some urgent programs needed


Thirty or forty years few people kept herptiles, and even fewer bred them. There was less understanding of the needs of captive species to stay healthy or even alive, let alone be brought to a condition where they would mate as naturally as they would in the wild. There were exceptions, of course: axolotls have been bred for decades, and many people had success with the frogs or newts in their back gardens. But the breakthroughs didn't really start to come until lizards such as the Leopard Gecko, Eublapharis macularis, began to be bred in large numbers.

Now at the outset of the twenty-first century we have both the technology, the animals and the requirement to breed our herptiles. Thankfully there is a growing awareness of the ecological problems being caused on the planet by careless human exploitation of its resources, and steps are being taken to prevent further loss of species, however belated. But unfortunately there are still many species, particularly those with restricted ranges or specialised habitats or diets, which are approaching the point of no return. Some of the ground iguana Cyclura species on Carribean islands are a good case in point: some are reduced to populations of fewer than one hundred. The complete fauna and flora of that unique island system, Madagascar, is also under continuous threat from the relentless march of slash-and-burn agriculture: many day- and other geckos, chameleons and mantellas are among the threatened herptiles here. Even in Europe, formerly common species have had to struggle. The Sand Lizard, Lacerta agilis, has required legal protection in order simply to survive in the United Kingdom.

The natural response of many conservationists would probably be to suggest tighter laws on the protection of habitat and collecting of animals, up to and including a complete ban on keeping them in captivity. This is understandable and in some cases justifiable, especially where a species is on the point of inbreeding because there are not enough individuals to make up a viable gene pool. However, a blanket ban of this sort would in my opinion be a bad thing. Firstly, there is the question of Qui custodiet custodes?, ie who keeps an eye on those administering the law? I intend to put another article on this subject on these pages later, but it should suffice for the time being to read a book such as Raymond Hoser's Smuggled to realise that in practice very restrictive wildlife laws can actually go hand-in-hand with abuse of those laws by the very people supposedly implementing them. Secondly, these sort of blanket laws lead to ridiculous and tragic situations. The worst example I can think of occurred not many years in the USA, where a pond full of protected turtles was scheduled to be filled in. The wildlife law people kept people from removing the turtles to safety because it was against the law to move them, even though they were destined to be buried beneath a load of cement. And sure enough, the custodians of the law kept those wanting to save the turtles away from the pond and its unsuspecting wildlife until the reptiles were indeed buried alive. [I will dig out the source and put it here soon, just in case you think this is hearsay or a joke]. Thirdly, and perhaps more importantly, I believe that zoos and amateur herpetologists with the right responsible attitude have an important part to play in keeping many of these threatened species going.

What breeding can and can't do

First, let me outline the limitations of breeding, particularly at amateur level. The last thing I am suggesting is that we all rush out, breed a few hundred day geckos, then fly them off with someone who writes for a herp magazine to Madagascar where he or she releases them straight into the wild. That would be, to put it bluntly, a disaster. Breeding creatures in captivity to release them into the wild later takes a lot of time, effort, patience and thoroughness, and even then it doesn't always work. You only have to look at some of the conservation programs in Borneo with orang-utans or even how young rescued animals in the UK have to be prepared for a life back in their native habitat to see what's involved. Apart from the problem of captive-raised animals adapting to a life of fending for themselves there is also the danger that an animal released back into a habitat will take pathogens from its sojourn with it that prove dangerous or fatal to its own or other species. This sort of conservation can really probably be done best at zoo level or by advanced and reputable herpetological societies.

The other danger with breeding at the moment is that it is too often done on the basis of the quick buck. Now I don't despise money - far from it. In many ways I'm a free marketeer. But I also believe that if you do something simply for the sake of money you will be disappointed one way or the other, and breeding herptiles is no exception. The market in the US, if not in Europe, is already in danger of collapsing from a glut of people rushing in to breed corn snakes and bearded dragons by the hundred, with the result that prices for such "common" herps have plummeted, making them hardly profitable any more. This may be a good thing in the long run as it ensures that only the best dealers and breeders will survive, especially those who are patient enough and who love the animals enough to take a long-term view. Also highly dubious in my opinion is the increasing practice (perhaps because the market is so saturated?) of cross-breeding species, especially Elaphe snakes, to produce artificial variants. Although these may look interesting and occasionally stunning, they are in reality, as someone pointed out, "mutts", or a degradation of the natural species. We have already seen some of the sorry and tragic results of years of cross-breeding fish, dogs and cats to produce interesting but unhealthy hybrids. I do not believe most herpetologists would like to see the same thing happen with reptiles or amphibians.

So what can breeding do?

Now that we've got that out of the way, let's look at some modest goals. Firstly, and perhaps most self-interestedly, we can guard against the possible day when imports from the wild are no longer possible by breeding our animals. There are good reasons for some restrictive legislation, particular where a species has a restricted habitat, and we would be selfish to insist on our freedom to collect and import individuals uncontrolledly in such a situation. Breeding those captive individuals we have already would continue to make them available, and if done properly (ie no inbreeding) then the resulting individuals would lack the parasites in particular that are often carried by wild-caught individuals.

Secondly, and perhaps more monumentally, we can guard against the day when in the wild a species becomes extinct. If that sounds strange or awe-inspiring, just consider that there are now many more axolotls around the world in artificial tanks and ponds, mainly thriving, than there are in their original range of the lakes beneath Mexico City, most of which have disappeared. Similarly, should the island of Komodo be destroyed by some cataclysmic event (and that would be a tragedy), zoos around the world might just have enough captive Komodo dragons to ensure the long-term survival of this magnificent species. As I mentioned above, certain day geckos may be approaching a similar point to the axolotls, at which either the wild population will no longer be viable or any further exports from Madagascar will be rightly banned.

A Wish List

What follows on the next page is a fairly intuitive list of herptiles that I believe we can and should be breeding in order to preserve their future and the future of our interest. I freely admit that I am less informed about snakes and amphibians than about lizards and chelonians, while crocodiles should probably be left to zoos (who could cope with the possible outcome of fifty crocodile eggs?). I hope that reading this may stimulate some people to think more about the issue and hopefully start a breeding program of their own.

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