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Can I trust people who sell "captive bred" monitors? Print E-mail
Captive Care of Monitors
Wild caught, captive hatched, ranched and farmed Monitor Lizards - A Buyers' Guide

Daniel Bennett, Department of Zoology, University of Aberdeen, Scotland AB24 2TZ.

"Only the most cynical and desperate of poachers catch pregnant animals. In gravid monitor lizards the pet trade saw the opportunity to greatly reduce their overheads and fool their customers"

At a conservative estimate, 250,000 live monitor lizards are traded every year, all bound for the pet trade in North America, Europe and Japan. People who buy them are offered very little information about where their animals come from. Monitors in the pet trade are usually described as wild caught (WC), captive bred (CB), captive hatched (CH) or farmed. Wild caught and captive bred are self explanatory terms, but captive hatched, ranched and farmed are rather misleading terms which all mean the same thing.

Although captive breeding of monitor lizards has been revolutionised over the last ten years, the proportion of captive bred animals in the trade is still miniscule. This is because captive breeding has tended to concentrate on Australian species, with an emphasis on the dwarf (Odatria) species. It is virtually certain that any Australian monitor lizard offered for sale in Europe or North America will be truly captive bred. Commercial breeding of Asian and African monitor lizards, however, is still virtually non existent. If you find an African or Asian monitor lizard offered for sale as captive bred you should ascertain 1) if it has been bred in your country or abroad and 2) who has bred it. At present less than 1 in 10,000 of these animals are actually bred in captivity.

In recent years a large proportion of imported monitor lizards have been sold as captive hatched or farmed. This means that instead of capturing large numbers of individual lizards for export, only gravid females are collected. They are kept in captivity until they produce eggs, which are incubated artificially. The females are then "returned to the wild". This gives the impression of being more sustainable and ecologically friendly than dealing in wild caught animals, but in fact the opposite is true.

Adult female monitor lizards are extremely difficult to find outside the breeding season (typically we catch 6 - 10 adult males for every female we encounter). They appear to limit their movements to searching for food and accumulating energy to produce eggs. During the breeding season the females become extremely active as they search for good nesting sites. At this time of year they are easy to collect. The animals are kept in captivity, often in very unsanitary conditions, until they produce eggs which are then incubated artificially. As soon as they hatch they can be exported as extremely cute babies, not taken from the wild but "captive hatched" from mothers "released into the wild". In fact these animals, now exhausted and stressed, are almost guaranteed to perish. There is little incentive for the "farmer" to actually return them. It would be impractical to take each one back to the place it was caught, and more often than not the lizards are either recycled into the pet trade, sold for meat and skin or just dumped at a roadside. In a few cases (such as in Ghana) government departments collect the animals from different exporters and release thousands of them at a time. There is no evidence that any of these animal have ever survived to breed the following year. In countries such as Indonesia, where the females have been brought by boat from some distant island, death is inevitable.

Only the most cynical and desperate of poachers catch pregnant animals. In most hunting societies they are the only animals afforded protection, because without them the population will decline. However, the pet trade saw in gravid monitor lizards the opportunity to greatly reduce their overheads and fool their customers into thinking that their animals were collected "with conservation in mind".

As well as producing extremely marketable animals, ranching also allows for massive increases in profit. The rancher buys only a tiny fraction of the animals he needed before, so instead of buying, say10,000 animals, he pays for just 400. The unit price is thus reduced by over 95%! The importers may well be aware that unsuspecting people will be more likely to buy an animal that has not been collected from the wild, and may even be prepared to pay a few dollars more. In countries that have adopted ranching methods the number of people employed in the trade has dropped substantially (by over 60% in six years in Ghana). The remaining collectors tend to be among the most economically deprived people of their communities. Because there is so little money to be made from the trade in monitor lizards they sometimes resort to hunting more profitable animals. In recent years people I know have started to collect very dangerous (e.g. green mamba) and endangered animals (e.g. Mali giant tortoises)

In fact buying wild caught monitors is a much more ecologically sound strategy. My experiments with the savannah monitor Varanus exanthematicus in Ghana show that about a third of the juvenile population is removed when a group of experienced lizard collectors visit an area, whilst the reproductive population is left undisturbed (Bennett, D. 2000. The density and abundance of juvenile Varanus exanthematicus (Sauria: Varanidae) in the coastal plain of Ghana. Amphibia-Reptilia. 21:301-306). Enough youngsters remain to ensure some survivors and I am sure that the exploitation had minimal impact on the population overall. In contrast when adult females are targeted it is inconceivable that the population would not be affected. Instead of a third of the youngsters being removed, entire clutches are taken and the adult females eliminated permanently.

If traders offer you captive hatched, farmed or ranched animals ask them if they understand how the process works. It is possible that they do. Unfortunately I don't know what they think. I have been investigating trade in monitor lizards in many countries since 1994. But although animal exporters around the world have always been happy to help us, no animal importers in North America, Europe or Japan have ever offered to cooperate.

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