It is important to understand the historical factors that brought about the trade and corresponding regulation that exists today. Reptiles involved in the trade come from all over the world. Alligators and crocodiles are native to the Americas, Africa, Asia and Australia. Lizards are native to Africa, Asia and South America. Pythons are mostly native to Southeast Asia. So the stories of the trade of all these species vary a bit. But the central themes are the same.
Reptiles have always played a part in human culture. While being worshiped in some regions, reptiles were hunted for their meat, skin and parts for clothing, food, medicine and religious and decorative purposes elsewhere.
The first records of commercial use of reptile skins in modern societies were crocodilian skins in North America in the 1800s. During and after the American Civil War in the 1860s, there was high demand for footwear, belts, saddlebags and cases. Tens of thousands of American alligators were hunted and processed in local tanneries. There weren't enough American alligators harvested, so other species of crocodile further south in Mexico and Central America were also used. After the Second World War and during the subsequent economic revival, crocodilian skins were again in high demand, resulting in dangerously low population levels for most of these species.
To fight for the survival of many of these threatened species, in the 1960s and 1970s, research organizations and government agencies began to form and work together to identify and address the detrimental harvest practices. The most impactful of these detrimental practices were found to be:
- overharvesting. Today, there are harvest quotas.
- non-selection of sexes which often resulted in over-harvesting females. Males currently comprise approximately 70% of adult alligators harvested.
- no closed season, allowing hunting to coincide with nesting, which resulted in the harvest of future populations by harvesting females before they could release hatchlings from the nest or even begin nesting. Current seasons are conducted after nesting.
In the 1970s and 1980s, the sustainable-use programs developed to address these issues were slowly implemented across the most affected regions. For example, in 1967, the alligator was put on the endangered species list. By 1971, when the CSG began, all 23 species of crocodilian were endangered or threatened. In an effort to restore the animal and the industry, researchers at Rockefeller Refuge in Louisiana developed a revolutionary program of alligator farming/ranching that removes eggs from the wild, incubates and hatches them, and then, two years later, returns between 14% and 17% of those hatchlings to the wild. Upon return, they are between three and six feet in length, healthy, and capable of defending themselves in the marsh. As a result, the percentage of returns (i.e. 14%) is greater than the survival rate for eggs left in the marsh.
Due to the success of this "conservation through utilization" program, the alligator was removed from the endangered species list in 1987. This program also set an example that inspired similar sweeping changes in the crocodile locales across the globe. So much so that by 1996, one-third of all crocodile species were sufficiently abundant to support well-regulated annual harvests and one-third of the species were no longer in danger of extinction but are not harvested. No other group of vertebrate animals has undergone such a dramatic improvement in its conservation status. Now, there are over 3 million American alligators in the wild.
This transformation also necessitated and fostered the establishment of conservation groups like CITES and the Crocodile Specialist Group that have played a pivotal role protecting these species. We will explore these and other related organizations, agencies and authorities in our next blog.