CONSERVATION OF REPTILES AND FROGS
1/ 'Popular' Books, etc.
One of the primary aims of this book is to improve conservation efforts within this country, particularly with respect to herptiles, which have suffered greatly in the past.
In this discussion of conservation of Australias' herptiles, personal opinions are given, which are based on facts, some of which are not referred to here. It is hoped that interested readers will investigate some of the references cited, so that they may see how the conclusions reached were made. Australias' conservation record is arguably one of the worst in the world, (on a population versus land mass basis). Australia holds the dubious distinction of being the only nation on earth to have exterminated a reptile through nuclear means. In the 1950's the British were allowed to test atomic bombs on an offshore West Australian island, killing off an endemic legless lizard (Pygopodidae).
Reptiles and frogs need not only be conserved for conservation's sake. They also constitute a valuable natural resource. For example venoms of some species may prove useful in the manufacture of drugs, whilst many species eliminate 'pests' such as introduced mice, rats, insects, etc.
There are over 1,000 species of reptile and frog found in Australia, and adjacent seas, including undescribed forms. Although there is an estimated population of about 15 billion herptiles in Australia, many species are rare, have restricted distributions, or both. An annual mortality rate of about 4 billion is replaced by a similar number of 'new specimens'. However about a quarter of the species known, are known to be in a state of either moderate or serious decline. It is these species, to which we should be devoting major conservation efforts.
THREATS TO REPTILES AND FROGS IN AUSTRALIA.
The main threats to herptiles within this country are all as a result of human activities past and present. In order of importance the main problems facing our herptiles are,
1/ Habitat destruction and/or modification.
2/ Introduced 'pest' species.
3/ So-called protective legislation, 'inconsistent' fauna authority officials, and smuggling rackets.
4/ Over collection of specimens by reptile and frog keepers, and hunters within Australia.
CONSERVATION NEEDS OF REPTILES AND FROGS IN AUSTRALIA.
In order of importance, the main conservation needs of reptiles and frogs in Australia are,
1/ Habitat Protection
2/ Elimination of 'pest' species.
3/ Captive Keeping, Breeding and research.
4/ Useful protective legislation for species and habitats.
5/ Stopping smuggling and corruption within wildlife authorities.
In virtually all cases, reptile and frog species will not be threatened from collecting activities, shooting, etc, which could effectively be called 'harvesting a resource'. 'Collectors' only remove about 30,000 reptiles from the wild annually for pets, (and their food), on a national basis. Humans directly account for a further estimated 10 million herptile mortalities, mainly by running them over on the roads.
Despite these numbers killed, the vast majority of specimens die without direct human influence, and are only threatened (on a species level), by permanent displacement through loss of habitat.
Populations appear to be able to withstand removal of specimens so long as enough specimens are left to support a viable breeding population. The cryptic nature of most species would make it virtually impossible to remove all specimens from most populations even if one consciously tried
to do so.
Most reptiles and frogs do however have very specific habitat requirements. Many species can only survive in virgin ('untouched') habitats. Some examples include Red Crowned Toadlet Pseudophryne australis, Death Adders Acanthophis spp., Broad Headed Snake Hoplocephalus bungaroides, and Rough Scaled Snake Tropidechis carinatus. Other species can only tolerate a certain amount of habitat 'modification' before being eliminated. (It should be mentioned here that a few species actually seem to benefit from certain types of habitat modification; usually from clearing vegetation or by providing a water supply. Some notable examples include, Green Tree Frog Litoria caerulea, Grass Skink Lampropholis guichenoti, Common Brown Snake Pseudonaja textilis.
Most reptiles and frogs that are currently threatened within Australia are those species which have relatively strict habitat requirements, and whose habitats are under destruction. Examples include the Dwarf Form Copperhead Austrelaps labialis, and Broad Headed Snake Hoplocephalus bungaroides.
Some 96 % of habitat within Australia has been modified since settlement (1788), and about 92% of the land area is currently used for grazing or other farming activities. Currently insufficient viable samples of various types of natural habitat are being preserved within Australia in the form of national parks, forestry areas and such like. Although rainforests and some other 'threatened' habitats are justifiably receiving attention and being protected, (usually in insufficient amounts), other important habitats are simply being destroyed without even a whimper from most of the Australian public. Overgrazing and deliberate repeated burning is destroying most 'spinifex' habitat and associated wildlife communities throughout many parts of northern inland Australia. Virtually no 'untouched' bushland now exists in the drier half of NSW and Victoria and many species of reptile, frog and other wildlife have all but disappeared from these areas. A number of other habitats are also being ruined without a rational assessment of the consequences.
Obviously 'progress' is necessary, however Australia has an immense land area with relatively few people, and it should be relatively 'easy' to preserve more areas in the form of national parks, and similar. These in themselves are a recreational, scientific and cultural resource.
In many parts of Australia, the old saying 'If it moves, shoot it. If it doesn't, then chop it down', still applies. As the majority of Australia's area is used for farming practices it is important to educate these people into realizing the need to minimize 'excessive' habitat modification, and 'bad farming practices' which can lead to salinity, erosion and other problems. Those practices can contribute to a decline in reptile numbers over large areas, and it is in this area that more conservation resources should also be directed.
2/ELIMINATION OF PEST SPECIES.
'Pest' species are those which were introduced by humans from overseas into the country, and which have multiplied to become a threat to other wildlife and/or human agriculture.
Certain 'pest species' eliminate reptiles and frogs and are a major threat to many species. These pests are particularly destructive as they can freely move into otherwise 'untouched' areas and eliminate species from these places. For example Water Buffaloes have trampled swamps in Kakadu national park, (NT), and elsewhere, eliminating many species of frog that would otherwise breed in the vegetation bordering these swamps.
Even Crocodiles suffer by having their nests trampled by the Buffallos.
Some other pests that are having a major effect on herptile populations and may help to eliminate species include the following:
1/ Cane Toad Bufo marinus. Eliminating frogs and frog eating reptiles from most parts of Queensland, and nearby areas.
2/ Mosquito Fish Gambusia affinis. Eliminates frogs by feeding on all types of tadpole. Currently found near most populated parts of the country.
3/ Cats and Foxes, kill all species of wildlife, reptiles are however usually the dominant food, particularly in arid areas. Found Australia wide.
4/ Rabbits, goats and stray farm animals, by removing ground vegetation leave many species open to attack by birds and other predators. Found in most of Australia.
5/ Pigs, feed on eggs from nests of reptiles, particularly tortoises, turtles and crocodiles. Found Australia wide.
6/ An enormous number of introduced plants which by displacing native vegetation, change habitat sufficiently to cause certain species to die out. Some plant pests include Lantana, Privet, South African Boxthorn, Mimosa, and Water Hyacinth.
These pest species should be eliminated. Despite a number of concerted campaigns by the author to get the federal government to take steps to exterminate the Cane Toad, before it wipes out more species, no substantive action has yet been taken. Although (fortunately), no new pest species are being introduced into this country deliberately, as happened in the past, conservation efforts should be directed at biological means of removing current pests.
The Australian conservation movement seems to be largely blind of the threat posed by pest species to all forms of wildlife, although at the time of writing, this 'blindness' to the effects of 'pest' species was being reduced.
3/CAPTIVE HERPTILES, THEIR BREEDING AND RESEARCH
In order to conserve reptiles and frogs, one needs to know about what one is trying to conserve. It is believed that some species of Australian herptile were made extinct even before they were discovered. A number of species are in serious decline for no apparent reason (E.g. Frogs of the
genus Taudactylus). Urgent research is needed on these species.
The more that is known about reptiles and frogs, the easier it becomes to develop useful conservation strategies based on sound scientific facts rather than emotions. Limited resources can be directed at conserving those species that are most endangered. Also with greater knowledge about our native herptiles it will become easier to take measures that will prevent more species from declining in numbers.
Insufficient government and other funds are at this stage allocated to herpetological research, and the training of professional herpetological workers, probably due to the relative lack of economic importance of most herptiles. More importantly however, most research on reptiles and frogs has traditionally been done by unpaid amateur herpetologists, keepers, etc.. The problem within Australia is that activities by corrupt and misdirected fauna authorities has almost wiped out the amateur herpetological community. In 1973 there were an estimated 4,000 amateur herpetologists and keepers within Australia. By 1980 the number was down to less than a thousand. In 1980-82, unconservationist influences within a Sydney herpetological society, sponsored by local wildlife officials actually resulted in the disbandment of a previously important herpetological society. By 1984, all Australian herpetological societies could only boast a membership of about three hundred (combined), with memberships continuing to decline. Not only has research suffered as a result, but so too have other aspects of herptile conservation.
The author believes that it is desirable for conservation reasons for as many people as possible to keep herptiles in captivity ('As pets'). The primary reason is that by keeping herptiles people will usually go through a logical progression that will only aid the conservation cause.
The progression is as follows,
1/ They learn more about herptiles.
2/ This knowledge is passed on to friends, others, etc, (The general public).
3/ As the public becomes more knowledgeable about herptiles they will more easily see the reasons to conserve them, and more importantly will hopefully alter their actions in relation to herptiles, (Too many Australians still kill snakes on sight).
4/ Some but not all keepers will go on to do captive and/or field research on herptiles, and by publishing in journals, etc, more details about herptiles will be known, (further aiding conservation planning).
5/ Almost all professional herpetologists had made the decision to embark on a herpetological career AFTER keeping herptiles 'as pets'.
Many species of herptile WILL become extinct in the wild as a result of irrepairable habitat destruction or for some other reason. Remaining specimens in the wild that are obviously going to become extinct should be caught and captive bred, and if appropriate, relocated elsewhere. For some species, the only way that they are going to survive is by captive breeding. (The Round Island Boas are a classic case, where fast actions by herpetologists in the northern hemisphere have saved 3 species by captive breeding. The Boas had had their entire habitat destroyed by
feral goats). All species of reptile CAN be bred in captivity.
Captive breeding can also serve to repopulate areas where a given species has been exterminated, or the population has dropped below replacement level.
(Extreme care should be taken when considering releasing any herptile into the wild. Ideally the herptile should only be released where it or its' parents originated. If this is not possible then a specimen should only be released in an area containing genetically similar specimens and where the specimen will survive. A specimen should never be released too far from its' point of origin as this may affect the 'local' gene pool and play havoc with scientific records should it or its' offspring be re-captured. Should for some reason it not be possible to release a specimen close to its' point of origin one should attempt to find a captive home for the specimen or kill it. (State museums always are in need of specimens). If the species is rare or endangered, it goes without saying that no specimen should ever be killed).
To embark on a successful large scale captive breeding program to save a given species, usually involves at some stage, several hundred specimens. Usually no one person or organization has the resources nor inclination to hold such a large number of specimens, so it becomes important to have available a large 'pool' of keepers with which to distribute the specimens. Australia currently lacks this, and I believe that the development of a large 'pool' of reptile keepers and breeders should be a major conservation objective.
Most research on herptile biology, including feeding and breeding behavior can ONLY be done on captive specimens.
The author and a few others have held viable breeding colonies of a few types of herptile, (Usually Snakes), however most captive breeding programs relating to rare and endangered herptiles are being carried out in the United States and Europe. This includes Australian forms.
Assuming that rare or endangered species are not taken from the wild, taking specimens from the wild in a responsible manner for any 'reasonable' purpose should be encouraged. 'Over-collecting' of specimens by Australian herpetologists is sometimes a problem. However when it occurs it usually only results in 'local' extinction's of relatively widespread species. In the late 1960's much 'over-collecting' of Broad Headed Snakes Hoplocephalus bugaroides occurred in areas near Sydney, NSW. However even in this case the snakes would have probably been largely exterminated within ten years through habitat destruction, (Removal of 'bush' rock).
Those who claim that keeping herptiles in captivity is always cruel are not telling the truth. Any properly kept herptile is infinitely healthier (and often has a better sex life) than their counterparts in the wild. After all, properly kept captive herptiles have plenty of food, no predators, no internal parasites, optimal temperatures provided, etc.
When drafting herptile protection legislation, all Australian states have tried to 'keep in line' with one another, and consequently all have similar rules and regulations.
Although there is a need to 'protect' reptiles, current legislation in force in all states is not appropriate for several reasons.
Current legislation relies on one or two main points. These are
1/ A prohibition on catching and keeping all or most species,
2/ The state fauna authorities issuing permits to take, keep or kill herptiles. This entails herpetologists' finest details going onto a central register.
Most species of herptile within Australia are not endangered and usually common where they occur. With the exception of a few species,
none are of major economic value as a 'resource'. Whether or not they have 'statutory protection' has no significance to them or their conservation status. By issuing a blanket 'Prohibition' on these
herptiles is strongly counterproductive. Most importantly, the huge number of public servants required to administer the 'prohibition' is a gross misdirection of resources, that should be directed at more immediate conservation problems. With 'Prohibition' most people are discouraged from keeping herptiles thereby reducing the long term conservation effort (see previous section). Those who still want to keep, or do research on these species will have to direct valuable time and effort into going through bureaucratic red tape, which would be better spent doing research, etc. Those who don't go through the 'correct' channels may find themselves breaking laws and labeled as criminals for relatively innocuous activities. All of which does little for the conservation cause. Tactics of fauna officers in most states regularly put keepers, researchers, etc, 'outside of the law' even when complying with all regulations and directions given. (See References).
The species that are truly endangered do not receive the necessary attention when a 'blanket prohibition' is in force. In the long term the situation becomes worse as the number of herpetologists reduces, and even less is known about these endangered species.
The permit issuing system, especially in states with a 'prohibition' on the collecting and keeping of reptiles, puts all enthusiasts onto a single register administered by very few people. Because there is 'big money' in reptile smuggling, and reptile conservation and keeping are not often in the public spotlight, the permit system, as it stands is wide open to corruption, (See next section), leading to huge problems.
At this point in time corruption in the upper levels of state fauna authorities has been repeatedly alleged in at least three states, (NSW, QLD SA), (See References for details), so it must be assumed to be a major problem, (real or potential). The author has taken actions against officials of NSW fauna authorities, and their 'Inconsistent activities' have been widely reported in the Australian and international press.
The key to 'new' legislation should be to 'De-protect' all but the endangered species. Immediately most reptile and frog keepers would not have all their details in a central register and they would become considerably less vulnerable to the predations of over zealous fauna officers, break ins by smugglers, etc. 'De-protection' would enable money to be spent elsewhere on conservation, and simultaneously encourage new people to enter the field of herpetology further aiding conservation.
Although permits may still be required for 'endangered' species relatively few people would be covered by these permits.
Currently in present state laws, all 'protected' herptiles and captive bred offspring remain effectively 'Crown' (Government) property. In order to increase the incentive to captive breed rare species, it should be legislated that the state have no control over captive bred young.
Breeders should have the right to buy and sell specimens that are captive bred. (One will have to find a way to prevent the problem of people obtaining stock from the wild and then claiming that it is 'Captive bred', at least for endangered species).
Current fauna legislation gives fauna officers considerable rights of entry to property. Under 'normal' circumstances a law-abiding citizen would not object to fauna officers having the right of entry to check on fauna held. The following documented case is given as just one reason why laws should be amended to prevent fauna officers from entering a herptile keepers' house under any circumstances without taking the herptile keeper to court to get court approval to gain entry, (for 'good reason').
On 27th March 1984 some NSW fauna officers did a 'routine check' of the Author's premises and snakes held, (All legally held of course). It wasn't realized at the time that the Authors' house was being 'cased' for a break in. On 10th July 1984, the same men broke into the house, smashing doors, etc, and stole snakes, files, cash, computer disks, camera equipment, etc. The fauna officers who initially denied breaking in, were only caught after the break in because neighbors recognized them from the previous 'inspection'.(See References for details). The break in was also shown on national television.
Perhaps more importantly some form of 'habitat protection' legislation should be enacted to protect the habitats of endangered herptiles, as ultimately this may be the key to the survival of many given species.
It is incredible that even now some species are being knowingly wiped out due to destruction of their last remaining habitat, often by government instrumentality's which are immune from prosecution. A classic example is the Loveridge's Frog Philoria loveridgei, of northern NSW, which is currently threatened by logging of its' habitat. Unfortunately the drafting of any 'corruption resistant' habitat protection legislation will be a very difficult task.
5/STOPPING SMUGGLING AND CORRUPTION WITHIN FAUNA AUTHORITIES.
The 'inconsistent' activities of officers of the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service, and of the mechanics of smuggling wildlife out of Australia have been well documented elsewhere (See References), and it is strongly advised that interested readers seek further information in these areas. Elsewhere the author has made very detailed proposals relating to smuggling and again it is hoped that interested readers seek further information in relation to this.
Wildlife smuggling, though illegal, is a booming business. For example many reptiles such as the Diamond Python Morelia spilota are worth up to ten thousand dollars (U.S. 1987). Contrary to popular belief there is much more money to be made out of smuggling reptiles than birds.
Smuggling frogs out of Australia is rare.
There is little smuggling of wildlife into Australia from elsewhere, nor does there appear to be any major demand for it. The practice of smuggling is extremely cruel in all aspects.
1/ It can involve corruption in several countries.
2/ Smugglers often source their reptiles from genuine breeders, by breaking into their facilities and steeling whatever is required.
3/ The reptiles are X-Rayed to 'invisibly' sterilize them, thereby preventing captive breeding by purchaser/s, and preserving exorbitant market prices.
4/ In order to maintain market prices smugglers will do everything within their power to prevent captive breeding anywhere, and they benefit by reptiles becoming rarer both in the wild and in captivity.
Therefore wildlife smuggling in its' current form must be stopped. Banning smuggling, and increasing fines and penalties does not work. It only serves to increase corruption and make everything else associated worse.
Therefore the only way to stop the illegal export of reptiles is to legalize it.
The Australian reptiles that command high prices overseas are not often 'rare' or 'endangered' species. They tend merely to be larger species such as pythons, monitors, large skinks, etc. By allowing moderate numbers of these to leave the country will not harm local populations in any way. However it will stop all the unsavory aspects of current smuggling racket/s, by undermining the whole operation. Legalized export of reptiles would also indirectly strengthen conservation efforts of genuinely rare and endangered species, in a number of ways.
Assuming that most indigenous reptiles are 'De-protected' it would be harder for smugglers to get details of 'who has what' anyway, making all stages of the export operation hopefully more trouble than it would be worth.
Importantly the 'legal' export of wildlife should have a few important 'regulations'. Knowing that wildlife exporting is prone to corruption, legislation should be as 'corruption resistant' as possible.
All known 'de-protected' species should be allowed to be exported. No individual or 'Proxy' should be permitted to export/import more than a certain number of specimens in order to prevent large scale traders and more corruption and cruelty emerging.
A duty of around $300(Aust.) (1987..Indexed) per specimen should be imposed. This is important in protecting the welfare of specimens exported. When people have to pay something relatively substantial for a given reptile, it can be fairly safely assured that they will take proper care of it. Such cannot be guaranteed if prices are 'too cheap'.
Australia should not supply the 'disposable' reptile pet market by allowing totally unrestricted export of reptiles. Tortoises from north Africa and elsewhere were virtually wiped out in the wild when millions were sold in the USA and Europe for ridiculously cheap prices, which encouraged people to buy them, and not take proper care of them, resulting in rapid death of specimens.
A 'Tarrif' means of regulating exports has several advantages over a strict 'permit' system including:
1/ Less Paperwork and red tape.
2/ Revenue raised for Australia that wouldn't otherwise be raised. It should be channeled into herpetological projects only (So as to prevent later governments trying to use reptile exports as an 'economic' activity).
Corruption within National Parks and Wildlife Services, real or perceived, is seen by many as a major problem. Without doubt current policies of Australian fauna authorities are assisting wildlife smuggling rackets, possibly inadvertently. By scrapping most current herptile 'protective' legislation and bringing in the changes suggested in the previous section, problems of potential corruption will be reduced. The importance of having corruption free and honest fauna authorities for reptile and frog protection cannot be understated.
In order to further reduce risks of corruption within state wildlife authorities, they should be where possible broken into smaller, more effective units, or departments, as previously proposed by the author.
Further information relating to Australia's reptiles and frogs can be found from literally thousands of different sources. It is not practical to cite all references used in compiling this book. Instead is a list of 'selected references' which can be used as a base from which to start inquiries. The references will contain their own lists of references and so on. The omission of any given references doesn't imply that they are 'not as good' as those included. Most of the references included in the list are those which most influenced the content of this text.
Important published herpetological information can usually be grouped into four main categories,
2/ Scientific literature (Journals, etc)
3/ Newspaper and press Clippings.
4/ Online sources (internet – see below)
No references are provided in relation to photographing reptiles.
Although references are grouped in convenient categories, it should be realized that the information contained within the references will tend to 'overlap' the various 'allocated' categories of information. The grouping of references is done primarily in the interests of simplifying the list for readers.
In relation to conservation, Fauna Authorities, and Smuggling, a further source of reference are past court case transcripts. Some court transcripts are cited in the references in relation to conservation, fauna authorities and smuggling. A relatively large number of references are provided in relation to conservation, fauna authorities, and smuggling, in reflection of the
'importance' of these problems, the fact that this book devotes relatively little space to these issues, and to support the conclusions drawn within the relevant section of this book.
However it is suggested that readers with a strong interest in these areas consult the two books Smuggled: The Underground Trade in Australia's Wildlife and Smuggled-2: Wildlife Trafficking, Crime and Corruption in Australia (and/or the Corruption Books CD-ROM (Five titles), which not only provide detailed coverage's of these areas, but also themselves contain extensive bibliographies on the subjects.
No internet sources are provided in this list, other than a generic reference here to over 80 of this author's papers, the full and original texts of which can be found at:
To continue to the rest of this section (Key References)
The above was from the book Australian Reptiles and Frogs by Raymond Hoser and now available on a fantastic CD-Rom along with a vast amount of other information, papers and the like on reptiles, frogs and other wildlife.