Stolen from the wild, rare reptiles and amphibians are freely traded in EU
Elizabeth Claire Alberts
14th September 2020

With its pastel-colored skin and mouth that seems fixed into a smile, the web-footed gecko (Pachydactylus rangei) is a charming-looking creature. The species, which is endemic to the Namib Desert, is nationally protected in South Africa, where it’s considered to be a critically endangered species. Yet these geckos are regularly collected for the international exotic pet trade, and have even appeared for sale on European Facebook pages.

The trade of the web-footed gecko is just one case discussed in a new report published by Pro Wildlife, an animal welfare and species protection group based in Germany. The report documents more than 120 reptile and amphibian species that are protected in their countries of origin, but are able to be legally traded within Europe due to the European Union’s lack of internal trade barriers and controls. The report states that approximately three-quarters of reptile species and more than 80% of amphibian species caught up in the European exotic pet trade are also not listed under CITES, the multilateral treaty that either prohibits or strictly regulates international trade of threatened species.

“It’s not illegal to possess these animals and to sell these animals within Europe,” Sandra Altherr, co-author of the report and co-founder of Pro Wildlife, told Mongabay. “We try to keep pressure on the EU to get this forward, and the time is very good because the EU is just discussing its EU wildlife action plan and also its biodiversity strategy, and so they have the tools to combat this wildlife crime, but we feel they need a push.”

This report is the third in Pro Wildlife’s “Stolen Wildlife” series. The first two reports, published in 2014 and 2016, cover similar ground, but the new edition shows that this trade is still happening, and even becoming more extensive.

“When we started this issue, we didn’t have the idea to produce a series, but the problem is that the European Union is politically not very flexible, and so far this problem has not been targeted,” Altherr said. “The new report is about the developments in the most recent years, and we try to show that not much has changed, and that even more countries are targeted by this kind of wildlife crime.”

To keep abreast of the trade, Altherr and her colleagues regularly monitor online sale platforms, including closed Facebook groups and, the website for an annual event billed as the largest reptile trade fair in the world. Traders seem particularly interested in species with vivid color patterns and other striking biological features, as well as newly identified species, valued for their rarity. In many cases, traders seem to track down new species based on geographic information published in scientific papers.

“It’s just like a GPS map for them to look where they find new, precious animals,” Altherr said.

One example of traders exploiting science is the colorful Sylvia’s tree frog (Cruziohyla sylviae), a new species described in a scientific paper in 2018 from a specimen found in Costa Rica. The following year, the species was being sold at the Terraristika trade show in Hamm, Germany, likely as a result of the geographic location being published in the paper.

While a lack of official trade records makes it difficult to ascertain how many nationally protected rare species are caught up in the European exotic pet trade each year, Altherr says that taking even a small quantity from the wild can negatively impact threatened species.

“[O]ne argument of the EU Commission [is] that it’s not millions of animals affected,” Altherr said. “That’s true because we are talking about rare species. And so of course, it’s just maybe a few hundred or a few thousand … but when we are talking about critically endangered animals, every single animal, taken from the wild is a problem.”

Juan Carlos Cantu, program director for Defenders of Wildlife Mexico, says there is a huge demand in Europe for rare, endemic species originating from Latin American countries such as Mexico.

“We have some endemic species that are so rare … even scientists have only seen a few of them in the wild,” Cantus told Mongabay. “And yet, you see them being sold in Europe. So that’s very alarming.”

Cantu says that a lot of smuggling goes undetected, so the problem is usually much bigger than numbers may indicate. There are also high mortality rates among trafficked animals, according to one study.

“If you see a few that are being sold in Europe, that means that about 100 more have been taken out [of the wild],” Cantu said. “And for an endemic species with a small population, that’s a lot.”

Listing a species under CITES Appendix I (which prohibits all trade except in exceptional circumstances) or Appendix II (which places strict regulations on any trade) can help stop illegal smuggling of threatened species, but these procedures aren’t straightforward, Altherr said. CITES meetings only take place once every three years, and a lack of data or even commercial interests may hamper the process of listing new species under CITES, according to the report.

Alternatively, range states can apply to get species listed under CITES Appendix III at virtually any time, Altherr said. Appendix III does place some restrictions on the trade of listed species, but anyone found violating those restrictions tend not to face harsh penalties, according to Altherr. And once an Appendix III-listed species is within the EU, it can still be legally traded.

“As long as the EU does not punish the import of those nationally protected species, then this game is just going on,” Altherr said.

CITES listings also tend to be reactive, the report states, and a species may be severely impacted by trade before regulations are put in place to stop it.

Anolis baracoae, a rare species from Cuba that has been traded in Europe. Image by Jaroslav Kuba / Creative Commons.

What is really needed, according to Altherr, is something equivalent to the Lacey Act in the U.S., which prohibits the import, transport, sale, or purchase of wildlife taken, possessed, transported, or sold, not only in violation of U.S. law, but of foreign law. In other words, the Lacey Act makes it illegal in the U.S. to trade species that are protected in other countries. Still, some traders find a way to bypass this conservation law by acquiring animals during their breeding season, and offering their “captive-bred” offspring for sale.

While no law can fully protect species from being trafficked, Altherr says new legislation could provide the means for law enforcers to confiscate smuggled animals and prosecute traffickers.

“What is illegal in the country of origin can’t be legal here [in Europe],” Altherr said. “We see a special responsibility of the EU, as the main destination for these animals, to stop this.”


Altherr, S., & Lameter, K. (2020). Stolen Wildlife III — The EU is a main hub and destination for illegally caught exotic pets (III). Retrieved from Pro Wildlife website:

Ashley, S., Brown, S., Ledford, J., Martin, J., Nash, A., Terry, A., … Warwick, C. (2014). Morbidity and mortality of invertebrates, amphibians, reptiles, and mammals at a major exotic companion animal wholesaler. Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, 17(4), 308-321. doi:10.1080/10888705.2014.918511

Banner image caption: Anderson’s crocodile newt (Echinotriton andersoni), an endangered species found on six Japanese islands. Image by Neil Dalphin / Creative Commons.

Elizabeth Claire Alberts is a staff writer for Mongabay. Follow her on Twitter @ECAlberts.

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