Ragasy and I walked through shin-deep mud, following an old logging road between forests and mist-covered hills. We were near the town of Fierenana, where many of Madagascar’s wild-caught herps originate, such as Uroplatus pietschmanni and Paroedura masobe.
In the Field
“How much does he pay you for each animal?” I asked Ragasy. “He” referred to a man named Fidel, who was one of several middlemen in a chain of command that stretched from the retail pet stores in the States to Ragasy in Fierenana.
“Well, it depends on the type. For Mantella, we used to get 200 Ariary per frog, but now the laws have changed and he does not ask us for these frogs anymore.” This equated to about 9 cents per individual, a species which abroad would sell for more than $50 retail. “For Dyscophus we get less.” He added.
After Ragasy would collect enough, Fidel would take them to the nearest city where they would then be sent to the capital of Madagascar, Antananarivo, to be held in a warehouse until being flown to the States. The owners of this holding facility and the importers and retailers in the US would profit. Ragasy would get a little bonus for the day, then back to mining gold and growing rice.
The journey to the States could result in high rates of mortality should something go wrong (see this recent South African news story http://www.iol.co.za/dailynews/news/exotic-animal-export-a-massacre-1.1639761#.UuxlLRCSw7r for the worst case scenario) At best, importers factor in a ten percent loss on orders to be safe.
The Truth about Wild-Caught
“Is the money from collecting reptiles and amphibians an incentive to preserve the forest?” I asked. Ragasy just looked at me. He didn’t understand. I tried asking again in a different way, my Malagasy still only up to par with that of a four year old. He still didn’t understand.
I explained the question in English to the Malagasy student from the University who was along with us on this research trip and he asked Ragasy one last time. Ragasy laughed and told us people will always need to grow rice and cut down trees, and that it’s the local community group that patrols the forest that is responsible to protect it.
Money made from collecting herps was not reason enough to protect their habitat, one of the common justifications the hobby provides in support of maintaining field collected stock.
Opposite Ragasy in the trade, on the other side of the long chain which can take months for an individual animal to travel, is the hobbyist, the end destination for the wild-caught reptiles and amphibians that leave Madagascar by the thousands annually.
We (hobbyists) like to rationalize the wild-caught trade. Dialogue at herp shows and online on forums often follows a predictable path where collectors are excited for the newest species “fresh off the boat”.
At best, WC animals are the elephant in the room, the truth that is plain to see but yet which hobbyists are not prepared to have an honest conversation about.
But, it should be possible to change this attitude within the community.
What to Do?
- Always buy captive-bred animals when available. Yes, there may be a long wait list, and yes they may be more expensive than their wild-caught counterparts, but be patient and sensible. If the species is available CB, go this route. Always.
- Look into the natural history of the taxa you wish to keep. If a species is not available CB, investigate its origins. Where does it come from? How does it live? Is it a threatened species?
- “Legal” does not equate with “ethical”. Species on the verge of extinction and those that are only very recently discovered are collected from the wild and legally sold on a regular basis. If the species you want to keep is just a little tiny red dot on a map of its distribution, skip it for something else.
- Captive breeding rarely contributes to conservation. The greatest myth is that the reptiles and amphibians we keep in glass boxes somehow contribute to the protection or conservation of the species. This simply is not the case. Buying wild-caught rare or threatened species does nothing to aid their plight in the wild, and if anything may contribute to their decline or extinction.