Wildlife Population Status in the World, Illegal Trading, and Conservation Actions
By Biologist Gerardo Garcia
Tarantulas are one of the least studied groups of animals in the world. Even though there are expert researchers in taxonomy, behavior, reproduction, venoms, etc., very few, or none, have focused their attention on the population issue, so there is no data available on population size of any species, current or past, or hard data on the consequence of the various environmental impacts on their populations.
We only have oral recounts available of great events of massive reproduction of some species that were common until 3 or 4 decades ago, but have not been seen recently; for example, Brachypelma smithi in the state of Guerrero, Brachypelma klaasi in Jalisco, and B. vagans in Quintana Roo, where they tell about the presence of hundreds, if not thousands, male tarantulas invading the highways in search of receptive females. It is easy to think that if so many males existed, females must have been just as numerous (if the gender rate is 1 : 1). These massive events do not occur anymore, at least in the Pacific Coast, although it seems that in Quintana Roo and Yucatan it is still possible to observe them in some localities.
This reduction in natural tarantula populations is repeated in many parts of the world, and we have noticed this thanks to the growing interest in tarantulas as pets. The various associations of people interested in tarantulas of the world have taken note of the reduction of tarantulas in their natural habitats, all of them agreeing that the main causes for this are the loss and fragmentation of habitat, the use of pesticides, agro-chemicals, pollution, the extraction (legal and illegal) for the pet market, selling souvenirs to tourist, and the unfounded fear people have of these animals.
The combination of these factors, added to the less than successful breeding strategies under environmental stress conditions - yearly reproduction, numerous offspring highly susceptible to predators, a long time to reach sexual maturity, and the fact that males are only sexually active during a short period of time - is resulting in the reduction of tarantula populations in the world.
According to some tarantula aficionados, the places where tarantulas face the greatest threats are those where the most popular species, and most valuable in the pet markets, come from, but also happen to be regions in poor or third-world countries. Among these critical locations are:
- Mountain forests in Usambara, Tanzania
- Central Chile
- Western Ecuador
- Western highlands of the Amazon
- Atlantic coast of Brazil
- Ivory Coast Southwest
- Western India
- Sri Lanka
- Peninsular Malaysia
- New Caledonia
- Australia Southwest
Highly-commercialized tarantulas are native to all these areas, including those that are very popular, such as Grammostola rosea and G. Porteri of Chile and Usambara, Tanzania, as well as the increasingly rare Selenoscosmia from Australia, and the genus Poecilotheria from India and Sri Lanka.
We will discuss each of the previously mentioned impacts on some tarantula species.
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Habitat Loss and degradation.
This is very likely the greatest threat facing tarantulas, as well as the majority of plants and animals on this planet. Demographic growth of human population is taking up more and more space to build homes, more places to obtain materials and food, more infrastructures to obtain energy, and more roads. Large surfaces of jungle habitat and other types of vegetation are being lost to obtain superfluous items that have high market value, such as diamonds and gold. For their exploitation, in Bolivia, Tanzania, Brazil, and many other countries, a huge surface of natural habitat is destroyed, and dangerous pollutants are being dumped in the area.
In India, a country of more than 1080 million people, 297 million hectares of surface, and population density of 363.3 Hab/km2, they are running out of space at a quickly growing pace, and more so now that the Hindu Government has set a goal to speed up their economy. According to the Red Book of the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature), the loss and fragmentation of habitat has made the populations of 9 species of tarantulas of the genus Poecilotheria to rapidly decrease. Two of these species are in grave danger of disappearing, three in danger, and one vulnerable. These are the first tarantulas to be included in this list.
Among the most endangered are the Poecilotheria metallica and P. hanumavilasumica, considered as critically endangered, since their habitat has been almost totally destroyed. The place where is originally from is Andhra Pradesh, a forest reserve located between Nandyal and Giddalur, and according to the IUCN (2009), this area is under great pressure from the neighboring communities, as well as insurgents that use the surrounding jungle for their operations and sustenance. It is thought that the habitat surface has decreased throughout the years, but there is most definitely a decline in the habitat’s quality for the tarantulas that search for crevices in the oldest and most developed trees. This species is categorized as critical because its habitat is restricted to less than 100 k2 in a single location, and continues to decline in quality. To this, we should add the extraction of specimens intended for the pet market, an action that together with the loss of habitat can result in the extinction of this species in its natural habit in the near future.
The P. hanumavilasumica is also critically endangered since now it is restricted to just a few tamarind, casuarina, and diciduos forest tress, as well as plantations of palm trees from the island of Rameshwaram, and the continental part close to this island. The species seems to have 8 sub-populations and less than 15 severely fragmented localities that don’t even add up to 10 km2. There is hope, although, that they exist at least within a surface of 100 km2. However, population size approximations do not calculate more than 500 specimens.
Natural vegetation is almost completely lost. Specimens in one locality were exterminated in 2006 when an entire plantation of tamarinds was leveled to give way to a government building, and another two to build tourist infrastructure.
When running a simulation model, researchers Molur and Daniel discovered that due to the disparity in numbers for each gender, and the difference in sexual maturity between males and females, populations of less than 500 individuals are very likely to disappear within the next 3 or 4 decades. Therefore, it is very unlikely that this species will survive in the near future. Even though this species is not widely distributed in the pet market, a few young adults of both genders have been extracted from the country.
In 2004, Andrew Smith and Paul Carpenter, from the British Tarantula Society (BTS), during a trip to India, found a place with a high density of Poecilotheria hanumavilasumica, with 600 to 800 individuals per acre (this equals 600 to 800 individuals in close to 4,000 km2). With this density, and being a rare species with very limited distribution, both researchers presented a proposal for the creation of the first sanctuary of this creature known as Tiger tarantula Hanumavilasum.
However, even though the BTS obtained the approval of several British associations to provide funds for the project, no Indian organization accepted the money claiming that “they did not want to be associated with blood money that is in the heart of every hobby or organization related to the massive collection, sale, and upkeep of tarantulas“(Smith, 2004).
Luckily, an Indian association took the project under its wings, and together with the people from the tamarind plantation and the temple of Hanumavila are overseeing this region where this small population of P. Hanumavilisca is located. Even though the interest is weaning, young people are migrating from this location to the large cities in search of jobs, so it is likely that the project will die with the last person in this area.
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Passion for tarantulas has spread throughout the world, and now there are a great number of people who collect tarantulas as pets. Their interensting behavior, ways of life, colors, and habits make these creatures fascinating pets, added to the fact that these animals require very low maintenance and space, which translates into low expenses for the owners. This allows a person to have a great number of specimens.
In some countries, there are even associations of people passionate about this activity, such as England, United States, Germany, Malaysia, France, Spain, Italy, and many more. This growing number of tarantula aficionados has favored the intense extraction of specimens from their natural environment, legal or illegally.
In Europe, during the tarantula fairs held every year, you can find exhibitors showing adult specimens of species that are very hard to obtain, such as P. metallica and P. hanumavilasumica. According to them, these specimens have been bred in captivity, but this is very unlikely. And even if this is true, the parents of these specimens must have been illegally removed from their natural habitat.
In a recent case, several wild specimens of Poecilotheria entered Germany illegally from India, even though the government prohibits this. However, since they are not listed in CITES, the German authorities were not able to intervene, because this illegal action took place in India and not in Germany.
Every year, Chilean tarantulas are exported legally by the thousands. These adults, youths, and spiderlings are exported to pet markets around the world. The exporting cost for an adult is $1.50 dollars for a Grammostola porteri or $2.00 dollars for a Grammostola rosea. In Mexico, a specimen of an adult Grammostola rosea has an average cost of $200 pesos in established pet stores, which is a cheap price for an adult tarantula, and at the same time yields big profits for the retailers.
According to information obtained, there are 3 or 4 regular tarantula exporters in Chile that offer them in the international pat markets. Only one of them operates in a larger scale (more than 1000 specimens at a time). Many of the marketed species are not even formally described for science, so suppliers just label them as “sp“, by the locality they were obtained from, or the dominant color. Among the Chilean species exploited for pet markets are, the Grammostola rosea, G. porteri, Grammostola sp (Northern Chile), Grammostola sp (Southern Chile), Thrixopelma pruriens, Paraphysa scrofa, P. parvula, 5 Paraphysa sp, Eeuthalus truculentus, E. vulpinus, E. pulcherrimaklaasi (green and blue forms), 3 Euthalus sp, Acanthognathus francki,A. pissi, A. recinto, A. vilches, and Acanthognathus sp.
Amazingly, and according to the information obtained, some of these species (G. Porteri, mainly), do not present a dwindling population, remaining stable, and even increasing in numbers. Apparently, humans have been a determining factor for the population elevation, eliminating or pushing farther away their natural predators (reptiles, birds, mammals), so a greater number of spiderings make their nests close to where their mother is. This indicates a high rate of adaptation to an impacted environment, taking advantage of the situation.
As an example, according to some arachnology aficionados, in a typical central Chilean schlerophyllous forest, there is an average of one Grammostola nest for every 50 meters. In areas with a great human impact (frequent hunters, mountain bikers, motorcycles, etc.), colonies have been found where populations have up to 3 to 4 nests by square meter.
This is a personal observation made by an individual immersed in the field of spiders, even though he accepts there are no studies available that allow a comparison of populations before and after the intensive exploitation of G. porteri. We should ask ourselves if the same situation of abundance and adaptation to an impacted environment applies to the rest of the exported species, such as Euthalus pulcherrimaklaasi, considered as a rare species.
According to a report published by the USAID, in April, 2008, the Government in Guyana has established exporting quotas for wild flora and fauna. In the case of tarantulas, in 2007, the quota for Avicularia avicularia was 20,000 specimens, and 18,509 were exported; for Theraphosa blondie, the allowed quota was 2,500 specimens, with 1,584 exported; and for Ephebopus murinus, the established quota was 2,500 specimens, and 555 were exported. However, the method used to establish the quotas was merely improvised, since there are no studies available that permit establishing a precise rate of sustainable exploitation. According to this report, other animal species that have extraction quotas have been almost completely exterminated, such as the Arapaima and the river turtles. Is the same thing happening to tarantulas? We just don’t know.
In Australia, many species of Theraphosides are popular pets. Unfortunately, while many species that are more common, such as the Mexican fire-knees (Brachypelma smithi) are bred in captivity, a substantial part of the market – in many occasions illegal – is made up by species illegally captured from their natural environments, especially rare and unusual species, such as the Selenocosmia genus.
Many Theraphosides show limited distribution ranges, and are severely threatened by the pet market. Due to this, according to local arachnologists, some Australian species are now extinct from their natural environments. This is especially tragic, since some of these species have not yet been taxonomically described. Identifying these species before they become extinct has now become a race against time.
As everybody knows, if you have money here, you can obtain practically any animal you may want. You just go to the Sonora market in Mexico City, go to the animals area, ask the salespeople, and you can to buy anything from a tarantula to a lynx, puma, or jaguar. Tarantulas go for about $200 pesos each, which is a significantly lower price than you can get for a specimen bred in captivity. Besides the markets, some specimens are sold on the Internet at on-line auctioning sites, where you can eventually find people who offer Brachypelmas at $200 or $300 pesos. Obviously, these specimens are illegal, since none of the UMAs registered in Mexico sells adult tarantulas, and the prices are too low to have been raised in captivity, and even more so, if they was imported. Luckily, the number of people purchasing illegal tarantulas, instead of legal ones, is going down.
Germany is a special case, not for having a great number of tarantula species, but for having a great number of illegal traders. For some reason, it is German citizens who most frequently get caught by the police in possession of illegally captures tarantulas. There are some of the cases:
- In 2003, a shipment seized in Germany had 500 specimens.
- In 2004, in Frankfurt, a French citizen was arrested in possession of 1,099 Brachypelmas from Mexico.
- On October 2nd, 2008, at the Quito Airport, a German citizen who was trying to take 741 tarantulas to his native country was captured, claiming he was unaware these were protected animals.
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Another market for tarantulas is that of souvenirs. In French Guyana, hundreds or Goliath tarantulas (theraphosa blondie) are captured and killed to be sold in frames or covered in resin. These animals are offered to tourist in established shops, so it doesn’t seem like their trade is illegal, but it is. Tourists are later unpleasantly surprised when their “souvenirs“ are seized by the police at the airport, and they have to go through a penal or administrative process. In 1998, Rick West convinced National Geographic to make an article on this tarantula, and the following images are taken from this article.
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In some places around the world, tarantulas are still part of the local diet, but nowhere are they as popular as in Cambodia, where locals snack on tarantulas. This custom began during the dictatorship of Pol Poot, in the 70’s, when food restrictions on the population were extreme. Therefore, people took desperate measures, such as hunting and eating tarantulas, which is now an established tradition. They are offered by women and children by the side of the road to a great number of customers who can buy a tarantula fried in garlic and salt for 300 riels (about 8 cents of a dollar). A single person can sell 100 to 200 tarantulas on a good day.
What is the effect of this high extraction rate of tarantulas as food? This is not known. But by observing the great number of specimens that a single person carries in his basket - and this goes on every day - it would seem that this resource won’t last a long time.
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Conservation actions .
Given that fragmentation and destruction of natural habitats have the greatest impact on the population of tarantulas, the best and most important conservation action that should be taken is the conservation and/or restoration of these habitats.
Several studies have reached the conclusion that the rain forests are more valuable in their natural state (being able to make continuous use to their resources), than when they are deforested and used only once. For example, a hectare of Amazon rain forest has a value of $6,820 USD if it is sustainably used (collecting fruits, latex, and timber), and only of $1,000 USD if it is leveled to obtain timber; and just a mere $148 USD if it is used for cattle.
This way, Brazil has established a wide network of protected areas that spans 2 million square kilometers, and has established new monitoring methods, that, from 2002 to 2006, helped reduce the deforestation rate in more than 60%.
This has been possible through the efforts of people and institutions, but also by the death of some activists, such as Wilson Pinheiro and Chico Mendez, who were murdered by local ranchers.
In India, for example, intensive reforestation programs are underway for altered areas. However, it seems to be too late for many animal species with shorter life-cycles than the recovery rate of a forest or a jungle. This is the case of the genus Poecilotheria that needs adult trees to make its refuge, and will hardly benefit from reforestation. To this, we should add the fact that these animals are not appreciated by the local people, so they are eliminated as soon as they are spotted. It is curious to see that in India no one has come up with the idea of breeding native species in captivity or semi-captivity, or to make a controlled extraction of these animals with established quotas based on population and load capacity studies.
Other governments, such as Guyana’s, are protecting their rain forests, with the knowledge that they are a valuable resource that can yield economic benefits. The regulation of flora and fauna exploitation by establishing exporting quotas can be a good tool. However, this does not stop illegal trafficking of animals from happening, since taxes and customs procedures make the product much more expensive, therefore making the illegal trading much more lucrative. Also, for tarantulas, there are no studies available that determine the maximum number of specimens that can be extracted without jeopardizing their populations.
In Mexico, the UMAs “Tarantulas of Mexico“, in Guadalajara, and “Aracnofilia“, in Cancun, have set up an intensive breeding program for genus Brachypelma that includes all the species native in this country. Among their goals, they include the reintroduction of species in key areas; in fact, they have been able to obtain a permit to collect Brachypelma baumgarteni parental material, with the promise of releasing 30% of the offspring, hoping this helps the conservation of species with limited distribution, such as B. baumgarteni.
Also, Rodrigo Orozco, from “Tarantulas of Mexico”, hopes his tarantulas will be sold in markets that traditionally sell illegal creatures, such as the Sonora market in Mexico City. Of course, prices must be competitive with those currently in place in this market. This would discourage illegal traders. This, however, is a double-edge sword, because it is possible that legal tarantulas are mixed with illegal ones, obtaining greater profits with this. Orozco is currently searching for locks that will stop, or at least reduce the likelihood of this happening.
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According to the University of Michigan, actions that should be taken for the protection and conservation of tarantulas are:
- Identification and taxonomy codes
- Habitat inventory and protection
- Adequate lists of endangered species
- Population studies
- Breeding in captivity
To fight illegal trading and overexploitation of tarantulas as a food resource or souvenir material, the best action to take is to intensively breed then in captivity. When breeding theses animals in captivity in sufficient quantities, international prices will be driven down as an answer to the wide availability, and this will eventually make illegal recollection a business with little profit.
Many countries, upon seeing their natural resources depleted, began establishing norms, regulations, and laws to protect them. However, this market was so wide-spread, that local regulations for individual countries were not sufficient, and therefore, in 1975, the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) was born, initially made up by 80 countries. Nowadays, 175 countries are members.
Nevertheless, illegal trading of wild flora and fauna is still an ongoing activity for live animals, products, or sub-products. Prices have even gone up considerably due to the risk it represents for poachers, carriers, and sales people to obtain an animal protected by CITES, especially those included in Appendix I.
Some animal groups are not included in CITES, or in the Environmental Legislation of many countries. This is the case for tarantulas, because it is believed that they can be harmful and, therefore, not desirable, or because they are not ecologically important, or merely because they are not charismatic creatures, such as dolphins, panda bears, and others.
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