Exotic reptiles in Australia … where to from here?
Raymond Hoser, PO Box 599, Doncaster, Victoria, 3108, Australia.
Phone: +61 412 777 211 E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Originally published in Crocodilian – Journal of the Victorian Association of Amateur Herpetologists 6(1)(May 2006):22-28.
As far as exotic reptiles in Australia are concerned, these are interesting times.
An upsurge in numbers here in Australia has led to a corresponding increase in general interest in these animals, not just from reptile keepers, but also from the various law enforcement agencies who have to deal with the "problem". And so we now face a situation whereby the various involved groups or "stakeholders" are all peddling their own agendas to get the outcome that they seek..
The problem however is that several of these agendas appear to be incompatible and thus further conflict between the parties is likely to continue.
This paper serves to appraise the current situation and then put forward some rational and very different suggestions in terms of the exotics issue and where to proceed in the immediate future. I do not expect to win any popularity contest for publishing my open and frank views on the subject and accept that views contrary to those published in this paper may also be valid and legitimate
A brief history of exotic reptiles in Australia
If one ignores the hyperbole of the tabloid media, you'll probably find the most accurate appraisal of the exotic reptile situation in Australia in the books Smuggled and Smuggled-2 (Hoser 1993, 1996).
Reading these and the many sources cited therein, it becomes apparent that exotic reptiles have been coming into Australia consistently for the last three decades.
A toughly enforced legal ban on such imports enforced against a majority of the population here, has evidently restricted this inflow as compared to other countries such as the United States and Europe (where the trade in non-indigenous herps is relatively unhampered by regulation), but in spite of the immense and costly law enforcement effort, the flow has not and apparently cannot be stopped.
The reasons are simple. Official corruption allows a number to slip through the net. Even ignoring this factor and pretending that corruption in Australian authorities is non-existent, there will always be people who are able to slip though any enforcement efforts and get their critters through.
The regular reports in the tabloid media of small-time busts involving people "obsessed" with reptiles attests to this fact - particularly as these busts are often accidental and therefore imply far more actually slips into the country unnoticed.
And as we all know, reptiles in particular are easy to "smuggle" due to their cryptic nature and ability to survive temperature drops as well as prolonged food and water deprivation (for several days).
The major failing of the Smuggled books in terms of the current situation is that Smuggled-2 the more recent of the pair, only details the state of play to late 1996.
Since then things have changed somewhat in that the number of exotic reptiles in Australia has clearly gone up, there have been a number of "amnesty's" of various forms in NSW, Victoria and perhaps other states and at the time of writing (2005), the various stakeholders were jockeying for position in the race to get what they want in the new millenium.
The reason for the upsurge in exotic reptiles in Australia can be pinpointed on several factors. These include the increased use of the internet as a cheap and efficient means of telecommunications between reptile enthusiasts around the world. However more importantly was a change in the policies and practices of the federal Customs Department.
Up until the late 1990's Customs had rigorously enforced the ban on importing exotic reptiles.
Not only did Customs patrol the barriers (such as airports, ports and the like), but in the event that something slipped through this net, Customs would then police beyond these barriers.
Thus if someone managed to get a reptile into Australia from elsewhere and held it at their house for sometime after, Customs could and would raid and seize the animal if they found out.
The ongoing threat, or guarantee of seizure of exotic reptiles in Australia kept most of the herpetologists licenced by the authorities to keep native fauna out of the market for exotic reptiles.
The reason was simple. If the wildlife officials raided or "visited" these people and saw something that wasn't native, Customs were simply called in and the reptiles seized.
Now this didn't stop those who kept themselves unknown to the authorities and never applied for a licence.
And yes, it's common knowledge that Boa Constrictors, Corn Snakes and the like have been happily breeding here in Australia in "underground" collections for the last thirty years.
But the legal regime until the mid 1990's did keep the exotic reptile trade in Australia to a relatively low level.
It was then that due to an ongoing industrial campaign by the relevant union for Customs, that Customs declared that they would not police their laws beyond the barriers or entry points.
Thus we got a situation whereby a person could still get busted for having an exotic snake if found on their person at an airport, but if they got through and took the animal home, they were then safe in the knowledge that Customs wouldn't come along and seize the snake.
Because State wildlife laws at the time only policed the keeping of native reptiles, there became an effective legal black-hole in terms of exotic herps.
As this became known, an increasing number of private and licenced by the authorities keepers of reptiles sought and got hold of exotic reptiles to supplement their existing collections of native herps.
The novelty caught on and the demand for ever increasing numbers of Burmese Pythons and the like was quickly satisfied by yet more coming into Australia illegally.
The surge in numbers then increased as local keepers began to breed these snakes and other reptiles.
In order to put the genie back into the bottle, the State wildlife authorities legislated for the control of exotics by declaring amnesties on these animals, allowing people to come forward and license these animals.
In Victoria the amnesty didn't work too well because the local authority (DNRE) refused to reveal it's hand when declaring the amnesty.
DNRE said that people could declare their reptiles without fear of prosecution, but then refused to give a watertight guarantee that these same animals would not be seized.
Most keepers decided that they wouldn't risk losing their prized animals and so only a handful of people came forward to declare their holdings.
(The Victorian government ultimately decided to let the keepers retain their reptiles on the condition that they not breed them and/or acquire any others at any time, including on death of the animals).
Subsequent to this the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) had a similar amnesty, but gave wider guarantees to those who registered with the authority, in terms of being able to retain their reptiles. As a result more people with exotics came forward to declare their stock. However 20 years of distrust of NPWS due in the main by a prior refusal to issue permits to most keepers of native animals had driven a sizeable section of the State's herpetologists underground and put simply, many saw no material benefit in registering with the department and making themselves known to officials who could then restrict their hobby at will.
Thus in NSW as well, many holders of exotic reptiles failed to declare what they had.
In the period 2000-2005, there has been a tightening of import regulations and enforcement by customs in terms of airport and postal checks. While this was at first directed towards the foot-and-mouth and Mad-cow's disease scares in Europe and then the so-called terrorist threat following the September 11 incident in the USA, the reality is that it also made it harder to import exotic reptiles into Australia and so the number coming into the country has declined in the more recent times (since 2000).
However this decline in imports has been more than offset by the huge numbers now being bred by those who already have these animals.
So this effectively sums up the state of play here in Australia as of early 2005.
The key facts as May 2005
· We have lots of exotic reptiles in Australia, a sizeable number of which are not known to the authorities, and based on current rates of breeding and the current legal regime in most states, this proportion of the total is likely to increase.
· State wildlife departments are keen to reassert their authority over these reptiles by legislating for complete control over them. The Federal government authorities are also seeking to reassert their authority on exotics, the result being a "turf war" between department officials.
· There are rumors of impending amnesties on these reptiles in some states, which regardless of their factual basis has lead to a continuing increase in demand for these reptiles from keepers who see a legal way to obtain them.
· Officials keen to restrict trade in exotic reptiles have invoked media scare campaigns (such the IBD news reports in late 2001) to swing lawmakers in favor of an outright legal ban on exotic reptiles being kept privately in Australia. How much of these scare campaigns are based on fact and how much on rhetoric is hard to gauge, but it appears to be a combination of both. The outbreaks of viruses (reovirus and OPMV (2 strains)) at the Australian Reptile Park in 2002 and the (totally legal) trading out of infected stock by the institution has provided further fears of the consequences of trade in imported exotics (legal or otherwise) (see Hoser 2003a, Hoser 20003b and Hoser 2004-5).
· Private keepers, many of whom have for the first time had a taste for exotic reptiles are keen and vocal in their attempts to retain their "rights" as they see them.
· Law enforcement in Australia over the last three decades has been unable to enforce a legal ban on exotic herps in private hands, here in Australia. Whether this is due to a lack of competence or corruption is not relevant. The only salient fact is that prohibition has been unable to stop all illegal imports of exotic herps.
· Conflicts between the various stakeholders will almost certainly increase in the period 2001-5 as measured in terms of legal actions (charges) against keepers caught with unlicenced exotic reptiles in Australia.
Having said this, and based on the relatively fixed positions of the protagonists, I see little prospect of a good consensus and/or workable licencing system emerging in Australia in the foreseeable future. This is also noting a series of attempts to achieve this by DNRE in Victoria (as then known) in 2000 (through consulting firm KPMG) and via Peter Mirtschin's Exotic Reptiles Conference set in for October 2001.
Hoser's vested interests
All the players in this "debate" have a position. I am included in this, even though my views are not terribly fixed and I am not likely to be personally affected in any major way by whatever legal regime ends up in place, due to my personal adoption of a "wait-and-see" approach.
I have held and currently hold capture and keep permits for native herps in various states. I keep reptiles (all native) and at the time of writing have my hands full with these and hence have no time or inclination to keep non-native species.
I have never kept, traded or whatever in non-indigenous (exotic) herps, but have made it clear to the local Victorian Authorities that should a legal regime be in place that allowed me to legally hold such animals, I may at some stage avail myself of the right to keep such species. For my reptile shows, Burmese Pythons are a definite "must have". By way of example Steve Irwin in Queensland, who seems exempt from laws that hamper others, regularly uses his large Burmese Pythons for publicity purposes.
From a conservation viewpoint I accept that it would be favorable to exclude all non-native reptiles from Australia due to risks of species becoming feral and/or the somewhat greater risk of previously absent diseases, parasites and the like taking root here in Australia and harming local wild populations.
In other words, my personal position is that if exotic herps were "banned', so be it, but that if they were licenced, then I'd like to enjoy the same privileges that others have.
My position is thus like that of my views on domestic dogs and cats. I think that from the national conservation perspective they should be wiped out from Australia and banned as pets. But failing this, I could avail myself of the right to keep them as pets, which I do in terms of a Great Dane cross I had for 13 years and my current pet, a pure-bred Great Dane.
Finally, if the wildlife authorities do a heap of raids on licenced keepers in search of illegally held exotic reptiles, the sales of my Smuggled books will go up. However these days, sales of the Smuggled books do not come anywhere near those of the police corruption titles, (Hoser 1995, 1999a, 1999b) and so long as the police in Victoria keep shooting and killing people, dealing drugs, bashing people and the like, those books will remain in demand.
As of April 2005, the police have shot and killed two unarmed people, several face drugs charges and so sales of those books are safe for the time being.
Where to from here?
While the various protagonists have their views, I will outline mine here based on the unarguable facts as given above.
No legal regime will stop the further importation of exotic reptiles in Australia. If it is banned as in times past, the trade will continue underground. I do not think this is desirable and believe that any legal regime in place should as a first priority try to reduce to the greatest possible degree the illegal trade in wildlife (and that's whether exotic herps are declared legal or not).
Furthermore it is clear and undisputed that there have been cases of illegally imported reptiles intercepted by authorities that have carried highly contagious and destructive diseases. What is totally unknown is how many undetected illegal imports also carried such diseases.
This latter point is perhaps the best reason for introducing a legal regime whereby imports of exotic reptiles are allowed, on the basis that the major part of the trade can and will use legal channels and reptiles will be quarantined against all known vectors and diseases.
Thus the risk of importing diseases and the like is reduced to the lowest possible level.
However even this legal regime, if introduced will not solve all the problems.
You see, one cannot test for things we don't know about. And yes, any system of allowing exotic reptiles to be kept legally will have an inherent risk of animals escaping and/or becoming feral here in Australia.
Some of the relevant scenario's were detailed in Hoser (1995b).
But most of the alternative legal regimes re exotic herps also carry the same risks, and probably to a greater extent.
By way of example, we have feral Red-eared Sliders in NSW and Victoria, the populations of which became established during a period of alleged total prohibition on their imports.
In other words they established when these animals were supposedly banned!
Put simply, partial ban on exotics is unlikely to work. Again it would simply serve to drive the trade back underground and we'd again be stuck with unacceptable disease and other risks.
By way of example, it appears that both IBD and the Chytrid fungus made their first entries into Australia via legal imports and/or seized animals that were subsequently kept alive as exhibits at government owned public zoos, (assuming both IBD and Chytrid were absent before European settlement).
(Investigations have shown the geographical source of Chytrid fungus affecting frogs to have been Africa. However the geographical source of IBD remains unknown and may in fact be here in Australia).
Thus it appears that the only feasible option for the future is a properly regulated trade in exotics that is easier for the average person to remain within the law rather than outside.
If people remain forced outside the law as we know it, then there is the strongest likelihood of Chytrid, IBD and any other (as yet unknown) nasties being inadvertently imported.
The following option, is my option "A" so to speak. However it is dependent on an uncorrupted and totally consistent legal regime across Australia. Based on past experience these are almost certainly unattainable dreams, however based on the (false) assumption that these are in fact possible I will outline in summary my preferred option.
This option has not been widely canvassed, but will probably get little if any acceptance from the authorities and/or stakeholders in this debate, because it involves all effectively forgoing any rights they have to keep exotic reptiles.
This option is a total ban on live exotic reptiles here in Australia - no if's buts or maybe's, with the ban extending to all levels, including zoos, museums, universities and the like. In this age of electronic communications, cheap jet airliner transport and access to similar facilities overseas, research into these animals and related matters would not be seriously hampered.
The total ban would have be toughly enforced and any exotics detected here in Australia would have to be immediately seized and destroyed. Again, no exceptions.
In particular the notion that there could be exceptions to this regime (i.e. government zoos) would also have to be scrapped. If there is to be a total ban - it MUST affect all to be a success.
And unlike past total bans, my scenario would expressly forbid government zoos and the like "holding" seized exotics alive as a pretext to research projects, pending court cases and the like. Thus we would have a system of detection followed by immediate seizure and then immediate euthanazing of specimens - NO EXCEPTIONS.
By way of example, in the not too distant past, former curator of reptiles at Sydney's Taronga Zoo, Uwe Peters (now dead) would smuggle in reptiles specifically for the zoo's collection, which in effect became his defacto private collection.
He was not alone.
Australia has more than enough of it's own reptiles to fill any zoo displays here and so exotic herps are quite simply not essential. And so a total ban on exotic herps as outlined above, while perhaps unpalatable to many zoo curators who may be in love with their Asian Monitors and Burmese Pythons should be seriously considered as a viable and favorable alternative to what I think is the only other feasible way for the future which is a legal and regulated trade in these animals at all levels.
And yes, the total ban regime as outlined above (while perhaps putting me offside with most of my fellow herpetologists at all levels) does in fact offer the best hope for minimizing the inherent risks involved with exotic reptiles and in terms of minimizing the underground trade that will always be present to at least some degree.
And like it or not, the seemingly distant position of legal trade in exotics for all, in a properly regulated environment does offer a far safer alternative to the poorly regulated prohibition regime enforced for some, but not for the favored few as we tend to see at present.
Furthermore a regulated legal trade in exotics (for all "stakeholders") is also an achievable outcome possible given the inherent human shortcomings in the Australian enforcement regime and the human failings of those who will always seek to keep exotic reptiles, whether or not it is legal to do so.
Put simply, the half-pregnant position we have at the moment, whereby exotics are legal for some, but not for all is untenable and in my view the riskiest position of all to take.
And yes, as I've already said, the enforcement regime instituted must be equally fair or equally unfair on all sections of the herpetological community (without exceptions) and more importantly must be seen by the herpetological community to be so. If this does not occur, the end result be failure in the same manner that the system is currently failing all of us now.
The views above are strictly those of myself (Raymond Hoser) and do not necessarily reflect those of anyone else in this herpetological society or elsewhere and/or editors of this journal.
The countless herpetologists, zoo-keepers, curators, and other relevant persons who have openly and frankly shared their personal views on the above topic with myself, including those who disclosed potentially illegal activities to me. Likewise for the various bureaucrats and wildlife law-enforcement officers who similarly offered their views and advice, often including that which was contrary to their own department's "official" policy and/or directions.
Hoser, R. T. 1993. Smuggled: The Underground Trade in Australia’s Wildlife, Apollo Publishing, Moss Vale, NSW, Australia. 159 pp.
Hoser, R. T. 1995a. The Hoser Files - The Fight Against Entrenched Official Corruption, Kotabi Publishing, Doncaster, Victoria, Australia. 322 pp.
Hoser, R. T. 1995b. 'Release into hell', Monitor - Journal of the Victorian Herpetological Society, 7 (2), December, pp. 77-88.
Hoser, R. T. 1996. Smuggled-2: Wildlife trafficking, crime and corruption in Australia, Kotabi Publishing, Doncaster, Victoria, Australia. 280 pp.
Hoser, R. T. 1999a. Victoria Police Corruption, Kotabi Publishing, Doncaster, Victoria, Australia. 736 pp.
Hoser, R. T. 1999b. Victoria Police Corruption-2, Kotabi Publishing, Doncaster, Victoria, Australia. 736 pp.
Hoser, R. T. 2003a. OPMV in Australian Reptile Collections. Macarthur Herpetological Society Newsletter, June 2003. 38:2-8.
Hoser, R. T. 2003b. Reovirus - Successful treatment of small elapids. Crocodilian 4(3):23-27.
Hoser, R. T. 2004-2005. An avoidable epidemic of Reovirus in collections of Australian snakes and the wider implications of the disease in Australia and elsewhere. Herptile 29 (3), 29(4), 30(1).
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