The Kent IHS exhibition at Gillingham has become an annual event in the British herpetological calendar, attracting reptile, amphibian and invertebrate keepers from a considerable distance. As there are still not many herp conventions in the UK, this may account for its popularity, although that's not to detract from the good work done by the organisers. For the past three years that I have been there it has been held in the Black Lion Centre, Gillingham, a leisure centre. This seems a sensible arrangement as exhibitors and herpetophiles can all be housed within the one hall without alarming members of the general public.
This was the third year running we had visited the event, and I must admit to having had slightly mixed feelings about it. I had enjoyed the previous two years' visits, but the first one was marred for me by the amount of - frankly - cowboy dealers there selling lizards especially in the worst conditions possible, often with up to ten or twenty crammed into a box without regard for health or the risk of disease. Thankfully these had disappeared the following year, but 1998 seemed to be mostly snakes and spiders, with little variety on the lizard or chelonian front. This year however was to prove the best so far.
As usual most of the "big names" in UK herping were there. The rules on non-advertising on this site prevent me from naming them, but they had some good stalls, both for herps themselves and for supplies (mainly, of course, vivaria and life support systems). There was also the usual plentiful supply of back issues of the herpetological magazines, including ones you don't normally see over here, such as Monitor from Australia and Reptile and Amphibian from the States. A couple of stalls were also selling non-essential but nice gift-type things such as iguana- and gecko calendars, etc: my wife bought me a small Komodo Dragon (plastic).
What was especially pleasing at this year's show was the diversity of herpetofauna on display, a roughly equal and good mix of lizards, snakes, a few chelonians (I saw a few Mediterranean tortoises and Malayan box turtles for sale), plus plenty of frogs and toads and some spiders and scorpions. About the only non-represented family were the salamanders, of which I don't think we saw a single one during the day. This seemed surprising in view of the fact that some are as easy, or easier, to keep as some frogs and toads. Then again, I just might have missed them, although I did go around the hall several times. Lizards were done proud this year: apart from the leopard geckos and bearded dragons, we had (for the first time I have seen) eyed lizards (Lacerta lepidus), mountain dragons (an agamid species), cordylids and even a large Australian monitor whose species escapes me for the moment. I'm glad to say that the latter was being offered at a sensible price to discourage whim purchasing of a large and "trendy" reptile. This year I really had to make some hard decisions about what to purchase, but in the end I settled on the two dwarf cordylids being displayed, two baby lacertids (hopefully male and female) and a female golden skink (Mabuya) as a mate for my male. Perhaps unsurprisingly we went somewhat over budget! My wife considered buying a toad or tree frog, but sensibly decided to purchase a book on keeping tree frogs instead as she was uncertain of their requirements and level of difficulty. If only all would-be herp keepers were so restrained.....
There were no talks this year (in fact the first year was the only year I have seen any offered), so once you had made the grand tour around the displays a few times and spent your money, that was basically it. Besides, all that traipsing around through the crowds and mental work (deciding what to buy) is quite energy-draining. We left at about one with a couple of friends of ours who own a pet shop and who had also made some purchases. The show was still going strong when we left, so I don't think enthusiasm was waning.
I would like to be able to say that all went well and that everything was hunky-dory. Unfortunately it seems that some vendors are still ignorant or negligent of the health of their animals that they pass on to the general public. The female golden skink that I confidently bought (from a box that must have contained at least eight others) did not look well when I put her in her tank back home. I admit I was stupid not to quarantine her at once, but I thought she was just stressed. After three or four days she died, and no sooner had we buried her than the male began developing similar symptoms (mouth slightly agape, head tilted slightly upwards, sitting fixedly in one position). He seemed to fight it more than she had done, but in fact he passed away within two days despite my best efforts to put him in a clean, sterile tank and boost the heat. A subsequent autopsy kindly carried out by our vet showed that the male had been badly infected with a nasty respiratory infection arising from Aeromonas bacteria, which are a scourge in herpetology diseases. Not only was it tragic losing these two lizards (I'd had the male for over a year, and he was beautiful), but I now have to watch the rest of my collection like a hawk for the next days and weeks. Furthermore, since the infection seems to be passed on fairly quickly, there may be several more golden skinks out there with the same problem - possibly passing their bacteria on to other herps. The lesson is, firstly, we who buy these herps (especially from conventions) need to quarantine them and examine them carefully, and secondly, you can't always count on being sold a healthy specimen, even if there was no malice aforethought (ie the vendor didn't know). This would apply especially to wild-caught specimens, as I believe most golden skinks are.
That aside, we had an enjoyable day out, and I intend to go again next year. Next time I'll be a bit more cautious, though. I still recommend the convention to anyone who enjoys herpetology or who just wants to see a group of fascinating and unusual creatures all under one roof for a day.