Exotic pets seem fun, but they can harm local reptiles

2013-11-30 00:00

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 KwaZulu-Natal the two most notable animals were the red- eared 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, non-venomous constrictor from south-east Asia and is sometimes mistaken for the indigenous southern African python. It sells for R5 000 for a five-metre adult.

The southern African python (Python natalensis) is found throughout most of KwaZulu-Natal. 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 suggest 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 long-lived, 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.

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