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Smuggled Iguanas Tell Larger Tale of Animal Trafficking

The two Northern Bahamian Rock Iguanas (Cyclura cychlura) that arrived recently to Shedd Aquarium are familiar faces to me. I’ve dedicated more than 20 years of my life studying the three types (i.e. subspecies) of this species in The Bahamas. During this time, I have been fortunate to work with dedicated individuals and organizations, such...

A Northern Bahamian Rock Iguana has a new home at Shedd Aquarium.

The two Northern Bahamian Rock Iguanas (Cyclura cychlura) that arrived recently to Shedd Aquarium are familiar faces to me.

I’ve dedicated more than 20 years of my life studying the three types (i.e. subspecies) of this species in The Bahamas. During this time, I have been fortunate to work with dedicated individuals and organizations, such as the Bahamas National Trust, to help protect this threatened animal. The result of this research led, in part, to the expansion of a national park on Andros Island that now protects critical habitat and important iguana populations. Our collective work and outreach initiatives have also raised awareness about the unique Bahamian rock iguanas and inspired a greater appreciation for Bahamian natural heritage.

But the iguanas that recently arrived at Shedd tell another story of how research can unexpectedly benefit wildlife conservation. These Exuma Rock Iguanas came our way because of illegal wildlife trafficking. In 1998, our two iguanas were among a group of iguanas confiscated from smugglers, who intended to profit from selling the animals on the black market. Genetic data, garnered from blood samples collected over the course of Shedd’s long-term iguana research on the remote islands in the Exumas, were used to identify the exact location where the animals were taken. Other evidence tying the smugglers to that location was then used to help convict the defendants.

Showcasing these incredible iguanas to our guests not only allows us to share their unique conservation story, but also  provides a platform to have a broader conversation about wildlife trafficking. To be sure, the motive to smuggle iguanas (or any wildlife) is hardly unique. Last year, 13 Central Bahamian Rock Iguanas (another species of rock iguanas from The Bahamas) were confiscated in London’s Heathrow airport after being found stuffed in socks in checked luggage. In June, law enforcement officials in the UK announced, as a part of an increased crackdown on animal trafficking over a six-week period, a record breaking seizure of more than 300 animals including sea horses, snakes, tortoises, and rare lizards.

The difficult reality is that there remains a demand for rare animals, and as long as that demand exists, so too are the people willing to smuggle them out of their natural habitats. A brief internet search for threatened or endangered animals, particularly reptiles including iguanas, will usually result in advertisements for sales. The issue becomes complex because once the animals are illegally smuggled into a different country, they are effectively “laundered” into the wildlife trade under false claims of captive breeding. For example, it’s doubtful for The Bahamas, and certainly so for the Galápagos, that no iguanas have been exported legally, yet you can find these animals for sale on the internet.

Celebrating a successful Exuma island rock iguana in the Bahamas.
Celebrating a successful Northern Bahamian Rock Iguana find in the Bahamas.

Returning animals like iguanas to their original habitat is a complicated process because there is a risk of introducing foreign pathogens to the original, wild populations. Luckily, the iguanas that were confiscated at London’s Heathrow Airport last year were able to be repatriated home. Sadly, that wasn’t an option for our Exuma Rock Iguanas when they were recovered in the late 1990s because of the extended time that the iguanas were captive, as well as the unknown level of exposure to other reptiles and their potential diseases.

Unfortunately, the illegal wildlife trade hardly stops with those who smuggle live animals. As we have seen with the outcry over the killing of Cecil the lion in Zimbabwe, there is also a demand by those who seek pelts and other parts of endangered animals. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, wildlife trafficking has escalated into an international crisis and is both a critical conservation concern and a threat to global security. Driven by the $65,000 price tag per kilogram (2.2 lbs.) for rhino horn, CITES reports that poaching in South Africa has increased from 13 per year to 1,215 individuals last year. That’s one rhino killed every eight hours! Even more staggering, 96 elephants die at the hands of poachers each day in Africa. While it’s difficult to truly quantify the black market, a 2012 report by the World Wildlife Fund estimated that the illegal wildlife trade is worth $19 billion a year.

I am sometimes asked why we should care about the illegal trafficking, and ultimate survival, of

endangered species. For example, what would happen if the Exuma Rock Iguana disappeared? Well, we know from recent studies that rock iguanas, as the dominant native herbivores on islands on which they occur, play a vital ecological role in the tropical dry forests and scrub habitats where they live. Iguanas promote leaf growth through cropping, provide nutrients to developing seedlings, and disperse seeds to new areas. Consequently, the disappearance of rock iguanas from their tropical dry forests ecosystems could significantly alter their composition and have cascading impacts on other species.

Beyond iguanas, any species on Earth has a potentially crucial role in the functioning of ecosystems. The ecologist Paul Ehrlich offered an analogy involving the idea of “rivet-popping” on aircraft – a plane may be able to withstand the loss of a few rivets, but if you lose too many then suddenly you have a plane that is doomed to crash. Because it is hard to predict exactly how many rivets (or species) can be lost without a catastrophe occurring, some argue that one should take a precautionary approach and ensure that none (or as few as possible) are lost.

Thankfully, efforts have been recently ramped up to combat the illegal wildlife trade. At the end of July, the UN General Assembly unanimously adopted a resolution aimed at scaling up efforts to end poaching and illegal trade. Also in July, the Obama administration announced that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would be tightening policies and broadening restrictions on the sale of ivory from elephants.

Many zoos and aquariums belonging to the Association of Zoos and Aquariums  (AZA) cooperate with state and local government to combat smuggling. At Shedd, we often serve as identification experts for species of corals that are smuggled through O’Hare International Airport. We have also created guides and held identification training sessions for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Like other AZA zoos and aquariums, we care for live confiscated specimens.  In fact, the new rock iguanas at Shedd are not new at all. They were cared for, after they were confiscated, by the Los Angeles and San Diego Zoos.

Dr. Chuck Knapp has researched Bahamian iguanas for 20 years.
Dr. Chuck Knapp has researched Bahamian iguanas for 20 years.

While these steps are encouraging and our work has made an impact, it’s imperative that the public realize the damage being done to critically endangered species as a result of illegal trade. At Shedd, we hope the stories of our iguanas resonate, and that visitors can help share our message of how important it is to conserve any threatened species in the wild.

Here’s what you can do to help. If travelling internationally, avoid purchasing wild animal products, including meat, skins, and traditional medicines. Even shells should be avoided as some living animals are exploited for them, such as giant clams. When traveling domestically, be aware of national and state laws regarding the transport of wild animals. Some laws differ among states. Make conscientious decisions when choosing a pet. Always make sure pets are genuinely captive-bred and choose pets that present minimal health and environmental risks, and can be adequately cared for over their lifetime. Remember some reptiles can live for several decades. Just because a seller lists an animal as captive-bred, does not mean that the original founders were exported legally from their country of origin. Consider conducting research on the legality and ethics associated with purchasing a rare species. Always cross-reference sources as even the best sites have errors. One place to start is EcoHealthyPets. Your small collective actions can make a big difference for protecting endangered species.

Dr. Chuck Knapp is the Vice President of Conservation and Research at the Daniel P. Haerther Center for Conservation and Research at Shedd Aquarium. 

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Meet the Author

Shedd Aquarium
The John G. Shedd Aquarium in Chicago sparks compassion, curiosity and conservation for the aquatic animal world. Home to 32,000 aquatic animals representing 1,500 species of fishes, reptiles, amphibians, invertebrates, birds and mammals from waters around the globe, Shedd is a recognized leader in animal care, conservation education and research. An accredited member of the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA) and the first U.S. aquarium to be awarded the Humane Conservation™ certification mark for the care and welfare of its animals by American Humane, the organization is an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institute, and is supported by the people of Chicago, the State of Illinois and the Chicago Park District.