Ex­otic pets seem fun, but they can harm lo­cal rep­tiles

Es­capees com­pete for re­sources with species, har­bour dis­eases

Weekend Witness - - News - TR­ISH BEAVER

THE ex­otic rep­tile trade is a niche group in the pet mar­ket, but as the ap­peal of th­ese ex­otic species grows so too does the threat that some that are bought as pets may end up as a real threat to the lo­cal rep­tile pop­u­la­tions.

Speak­ing at the Con­ser­va­tion Sym­po­sium re­cently, War­ren Sch­midt, a con­ser­va­tion­ist work­ing for the Nurs­eries and Pet Trade Part­ner­ship, warned peo­ple to be sure that they do not buy ex­otic pets from pet shops or online pet traders with­out first check­ing to see the sta­tus of the an­i­mals.

Cer­tain snakes and rep­tiles are listed as in­va­sive species that must be con­trolled be­cause they threaten to de­stroy the en­vi­ron­ment or will dom­i­nate the ex­is­tence of lo­cal species.

Sch­midt said in KwaZulu­Natal the two most no­table an­i­mals were the re­deared slider Trache­mys scripta —a fresh­wa­ter ter­rapin — which has been im­ported by var­i­ous pet traders and adapted very well to lo­cal con­di­tions.

Th­ese at­trac­tive fresh­wa­ter ter­rap­ins can be bought at ma­jor pet traders for R300 for a baby or R1 000 fully grown.

They are nat­u­rally found in North Amer­ica. They have been listed among the world’s Top 100 in­va­sive species. Ship­ments of th­ese rep­tiles are sent all over the world and a few have al­ready been found in the wild in South Africa in Pre­to­ria, Jo­han­nes­burg, Scot­tburgh and Cape Town. The law pro­hibits the im­por­ta­tion, sale, dis­tri­bu­tion and keep­ing of this ter­rapin in South Africa.

They threaten our lo­cal in­dige­nous ter­rap­ins through disease and par­a­site trans­mis­sion as well as com­pe­ti­tion for sim­i­lar re­sources. They are known car­ri­ers of sal­mo­nella.

The other rep­tile that has been caus­ing con­ster­na­tion is the Burmese python, which is very pop­u­lar in the pet trade. It is a large, non­ven­omous con­stric­tor from south­east Asia and is some­times mis­taken for the in­dige­nous south­ern African python. It sells for R5 000 for a five­me­tre adult.

The south­ern African python ( Python na­tal­en­sis) is found through­out most of KwaZulu­Natal. But since the early 1980s, Burmese pythons have steadily in­creased in pop­u­lar­ity as a novel and rel­a­tively un­de­mand­ing cap­tive in South Africa. In re­cent years, nu­mer­ous colour morphs with dif­fer­ent pat­terns have been se­lec­tively bred.

Sch­midt says that pet own­ers want­ing to keep pythons should make sure they can han­dle the snake as it gets larger and if they can­not cope they should give the snake to a proper snake han­dler or wildlife fa­cil­ity. They must not be re­leased into the wild.

Al­though there is no ev­i­dence to sug­ gest that Burmese pythons are es­tab­lished in South Africa in big num­bers there is al­ways a dan­ger of that.

Adult pythons reach a length of three to five me­tres, with ex­cep­tional in­di­vid­u­als reach­ing seven me­tres. Sch­midt says the gen­eral pub­lic and rep­tile en­thu­si­asts need to be ed­u­cated about the re­spon­si­bil­i­ties and re­quire­ments of keep­ing ex­otic an­i­mals in cap­tiv­ity.

On the op­po­site spec­trum some of our lo­cal rep­tiles are be­ing tar­geted by pet traders who are sell­ing them abroad. The sungazer lizard has be­come listed as a vul­ner­a­ble species and should not be bought or traded.

Their num­bers are rapidly de­clin­ing due to habi­tat de­struc­tion and be­cause they have been caught for ex­port to pet traders. They are long­lived, hardy cap­tives, but rarely re­pro­duce in cap­tiv­ity.

Their name comes from their habit of bask­ing in the sun. They have an im­pres­sive col­lar of spiky scales that make them look dan­ger­ous, but they are rel­a­tively placid. They can fetch al­most R10 000 each and are more valu­able as a breed­ing pair.


An en­dan­gered South African sungazer lizard, which it is il­le­gal to trade.

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