Wildlife second largest illegal trade in the world

Bob Bowles

This endangered blue racer snake was killed on a road in 2009 on Pelee Island. (BOB BOWLES/SPECIAL TO THE PACKET & TIMES)

This endangered blue racer snake was killed on a road in 2009 on Pelee Island. (BOB BOWLES/SPECIAL TO THE PACKET & TIMES)

It is a hard statistic to measure, but narcotics is said to be the largest community by volume of illegal trade in the world, with illegal trade of arms and ammunition coming in at third place. The illegal trade of wildlife species, in most cases endangered species by volume, takes second place.

The United Nations Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) closely monitors and controls imports to Canada. I have a friend who is a butterfly collector and purchases many imported species, but in each case, these species come with a CITES permit. That means the species was raised on a farm in a sustainable manner with the intent of it being sold. This activity causes no negative effects to the ecosystem as it would if the collection species were taken from the wild.

Kangaroos are legally harvested for commercial trade and export in Australia and the commercial harvest of saltwater crocodiles from Australia and New Zealand has been largely successful. There has been a call from some environmentalists to include legalized harvest of the white rhinoceros in South Africa. It is being poached at an alarming rate for its horn, which is sold for high prices on the black market.

Queen Alexandra butterflies sell for $8,195 each, tortoises in Madagascar for $10,000, arowana fish for $20,000 each, elephants for $28,200 each, black cockatoos from Australia for $31,000 each, gorillas for $40,000, orangutan for $45,000, tigers for $70,000 — with $1,300 just for the penis and $35,000 for the skin — bear bile for $200,000 per pound and rhino horns for $97,000 per kilogram.

Imports can be somewhat controlled with a CITES permit, but in Canada and United States, there is a black market of illegal trade that cannot be as well controlled.

The greatest black-market trade of endangered species in Canada and U.S. is of native reptiles, mainly turtles and snakes. Ontario has 17 species of native snakes and eight species of native turtles. The Ontario Species at Risk Act, 2007, lists 10 snake species and seven turtle species. Five endangered, three threatened and two special-concern snakes are native to Ontario. Two endangered, two threatened and three special-concern species of turtles are native to Ontario.

An individual in Ontario can’t keep or transport a living animal or plant that is a species at risk. Education organizations can keep a species at risk for science or education if they are a provincially or municipally owned and operated museum, science centre or curatorial institute, a university or college that is a member of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada or a college of applied arts and technology, but they must register it with the Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) and keep records of what species they have. They can only obtain the species from someone who is allowed to have them and must take good care of the species while in their care. They can only transport species to another educational organization or a veterinarian.

A person who is issued a “zoo” licence can keep live-game wildlife and specially protected wildlife in captivity and also can buy, sell or propagate them. Such a person can also hunt or trap to collect specimens for rearing purposes. It appears a “zoo” can be an individual person who wishes to rear reptiles.

Accredited zoos and aquariums in our area include Wye Marsh Wildlife Centre, Toronto Zoo and Science North. Wye Marsh keeps endangered species of snakes, but does not breed them or use them. Other not-for-profit organizations keep at-risk snake and turtle species for education, but do not breed them or use them to promote their business.

The reason the species has become endangered in the first place is not because they don’t reproduce well in the wild, but because of habitat loss or human impact. It has been proven with the eastern loggerhead shrikes on the Carden Alvar. This endangered species reproduces well each year in the wild, with several young successfully reared from nests. There have also been several introductions of birds raised in captivity and released in the wild. Few of these young birds return from the south the following year to breed on the Carden Alvar. Breeding endangered reptiles in captivity will not help bring back the species unless the habitat is protected and the human impact is addressed. Breeding endangered species in captivity could give the public the idea it is acceptable for them to raise endangered species to replenish their numbers.

There are many individuals who would like to have a “one-of-a-kind” endangered snake or turtle in their private collections. It is great people can go places that keep endangered species under permits to view them. But more power and enforcement needs to be given to the Ontario MNR to monitor the permits for keeping and breeding endangered species in captivity. Otherwise, it could impact species already on the brink of extinction.

Bob Bowles is a local naturalist. He can be contacted at

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