Added 13 March 2001

Some thoughts on

Panorama's "Animal Underworld"

- the illegal international trade in exotic wildlife and plants

Broadcast: 25 February 2001



The BBC documentary programme has often broadcast hard-hitting investigative stories, and while one may not always agree with a particular political stance taken, they usually seem to go to the trouble of at least researching their facts. It was therefore with some expectation that I awaited the broadcast of their investigation into the international wildlife trade in endangered species, "Animal Underworld".

A brief overview

Tom Mangold, a fairly mature and experienced reporter, took us through the programme, from the jungles of the Cameroon where he interviewed British wildlife exporter Paul Sullivan (imprisoned by the US authorities in February 2000) to the state of Florida in the USA, where he spoke to US agents involved in the successful "bust" of the Malaysian Anson Wong, a man found guilty of smuggling several endangered species of animals, mainly reptiles, and to a couple of US reptile dealers who had been caught up in Wong's illegal operations. The programme also focused on the huge increase in demand for reptile pets (up to 2000 per cent in the US in the past nine years) and the problems that law enforcement agencies in both Europe and the US are having in stemming the flow of illegally-caught and exported animals. One of the final parts of the programme focused on a young man in Britain who kept a variety of lizards and who said he would keep collecting regardless.


Firstly, let there be no doubt that every responsible herpetoculturist and herptile hobbyist condemns unequivocally the crimes committed by Anson Wong and his confederates. In fact to those of us who love and keep reptiles his crimes are the more heinous because his actions placed in peril those species which are particularly endangered, notably the Komodo Dragon, the Chinese Alligator and the Ploughshare Tortoise. Five years is by no means too harsh a sentence for a man who seems to have dealt in endangered animals primarily for greed without thought for future consequences. It almost beggars belief that any serious herpetophile could have gone along with him or indeed sought to buy or obtain any of the three species mentioned above, not least because of either their delicacy or indeed dangerous nature in captivity. As for those dealers convicted along with Wong who seem to have got involved with him, willingly or not, I can only repeat the old maxim: "if you must sup with the devil, use a long spoon". Or as St Paul said, "Bad company ruins good morals".

Secondly, the methods of collection used by such as Paul Sullivan must also be called into question. Although Sullivan denied it, his quota-free method of paying local people to bring in as many specimens as possible, albeit in good condition, would indicate at best a naivete regarding the reproduction rates of wild creatures (frogs do lay thousands of eggs, but many perish) and at worst a cynical disregard for the good of the local ecology, upon which ultimately the natives themselves must depend. Here again it should be acknowledged that more responsible pro-hobbyists such as deVosjoli have suggested quotas and licencing seasons to end the destructive method of unrestricted collecting. What I would have liked to see is the acknowledgement nevertheless that most of the common reptile pets (leopard geckos, bearded dragons and corn snakes, to name but three) are now virtually all captive bred from existing stock in the West, and responsible herpetoculturists are trying to repeat this process with other species which are in demand. Indeed some pro-hobbyists have urged that prices for some animals are actually too low and thus poorly reflect their real value, as well as making them more easily bought by less committed collectors or even children.

Tom Mangold was, I felt, a fair reporter, leaving those who were genuinely guilty to dig their own pit and fall into it by their own words. I had a minor quibble with Peter Heathcote's statement that the crocodile he was manhandling was "absolutely lethal". That is not to deny that it could inflict serious wounds on a human, but Heathcote (a man who genuinely cares for reptiles and has done a lot for them in the UK) was probably guilty of exaggeration. The only part of the programme that I felt was somewhat unfair, or even cynical, was Panorama's choice of a youth (one Jason Miller) as their hobbyist of choice. To be fair, the water dragons he was keeping are often bred in captivity, and not many people have commented on the fact that he had built a special outhouse as an extension to the house (presumably his mother's) that he lived in to home his collection. However, whether primed by the scriptwriters or not, his choice of words - implying, essentially, that he would keep collecting more and more reptiles until ".. there's no more animals left to collect really" - was at best unfortunate and at worst downright stupid. But then youth often has wild dreams (whether of being the next Gerald Durrell or the next Jimi Hendrix) which need the experience of age to temper them. I think Panorama would have been better advised to find somebody older, if not to replace the young man then at least to contrast with him. Most reptile keepers above the age of 21 quickly realise that space and time (especially family-wise) impose a sensible restriction on what one can keep.

The Forum

Sensing probably that the keeping of reptiles has become a hot topic recently, the BBC provided a forum on their website for feedback from anyone who wanted to comment. Also very commendably they provided a live webcast by Stuart Chapman of the World Wildlife Fund.

I have included an additional page on the forum and some of the contributions made by both sides of the argument. It is quite lengthy but should you wish to read it you should be able to skip through it.

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