market decreased since, in part because demand itself lowered— reptile skins are less fashionable—and also because the trade in these products became well regulated.


The ranching system combines three inseparable dimensions. Firstly, collection of wild eggs or hatchlings with a high probability of dying. Secondly, the establishment of a whole farming industry, to raise juveniles and supply legal markets in a controlled manner. Thirdly, commercial incentives to maintain an effective prohibition on the hunting of adult animals in the wild where populations are still recovering.

Implementing economically sustainable crocodile industries creates legal supplies which can contain and eventually neutralize the illegal supply and so diminish the incentives for poaching. Value on the trade in skins, or in meat derived from ranched populations can be added by ecotourism or even by trophy hunting activities.

Initially the ranching system rapidly developed in the United States, since the country already had a long tradition of commercial exploitation of American alligators, exploited for their meat and leather since the 19th century. Ranches are also involved in reintroduction programmes, releasing American alligators (Alligator mississippiensis) in their natural environment. Rural landowners with alligator habitat live off the sale of animal products such as the leather or the eggs. This activity has generated over $600 million since it was introduced.


Today, between 2 and 3 million American alligators live in the wild in nearly all suitable naturalized wetlands of the southeastern United States, while a hundred farms located primarily in Louisiana, Florida, South Carolina and Texas contain approximately 650,000 animals.

Each U.S. State has put conservation and control measures on the books, ranging from the collection of eggs to the regulation of wild populations, through quotas for reintroduction programmes.

In the wild, very few eggs manage to hatch, many young crocodiles are killed by predators during their first months of life and the species reproduces slowly. Through selective collection (subject to quotas), farms even play a specific role in ensuring better survival: the eggs and the young animals captured are more likely to survive on the farm, and some animals (about 12%) will be released into the wild once mature.


Both the ranching and the farming system enabled the establishment of industries, with real investment. The crocodile skin, particularly its thinner parts, is the most sought-after crocodile product. In a raw state its value ranges from a few dozen to a few hundred dollars, but wallets or handbags in crocodile skin can reach several thousand dollars. This activity provides employment and income to thousands of people in both developed and developing countries.

Since no good substitute exist, all the stakeholders in the industry quickly grasped the interest of conserving the crocodile resource from which it came, and they supported responsible conservation action. The industry is also continually improving its practices, and imposing increasingly high quality standards on farmers and crocodile skin tanneries where less than a half-dozen large companies in the world control most of the trade.

This movement was accompanied by a traceability system for the traded skins. Raw, tanned or finished, all skins must be identified according to a universal tagging system introduced by CITES in the early 1990s, which marks the origin of the leather, and assigns each a unique identification number.

The industry supports this approach. This is, for example, the case with the Jaeger-LeCoultre factory, explains Antoine Martin, who coordinates the activities of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) of the company: “We take part in the struggle for the protection of reptiles. Leather from alligator ranching has replaced the python in the development of our watchbands. We also decided to stop selling bracelets made of reptile skin from wild populations, and have asked our suppliers to commit to doing the same, using only skins from certified farms.


After a few decades of conservation efforts, crocodilians are now found in higher numbers in Nature than forty years ago. However, several species are still threatened and remain therefore banned from international trade.

There are several reasons for this. In some areas, poaching is still a problem.

Sometimes, poached animals are laundered into international trade via captive breeding facilities. It is therefore important that countries adopt stricter measures than are required by CITES to monitor closely and continously existing facilities, including tanneries, and all steps in the chain. It is the sole responsibility of the national authorities to implement and enforce them.

But the main problem that wild reptiles face remains the loss of habitat—which mirrors the regression of natural environments around the globe.

In some countries, large reptiles like crocodiles can pose a serious threat to residents. Attacks might happen in the vicinity of lakes and rivers, particularly against women and children fetching water or washing clothes. In this context the Nile crocodile is perceived as one of the deadliest animals in Africa.

Because of the danger it represents—or is perceived as representing—to both the public and their domestic animals, effective and strong incentives for conservation are needed. Otherwise, villagers take matters into their own hands, with guns, spears, hooks, or even poisons.


While the example of some animals seems positive, it should be noted that the farming system is not suitable for all species. Some species do not support at all farming conditions or some are not economically manageable.

The debate on husbandry conditions is old but it has mostly been discussed in the cases of mammals and birds, of animals used for their fur (mink and fox for example) or of domestic production animals (cows, poultry, etc.). The question wasn’t often raised as it applies to reptiles. However, Dietrich Jelden from the IUCN Crocodile Specialist Group notes that the issue of the well-being and suffering of reptiles is starting increasingly to count and could well become a topic of focus in the future for the regulation of the trade. These cold-blooded animals do not show easily noticeable signs of pain, but they move for up to 15 minutes after their death, even after the destruction of their brain.

Even in the case of snakes, a lot of discussion takes place nowadays. The most debated issue is the slaughter practices. Some animals are decapitated, some are asphyxied. Advocacy campaigns from animal welfare NGOs has led to the ban of the trade in some skins by Europe and Switzerland.

10% of the 8,700 species of reptiles recorded in the world are listed in CITES, which means their trade is in some way regulated.

The example of vicuñas

The vicuña is the smallest of the camelids in the world, and a close relative of the lama and the alpaca. It is another example of a species saved from extinction by CITES. This species, local to the high areas of the Andes, also nearly disappeared because of poaching as its fleece provides wool of a rare quality. In 1973, the vicuña population had fallen to under 6,000 animals.

Trade was banned in 1975 following a listing in the Appendix I of CITES.

Then it was gradually allowed again in 1987 after an increase in the now protected population, with farming and exploitation operated by the villagers in the Andean highlands (3,800 to 4,600 metres above sea level), who every two to three years harvest the wool of the animals. The example of the vicuñas in Peru is particularly interesting because the animals are kept in their natural environment. Once sheared, vicuñas are released in the wild again and they must not be caught again within at least one year.

Today, the vicuña population has reached half a million individuals, the trade in their wool for luxurious textiles is strictly controlled, and the activity benefits economically local communities.


Since 1975, thanks to CITES, the trade in products derived from green turtles and hawksbill turtles—and therefore the trade in their scales—, is prohibited.

These two species nearly became extinct.

Tortoiseshell has long been popular in the manufacture of luxury eyewear.

The use of scales from stocks made prior to the ban by manufacturers is authorized; these are intended for jewellery and luxury eyewear, items that can cost up to several thousand euros. Since they are now so rare, the price of these scales continues to rise.

Sea turtles are nowadays a highly threatened group. A few farms exist throughout the Caribean and the Pacific. But breeding is difficult and ranching remains very rare.


In the second half of the 20th century a slew of new pets emerged: after dogs and cats, now small mammals, turtles, snakes and other reptiles have their place in the home. It is also true of fish or exotic birds. Every year, more than 2 million live reptiles and hundred of thousands of birds from CITES-listed species are thus legally sold throughout the world.

But some of those pets are indeed endangered and protected by CITES. It is difficult to precisely assess the volume of illegal trafficking but it is thought to be rapidly increasing. Looking at Europe only, customs officials made 12,000 seizures of illegally imported animals between 2005 and 2009.

Illegally traded animals are taken from endangered populations, not transported in good conditions, and many die before reaching destination. Those who survive are often abandoned after a few years in the host country, which sometimes poses security problems or a threat to local ecosystems, with the phenomenon of “invasive species”.


Protecting a species requires a detailed and multidisciplinary analysis of the problems it faces, as well as a response that is able to evolve according to the context in which it lives. The flexibility of the solutions offered by inclusion into one or other of the CITES Appendices allows the adaptation of conservation measures.

The ranching system has saved species otherwise condemned, but it was effective only because the whole industry supported the approach, from breeders via sellers to manufacturers of finished products. This is more specifically possible for a high-value product such as crocodile skin.

Some environmentalists deplore such commercial exploitation of nature. However, it is part of a sustainable development approach: it protects animals by developing an economic activity with a vested interest in conserving the very resource it depends upon. In some cases, such as with alligators or vicuñas, it is the only method that has proven to be effective.

Extrait du livre « Sauvages, précieux et menacé » rédigé par la rédaction de GoodPlanet à l’occasion du quarantième anniversaire de la CITES. Soutenez-nous en achetant cet ouvrage sur Amazon.

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