Spiny lizard, © Spacebirdy

A Spiny Problem

The pet trade is driving spiny-tailed iguanas to the brink of extinction

What comes to mind when you think “iguana?” Most likely, it’s the green iguana. Large, docile and long-lived, green iguanas have been popular pets in the U.S. for decades. But green iguanas aren’t the only species of these reptiles being exploited. Their cousins, spiny-tailed iguanas, are rapidly becoming popular species in the pet trade, causing no end of trouble for these rare animals in the wild.

There are about 18 species of spiny-tailed iguanas, and their size and color can vary wildly from one to another – some are just a few inches long, and some can grow to be more than five feet! They can be green, black, gray, tan, yellow or even multicolored, but as their name suggests all of them have a row of sharp spines along their backs and tails. The wide variety makes these iguanas exceptionally difficult to identify; even experts can sometimes struggle to determine which lizard belongs to which species. Right now, wildlife traffickers are taking advantage of that confusion to smuggle iguanas from most of the 18 species into the illegal pet trade.

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Iguana negra del golfo, © Irving Huertas

Disappearing from the Wild

Native to Mexico and Central America, spiny-tailed iguanas are found in only small, distinct ranges in their native countries. The Utila spiny-tailed iguana, for instance, is found on a single island – and nowhere else in the entire world. These distinct ranges are part of why each species looks so different from the next. But small ranges can also mean small populations – which makes a species very vulnerable to outside threats. Now, the combined pressures of habitat loss and poaching for the pet trade are driving these species to the brink.

Unlike green iguanas, spiny-tailed iguanas are not docile – in fact, they are notoriously aggressive, making them too much trouble to breed in captivity. Since there is no captive-bred population to speak of (for most species), most if not all of the spiny-tailed iguanas coming out of their native countries are taken from the wild. Even the few captive-bred specimens outside of their range states are generally the offspring of illegally-captured wild iguanas, since most of them are illegal to export. All of which boils down to this: If you see one for sale in the U.S. or any country where the species isn’t native, odds are that it or its parents were illegally taken from the wild.

Driven by Demand

Why does the pet trade want an aggressive species? Well, the reptile pet market is dominated by trends, and is always looking for rare species. The rarer the animal, the more the seller can charge. Some of these species reach as much as $2,000 per specimen in the U.S. and European markets. They are then selectively bred for docility and color mutations, and the resulting animals can cost as much as $4,000.

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Guatemalan spiny-tailed iguana, © Vassil

Now, the demands of the pet trade have taken their toll. The IUCN classifies 11 of the 18 known species of spiny-tailed iguanas as near threatened to critically endangered, many of them with populations of fewer than 2,500 individuals. If the illegal capturing of these animals for the pet trade isn’t stopped, many of these species could be lost forever.

In 2010, Defenders helped get four endangered species of spiny-tailed iguanas from Honduras and Guatemala listed in Appendix II of CITES to help stop illegal shipments of these species. It was a good first step – but unfortunately, it hasn’t been enough. There are so many different-looking spiny-tailed iguana species, some of which strongly resemble other species that are legal to trade, that even experts can have a hard time telling them apart. Hatchlings are especially difficult to identify, since hatchlings of nearly all iguana species look very similar until they grow older, and many changes colors more than once as they age. Five-keeled spiny-tailed iguanas, for instance, are a banded grayish-brown when first born, bright green as adolescents, and then a much darker olive color as adults. That’s three separate colors for just one of the 18 species! With all this confusion, it is all too easy for smugglers to mislead customs authorities into thinking their shipment is of one of the spiny-tailed species that is legal to trade. Since most iguana species still aren’t listed under CITES, those authorities aren’t obligated to check a shipment that lists iguanas in general – they can accept any documentation at face value.

So what’s the solution?

Our team is working with several partner organizations and iguana experts on a new proposal to list all species of spiny-tailed iguanas under CITES Appendix II. By doing this, we can cut down on some of the confusion around the trade of these species. Smugglers would not be able to pass off an illegal spiny iguana species as a legal one – all would need strict documentation to regulate the trade, and illegal shipments would stand a much better chance of being stopped. Our team is working to get the proposal presented at the next CITES meeting in South Africa later this year, and fortunately three Central American countries have already voiced their support for it.

And how can you help ensure these species’ survival? Well the first and biggest thing is to never buy one. Many spiny-tailed iguanas for sale have been taken illegally from the wild, and have no business being sold in the U.S. If you see one for sale in a store or online and the seller can’t provide legal documentation for it, report it to the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Office of Law Enforcement at fws_tips@fws.gov or 1- 844-FWS-TIPS.

Together we can curb illegal international trade of these vulnerable animals, and make sure they continue to survive in their native habitats.

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10 Responses to “A Spiny Problem”

  1. Mohammad Rashid

    As I being a biodiversity management studies student i worked to document reptelian Diversity at Aligarh Muslim University Campus, India and got training in law enforcement in wildlife at Dudhwa National Park I would like to suggest that we have spread awareness for these innocent creatures as it is often observed everywhere that these animals are considered as monsters and are hated by the humans we need to work for these animals.
    If I gets an opportunity to work for these animals I am always available, it would be my pleasure.

    • Mohammad Rashid

      So many misbeliefs are in the society related to this species we need to overcome this problem.

  2. Diane Stevenson

    Protect these beautiful creatures PLEASE , they are so vulnerable , at the mercy of greedy , cruel humans who just want to make money from these poor animals .

  3. Muriel Servaege

    All iguanas need to be protected, not killed until they disappear. If things go on like that, the earth will soon be a gigantic desert, inhabited by humans only.

  4. Chuck

    I posted the below on a Facebook post on this article:

    Obviously the smuggling of endangered wildlife for the pet trade is not desirable to say the least and should not be tolerated. However, to place the plight of Ctenosaura species solely or even mainly on this illegal activity ignores the much more detrimental issue of habitat destruction for human development and the fact that indigenous people use iguanas as a source of protein. Thanks to private citizens like Ty Park, many endangered Ctenosaura species are being bred specifically for the pet trade in an effort to reduce at least some pressure on wild populations. Finally, the article’s notion that all spinys are vicious and not suitable as pets is wrong, just ask my boy Bossk, who is perched on my head in my profile pic!

  5. April Silverman

    From the tiniest creatures to the largest, humans persist in capturing, torturing, and killing wild animals instead of photographing them and leaving them unscathed in the wild. If it’s beautiful or fascinating, take a picture, let it be. You will be a stronger, bolder human for doing so.

  6. Chris Lock

    These reptiles must be protected, and more needs to be done to do this.

  7. Hermine Willey

    Protect our animals and they are NOT to taken or sold as pets. Arrest and fine those who take animals away from their habitat.

  8. CAROLINE

    I HAVE RESCUED SO MANY REPTILES AND OTHER SPECIES FROM ABUSE, NEGLECT AND DESERTED ANIMALS IT BRAKES MY HEART. HOW CAN HUMANS BE SO SELFISH AND CRUEL OVER MAKING MONEY. CAN WE REALLY STOP THE WILDLIFE TRADE!!!!! THANK YOU FOR TRYING TO REACH OUT TO PEOPLE AND EDUCATE SO PEOPLE REALIZE HOW HORRIBLE THIS TRADE IS. PLEASE KEEP TRYING TO INSPIRE PEOLLE TO HELP. I WOULD LIKE TO LEARN MORE WAYS TO HELP. PEOPLE…GET INVOLVED!!!!! DONT JUST READ ABOUT IT AND FEEL HORRIBLE…TAKE INITIATIVE AND LEARN HOW YOU CAN HELP. BELEIVE ME EVERY LITTLE BIT HELPS. IT ADDS UP AND WE CAN HELP MAKE THIS WORK. IT MUST STOP. I CRY EVERYDAR ABOUT THIS. WHEN I GO INTO PETSHOPS AND SEE AN IGUANA IN A LITTLE CRAMPED UP DIRTY CAGE IT RIPS ME APART. HOW CAN WE FIND OUT IF THEY ARE REGISTERED? PLEASE EXPLAIN MORE.

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