Exotics are Everywhere – even in your collection!

Exotics are Everywhere – even in your collection!

Andrew Horlor is the owner of Fuzzy Fox Reptiles and Rodents that specializes in breeding pythons, monitors and rodents. In this article he considers the case for allowing reptiles other than native species to be kept in Australia.

If you have ever looked abroad to any other reptile-hobby-loving country, the chances are that you quickly noticed the vast array of different species the hobbyists in these countries are enjoying keeping and breeding. Many - in some cases all - of these animals originated outside the countries they are being kept in and are therefore exotics. Australian species are also highly sought after overseas.

But what about here in Australia? Why don’t we have access to the almost limitless number of animals that the rest of the world gets to enjoy? Why have we been put in ‘reptile lockdown’; restricted to keeping only a fraction of our native species and forced to pay for licenses and keep records of every reptile and reptile-related transaction? The short story is that years ago the government decided to make it illegal to keep exotic reptiles and banned all trade in native Australian animals with other countries without special permits and zoo licenses. However, a quick search of forums or social media will tell you that many people are frustrated and feel these laws to be outdated.

Before we continue, I feel it fair to point out that I am pro keeping exotics, however despite being aware that there is an underground exotic pet trade, I am also pro ‘not going to jail’, and the naturalist in me certainly doesn’t want to see another Cane Toad (Rhinella marina) epidemic in our very delicate and closed ecosystem. It is my intention to discuss this topic in the most objective manner possible, and to ensure that both sides of the debate are covered.

First, I’m sure it comes as no shock to many readers that there is a thriving underground market, with exotic reptiles being bred, sold and smuggled into Australia. If this is the first you have heard of it, I can assure you this is nothing new and has been going on for decades. Despite governments’ futile attempts to stop it, with the rise in popularity of reptiles as pets, so has the exotics market continued to grow. Keepers of native wildlife can be identified because of the requirement for them to be licensed, but exotic keepers often remain hidden ‘under the radar’. And this brings us to an interesting point. If exotic reptiles have been in the country for so long, with demand increasing and little control over those that want to keep and/or breed them, then why bother with the laws at all?

One herpetologist from the University of Queensland feels that the laws make things worse and that it is time to make exotics legal. Part of his argument is that prohibition doesn’t work; it just generates a mindset that makes it attractive to the very people you would never want to be a reptile owner in the first place. The type with an outlaw bikie mentality of, ‘I'm going to keep illegal reptiles because I'm tough, bad and dangerous!’ If you make them legal then psychologically you've changed the entire landscape.

In my own experience, there are also plenty of exotic reptile keepers who have little idea of what constitutes an illegal animal, and are simply giving their pet a good home, as well as enthusiastic herpetoculturalists who have become fascinated by exotic species. One argument against the legalization of exotics is the notion that this would result in an explosion of people keeping and breeding these animals. A recent online survey suggests that about 80% of the hobbyist community would keep exotic reptiles if they were legally able to do so. This immediately raises entirely valid fears of escapees establishing breeding populations in the native environment. But if exotics have already been here for many years, would they not have had ample opportunity to colonise parts of the country? There is a strong rumour that Corn Snakes have become established in the wild, as well as sightings of Boa Constrictors and a few other exotic species. I decided to contact as many snake catchers as I could, along with some field herpers and photographers, to ask them if they had ever come across any exotic reptiles in the field. With the exception of a few exotic snakes caught in urban environments that were obviously escaped pets, not one person had any official catches or sightings of exotic reptiles in deep bush or national parks, despite most of them being familiar with the rumours we discussed. The department of Agriculture and Fisheries of Queensland can be quoted saying “The north American corn snake has not yet naturalised in Queensland or Australia”. Of the well-known and documented exotic reptiles and amphibians that have managed to establish naturalized populations in Australia, the Asian House Gecko (Hemidactylus frenatus) and the Flowerpot Snake (Indotyphlops braminus) infiltrated the country of their own accord, while the Cane Toad’s (Rhinella marina) deliberate introduction was sanctioned by the authorities! The case of the Red-eared Slider (Trachemys scripta elegans) is disturbing, as there is considerable evidence that this species has established itself in various locations around Sydney, doubtless from individuals originally held illegally in private hands. As mentioned, a small number of exotic reptiles presumed to be escaped or released pets have also been found roaming suburban areas, and this brings us to another interesting point. Is it not far more likely that an individual wishing to dispose of illegal reptiles would simply let them go, rather than advertise or sell them to persons unknown and run the risk of prosecution and at the same time having their animals euthanized? Especially if when they had purchased the animals they were ignorant of their illegal status.

Devastating as the Cane Toad is, and the Red-eared Slider may prove to be, there are far many more exotic mammals, fish and bird species that are not only legal but exerting far greater harm to our ecosystems and natural environment than all the reptiles combined. And don’t even get me started on the almost free rein that gardeners get to enjoy with exotic plant species. Could you imagine if any politician dared to consider any form of ban on exotic plants? They would be out of office faster than a monitor’s feeding response! Many exotic reptiles are not suited to much of the Australian landscape and would not survive if they escaped or were liberated. Therefore, any schedule of legal exotic species could be carefully compiled to have minimal potential impact on our native species and environment.

There is also a primitive argument for exotics that I rather like and, as simplistic as it may seem, I think it is worth mentioning. Whether we realise it or not virtually all of us keep exotic reptiles in one way or another. By definition an exotic is anything that occurs outside of its natural distribution. It seems very exotic to me to keep a four-meter tropical Scrub Python that also occurs in New Guinea in a unit in Melbourne, or perhaps a Pilbara Perentie in suburban Sydney. Many would argue that animals such as these, displaced in captivity, exist in ‘island isolation’ and pose little threat of establishing feral populations. But what about keeping South-west Carpet Pythons (Morelia spilota imbricata), native to southern parts of Western Australia and western South Australia, on the south-east coast, where climatic conditions would be eminently suitable for them to intergrade with endemic Diamond Pythons? Others may contend that Australian native species cannot extend their natural distribution, because if they could they would have already done so. However, there are plenty of natural barriers such as mountain ranges and rivers which constitute no obstacle to reptile keepers who routinely exchange animals across the country. Let’s not forget about all the morphs we keep in collections today. Many of these did not naturally occur in Australia, despite occurring in Australian species (such as Carpet Pythons, Central Bearded Dragons and Green Tree Pythons), and were gradually smuggled back into the country. Some have Green Tree Python and Carpet Python blood in them that was never native to Australia in the first place, so these are technically exotics as well, and yet nobody seems to mind them in collections or worries about the possibility of them escaping into the wild.

This brings us to the final part of our discussion, which is concerned with the feasibility of international trade - and the thing that makes the world go around; money. It is easy to rationalize a ban on importing animals on the basis that we do not want reptiles brought into the country that could potentially harbor exotic parasites and diseases. This makes perfect sense. The government would continue to support a ban because they wouldn’t want to deal with the hassle and cost of setting up quarantine facilities. The problem is that this has once again driven the process underground. Smuggling has continued largely unchecked over the years, and a bunch of nasties these overseas animals have brought with them into the country can be nothing short of devastating if they make it into your collection, to say nothing of the Australian environment. Perhaps conditions such as the deadly Sunshine virus could have been avoided if there wasn’t such a strict ban on importation? What if we allowed zoos to import animals on behalf of, and at the cost of, private keepers? This would ensure appropriate quarantine measures, as well as providing income for the zoos and perhaps further funding (through import permits?) for conservation and education, together with essentially eliminating the incentive for illegal importation.

The ban on exportation of Australian species may also be justified on the basis that it discourages poaching and smuggling, however, this argument has been proved to be flawed. In reality the ban merely served to fuel demand for Australian reptiles overseas and drove prices sky high. The monetary inducement combined with trifling penalties to create a very attractive scenario for smugglers. There is now a pretty good foundation of Australian animals in overseas markets, but there are still great opportunities for Australian hobbyists to export captive-bred, disease-free stock, and once again generate some revenue for conservation, etc., in the process through fees for export licences or permits. This may have a far greater negative impact on smuggling than a blanket ban.

In no way I am suggesting we abolish all laws and allow any and every species of exotic reptile to start flooding into the country. This article is intended to stimulate further discussion and highlight the inadequacies of the current legislation. Are we still trying to catch and restrain a horse that bolted decades ago? Should some laws be relaxed to allow harmless, non-invasive species of reptiles to be kept in the same way as plants, birds, fish and other animals? I would not stop keeping, breeding and enjoying Australia’s native species, but a pet chameleon would top off my reptile collection nicely!