20 July 2012

Captive Bred vs Wild Caught

By Tony Jones

Is there still a place in the pet trade for wild caught reptiles? Opinions are split dependant on who you ask. Tony Jones present the facts from across the whole spectrum of the debate.

The captive breeding revolution of the last three decades has brought an enormous shift away from wild-caught reptiles and it is now estimated that around 90-95% of reptiles in the pet trade are captive bred. Captive bred herps are undeniably better 'pets' than their wild counterparts as breeders select the most desirable genetic qualities such as colour, temperament and dietary habits. More importantly, captive bred reptiles are not subjected to the stresses of large scale transportation and storage. Rehabilitating wild caught reptiles is a specialist job and often something of a lottery and is a task best avoided by those without the requisite expertise. However, pet keepers have been buying wild caught reptiles for centuries, often enjoying many trouble free years with their animals.

Big Bad Wild Caught Reptiles?

It is important to point out that the trade in wild caught reptiles is very different to the image of it portrayed by animal rights groups. Not only is the industry much reduced in size, it has developed considerably along with our increased understanding of reptiles. Shipping and holding procedures have improved to keep pace as exporters strive to avoid the expense of losses.

The species being collected for the pet trade have changed too as more information becomes available as to which make the most suitable pet. Popular pet species such as Corn Snakes and Leopard Geckos are rarely imported given the numbers that are now bred in captivity, with any which do come in having been pre-ordered by professional breeders to diversify captive bloodlines.

To blur the lines just a little, some species are farmed for the pet trade in their native country. Hermann and Horsfields tortoises are good examples of this type of import and whilst many would not consider these to be captive bred in the strictest sense, these animals display many of the same merits.

Lastly, it needs to be recognised that without wild caught imports, there would of course be no captive breeding in the first place. Zoos, private breeders, industry professionals and amateur experts alike are all eagerly working with difficult new species in an attempt to understand their needs. It is worth remembering that just a few years ago chameleons were considered impossible to keep in captivity and Crested Geckos were thought to be extinct. Thanks to the efforts of captive breeders working with wild caught animals these animals are now bred in large numbers worldwide and are essentially safe from extinction.

So what's the problem?

There is no escaping the fact that wild caught reptiles suffer the stress of capture, storage and transit and that some will die along the way. This in itself is reason enough for some to oppose the whole idea of wild collection (and indeed all animal keeping) but this article does not have the scope to discuss the philosophy and ethics of human relationships with animals. As members of the pet trade we have accepted that humans have the right to companion animals and that we play our part in the endeavour to make that relationship a healthy and happy one. The subjective view of what constitutes 'healthy' and 'happy' is the focus of the discussion here.

When subjected to the stresses of capture, storage and transit the parasitic load of any reptile will multiply. If these stresses are not well managed then the parasitic load may multiply to the point where the health of the host is compromised, ultimately resulting in death. Some species fare better under these stresses than others and once they reach the premises of suppliers and stores, quarantine and rehabilitation is vital if these animals are to become rewarding pets. Should these animals reach the customer without sufficient specialist care then their chances of survival are greatly reduced. Not only is this a disaster for the reptile concerned, but the impact on the customer and the trade is also significant. Such a poor introduction into the joys of keeping reptiles is unlikely to generate any enthusiasm for the hobby and subsequent custom is lost.

Surely it is sensible to provide the customers with an animal suited to their needs and level of expertise, rather than a wild-caught specimen with the inherent risks this entails? Whilst some wild caught animals are hardy and/or well quarantined and acclimatised there are often factors in place which make this likelihood a lottery.

Pet Species?

Another factor when considering wild caught reptile stock is the suitability of the species as a pet. For most beginners and new enthusiasts the ideal pet would be:

Many of the frequently imported species such as Green Iguanas, Turtles and Terrapins, Tokay Geckos and House Geckos fall foul of these criteria and are yet regularly available in the trade. Whilst it is entirely acceptable for these to be available to those who have the necessary expertise and experience, mistaking such animals for an opportunity to make a quick buck from an unsuspecting novice is deplorable. There are many more suitable species that would be suitable for sale to beginners and it could be strongly argued that these should be consistently one that is captive bred. Whilst this route may require more time and money from both the retailer and the customer it should be noted that the alternative 'quick buck' is probably the last one you will see.

As with most debates there is no black or white answer as to whether wild caught animals should be available in pet shops. As with all livestock it is the responsibility of the retailer to weigh their business ethics and practices against their own and their customer's expertise. Wild caught reptiles can have a place in the pet trade so long as it is well managed and ethically considered. The days of selling Snapping Turtles to Teenage Mutant Ninja fans are hopefully almost over.

Why not just ban wild collection for the pet trade?

Collecting reptiles for sale to rich countries abroad is one way to make money for some of the poorest people in the world. It is important to manage and balance any effort to limit collection with the needs of the communities who use it as a means to survive. Development of ecologically sound enterprises where the need of every stakeholder is considered is the best way forward. However, these types of enterprise are notoriously difficult to devise and manage.

Wild Caught Mortalities

MSC study on mortality in transit (2003)
501,310 Reptiles and amphibians imported/trans-shipped via Heathrow.
Mortality on arrival: 0.47%

Statistics and Perspective

  • 12,000,000 wild caught reptiles and amphibians may be traded annually for pets per YEAR
  • Habitat loss accounts for 17,200,000 reptiles PER DAY
  • Or if you prefer in excess of 62 BILLION reptiles per year
  • Note: figures for habitat destruction do not include amphibians!

Live Trade vs Skins Trade

The number of reptiles collected for the pet trade is tiny compared with those collected for their skins, meat and other organs:

Python reticulatus
Varanus salvator


All statistics courtesy of REPTA

First published: Pet Product Marketing 2012.

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