and why one day we may regret it

It may be that one of the attractions of keeping herps (reptiles and amphibians) is the attraction of the exotic and the unusual. It is also true that the larger and more colourful herps (eg iguanas, monitors, fire-bellied toads and green tree pythons) are concentrated in the tropics. Certainly most British reptiles are not colourful and are on the small side, and anyway are currently protected under law. In the US, most people no doubt are so used to seeing swifts, or "fence lizards", that they don't find them as exciting as Asian, African or Australasian species.

It's true, and nothing to be ashamed of, that what drew many of us into herp-keeping was the picture of some beautifully-coloured and rather alien-looking creature in a book, eg a tokay gecko, green iguana or python. There is also nothing shameful in keeping herps for their aesthetic value: indeed, in some cases this is their overriding value, because of the difficulty in handling them (especially in the case of amphibians, who mostly dislike our contact). Furthermore, if people only have limited space, then they will naturally keep only those species that they are really drawn to. Nevertheless, there are some of us who do have space, time and resources, and who wish to be considered serious herpetologists. It is this section of the hobby that I am addressing.

Put simply, we are neglecting our native species. This isn't necessarily a crime against ethics, but it does go against common sense and also, possibly, the battle to conserve at least some of them. Too often the native species of the West (and probably the same goes for Russia and Japan too) are seen as somewhat prosaic, even dull. In Britain all native reptiles are protected under law and spent a lot of time in hibernation, given the cool climate, while in the US and Canada, people are possibly simply over-familiar with them. Interestingly enough, this seems to be an attitude more towards the reptiles than the amphibians: many US herpers take a tremendous amount of pride and interest in, for example, the North American mole salamanders, while amphibian-keepers in Europe seem to have a similar healthy regard for such creatures as Alpine Newts and Fire Salamanders (but then, the latter are colourful).

This attitude might smack at worst of ingratitude if it weren't for the problem of conservation. The fact is that all over the world there is the problem of ecological change and particularly habitat destruction. In the West, however, the problem is more pernicious because this sort of habitat destruction presents itself as something neat and orderly, and above all, philanthropic: who wants to be seen arguing against extra housing for people? But it is this steady encroachment of civilisation onto largely wild areas that is the most deadly, because it's a conquest that's here to stay. Did you ever hear of a town being abandoned and allowed to revert to the wild, or of an urban area actually shrinking? Of course not - it's usually the opposite. A few houses become a village, a few villages become a town and soon you have an out-of-town mall and a bypass to go with it.

Now I'm not against new developments or housing per se, or even the odd bypass. But unless we monitor the welfare of our native species, they could all too easily disappear. It's easy to let short-term interests blind us to their long-term effects. For example, the disappearance of a pond (filled in for a worthy enough cause) may result in the loss of an important breeding ground for future generations of amphibians. The reclaiming of the Arizona desert sounds noble, until you find that the rare and beautiful Gila Monster is threatened. Europe, being a more compressed area, is perhaps more "Green" in this way, simply because it has to be.

Look at it another way: we probably know far more about the Green Iguana and various monitors than we do about the lives of the European lacertids. At a hobbyist level, you simply have to compare the amount of print dedicated to the three groups to realise that at a grass roots level anyway this is true. If people think we are uninterested in our native species, it's all to easy to think that lack of interest equates to lack of concern.

Another conservation-related issue is the protection under law of certain species, and their subsequent availability. It's no good crying and moaning that you can't keep sand lizards or desert iguanas any more because the law won't let you. Why didn't the previous generation of keepers breed them in captivity for posterity instead of just going out and grabbing some when they wanted? That may not be an entirely fair question to them, given the lack of knowledge and ecological urgency at the time, but it will be a fair question to us, now that we know. The axolotls of Mexico are in dire straits in the wild in their natural underground lakes, but years of captive breeding have conversely made them almost a common amphibian around the world. It's about time we did the same for our native species.

Finally, on an encouraging note, native herps should be easier to keep (with a few exceptions). I don't have the constant sunshine and humidity to keep large Asian Water Monitors out of doors, but I could probably keep lacertids out of doors in my garden for at least some of the year. Similarly, North American keepers in the more temperate states could probably accomodate a small colony of swifts in their garden. It is far more difficult to keep an African tortoise like the Bell's Hingeback in captivity in Europe or North America than it is to maintain a European Pond Turtle or Snapping Turtle. And so on.

What, then, should we be looking at it? For the moment, this list will only include reptiles, since I am less knowledgeable about the individual amphibian species, although all of the latter do need a helping hand and could arguably therefore all be included here. "Europe" here is taken also to mean Western Russia. I know little about Japanese native herps, so am again not qualified to comment.

North American species European species
Swifts, Sceloporus spp Lacerta and Podarcis lizards
Desert iguana, Dipsosaurus dorsalis Laudakia stellio
Collared Lizards, Crotaphytus spp Kotschy's and Mauretanian Geckos, Tarentola
Glass Lizards, Ophisaurus spp European Pond Turtle, Emys orbicularis
Leopard Lizard, Gambelia wizlenii Scheltopusik, Pseudopus apoda
Banded Geckos, Coleonyx spp Sand Boa, Eryx
Green Anole, Anolis carolinensis Leopard Snake, Zamenis situla
Rubber Boa, Charina bottae Ocellated Skink, Chalcides ocellatus

For a more detailed look at native European reptiles and amphibians, click here.

If anyone knows of any other native species (reptile or amphibian) that they feel is being grossly undervalued by herpetologists, please E-mail me.

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