The Python Laundry

It might sound like a joke: How do you launder a python? But the answer is no laughing matter. At least 80% of the green pythons exported each year from Indonesia are illegally caught in the wild and then “laundered” through farms that claim to breed the reptiles.

“Wildlife breeding farms have been promoted to aid biodiversity conservation by alleviating the pressure of harvest on wild populations,” Jessica A. Lyons and Daniel J.D. Natusch of the University of New South Wales in Australia write in Biological Conservation. Indonesia, for instance, is the only nation where green pythons are found in the wild to allow the export of captive-bred snakes. They pythons (Morelia viridis) are “keenly sought after by reptile keepers” due to their brilliant colors – young snakes are born yellow or red, and then turn green when older. There has been widespread suspicion, however, that many Indonesian traders were mostly trafficking snakes caught in the wild, but there was “no direct evidence of the existence of an illegal trade.”

To see if they could put a wrap on the python case, the researchers surveyed wildlife traders in the Indonesian provinces of Maluku, West Papua and Papua between August 2009 and April 2011. The sorties uncovered a total of 4,227 illegally collected wild green pythons, and found that “high levels of harvest [had]… depleted and skewed the demographics of some island populations.” The researchers also traced snakes from their point of capture to breeding farms in Jakarta where they are to be exported for the pet trade, confirming the reports of wildlife laundering.” The data suggest that “at least 5,337 green pythons are collected each year,” or about 80% of python exports. Often, traders told them, foreign buyers personally identified and selected the wild-caught snakes to be laundered through the farms.

One way to combat laundering, they suggest, is to require breeders “to keep eggshells from the reptiles that are bred and to export them with each individual reptile as evidence of their provenance.” Measurements taken by the researchers show that green python eggs have a distinctive size and shape, and that “with a little knowledge and the aid of reference guide, identifying the eggs of green pythons could be a relatively simple task.” The “eggshell method could be very effective in reducing the laundering and export of wild-caught green pythons through Indonesian breeding farms,” they write.

“Although green pythons are still relatively common in most of the areas in which they occur,” they conclude, the illegal trade is causing “noticeable declines” in some populations. And the authors suggest that using breeding farms to help protect wild populations “needs to be re-evaluated.”David Malakoff | November 4, 2011

Source: Lyons, J.A., Natusch, D.J.D. Wildlife laundering through breeding farms: Illegal harvest, population declines and a means of regulating the trade of green pythons (Morelia viridis) from Indonesia. Biol. Conserv. (2011), doi:10.1016/j.biocon.2011.10.002

Image © Mralexey | Dreamstime.com

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