Tuesday February 12, 2013
Proposed regulations to limit types of snakes kept as pets
By NATALIE HENG
Proposed regulations will limit the types of snakes which can be kept as pets.
FENG shui experts have foreseen that 2013 will be a year of peace and prosperity but on the other hand, things do not seem to be in favour of this year’s zodiac animal, the Snake.
The reptiles are widely traded but to what extent, no one knows for sure because very little of the trade in Asia is regulated, according to Chris Shepherd, deputy director of wildlife trade monitoring network, TRAFFIC South-East Asia.
“There are hundreds of species of snakes in Asia, and the vast majority of them are not protected by national laws,” he says.
Trade figures supplied by the Department of Wildlife and National Parks (Perhilitan) show that around 298,000 pieces of snake skins, 406 live snakes, 12,508kg of meat and 82 snake products were exported in 2011.
However, these figures only refer to species listed as “tradable” (which includes pythons, cobras and rat snakes) under Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).
There are hundreds of other species of snakes – file snakes and sea snakes (traded for skins) as well as others traded for meat and as pets – for which the trade is completely unregulated, says Shepherd.
“For example, there are indications that Malaysia may in fact, have a huge trade in sea snakes (to make shoes, handbags, belts and other leather goods). They are not protected (nationally), neither are they listed on CITES. It’s just a free-for-all.”
That the extent of so much trade remains largely unknown is one of our biggest problems, according to Shepherd.
And as trade is increasing, species are likely to decline. “There is very little funding for organisations like ours to do research on snake issues,” he says.
It is still early days, but new regulations being drafted under the Wildlife Conservation Act 2010 could mean better controls over the snake trade.
The draft Pet Shop Regulations 2012 will only allow a small number of snake species for sale as pets by local shops: reticulated python, blood python, Burmese python, ball python and boa constrictors (except species listed as “totally protected” in the Act).
Trade in these species will require a licence, and can only be conducted within a licensed premise, on the condition that traders keep a record of all trade conducted. Violators of these rules may be fined up to RM100,000 and jailed for up to five years.
Perhilitan law and enforcement director Burhanuddin Mohd Nor says the proposed regulations is to discourage trade in wildlife and lessen public demand to keep wildlife, especially within an urban setting. It also aims to encourage respect for wildlife as potentially dangerous animals.
“The draft regulations are aimed at creating awareness and instilling a sense of responsibility among the public who own wildlife as pets,” he says.
There have, in the past, been cases of pet owners releasing their unwanted animals into the wild, after having either tire of them or finding that they were too hard to handle.
Burhanuddin says the impact of such introductions into the wild can be devastating, so the department is taking a precautionary approach to prevent them from happening.
The proposed regulations have created unrest amongst Malaysia’s growing community of reptile hobbyists and have, in fact, served to consolidate the group.
Mohd Nazri Hassan Basri, 46, says he founded the Malaysian Association of Reptiles and Exotic Animal Keepers (Marak) in response to the proposed regulations, apart from promoting responsible pet-keeping.
He thinks the regulations will do more harm than good. “It is hampering our efforts to develop the hobby because it will mean many snakes can no longer be bought legally from pet shops.
“It punishes responsible pet owners by making it difficult to acquire these pets legally, and may push hobbyists underground. There are people breeding with the intention of selling.
“Recent trends see some people doing this with reticulated and Burmese pythons, and sugar gliders.”
He says Marak, which has yet to be registered, wants hobbyists to be responsible. “That’s why we encourage people to buy from established breeders. Sometimes, when you go to pet shops, you don’t know where they get their animals from.”
Another group formed last June with the specific purpose of lobbying against the legislation is the Association of Zoo Operators, Breeders, Entrepreneurs and Rearers of Wildlife Malaysia (P4PHM), which unites an otherwise segmented wildlife industry under one voice.
Along with the Malaysian Association of Zoological Parks and Aquaria (Mazpa), it was one of the organisations consulted by Perhilitan during the drafting of the regulations.
“We (P4PHM) are all very saddened by the regulations. We agree with the rationale behind banning venomous snakes such as cobras, sea kraits or vipers because of the risk factor towards the hobbyists.
“However, there are many other non-venomous snakes, such as mangrove snakes, dog tooth tree snakes, whip snakes and paradise tree snakes (which cannot be traded under the Pet Shop Regulations 2012) that are harmless,” says a representative of the 3,700-strong group.
It has appealed to the government to consider allowing trade in non-venomous snakes. It also says that the proposed regulations will effectively restrict hobbyists from keeping many native snake species as pets.
“We understand that the main motive of the regulations is to control illegal trafficking of wildlife, but we have to understand that illegal players don’t abide by the rules, and will still go underground at the end of the day.”
P4PHM also notes that of the five snakes allowed to be sold as pets under the proposed regulations, three – the reticulated python, boa constrictors, and Burmese python – should only be reared by experienced handlers.
Stemming illegal trade
Technically, species listed as “protected” (in Schedule One) in the Wildlife Conservation Act can be traded or owned so long as one gets a permit or licence from Perhilitan.
However, pet owners must supply a receipt of purchase issued by a licensed trader (which lists the trader’s updated stock list) to Perhilitan, in order to obtain a licence to keep the animal.
In effect, by restricting the number of snakes species that can be sold in pet shops, the new regulations will make it difficult for hobbyists to legally own protected species.
Traffic thinks the new regulations will encourage legal trade and more effective enforcement over illegal traders.
Its legal officer Shenaaz Khan says that despite the existence of legitimate pet owners who are merely interested in owning an exotic pet, such ownership can be abused.
“A pet shop is in no position to ascertain what the acquisition of exotic pet is truly for. These regulations appear to be implicitly designed to curb the illegal trade in wildlife for which many pet shops and zoos serve as fronts.”
P4PHM, however, thinks that pet owners can play a role in conservation, and points out that captive breeding enables the perpetuation of a species, which might be facing threats in the wild.
If someone’s pet snake reproduces, the owner simply has to report its offspring to Perhilitan, which will add it to the original licence (if the animal is a protected species).
Traffic, however, does not believe captive breeding is a viable solution to the problems faced by endangered wildlife.
For one thing, it can be difficult to know if someone is going beyond just being a hobbyist, and using the premise of legal ownership to disguise illegal trade activities.
“In many cases animals are being caught from the wild and then passed off as captive-breds,” says Shenaaz.
“Therefore, in restricting the trade as a whole, there will be fewer places for those engaging in illegal trade activities to hide.”