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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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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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 email@example.com 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.
Wildlife in Latin America
Latin America holds so many stunning and unique landscapes – from mountain peaks to ocean floor – that it holds the widest variety of plants and animals in the world. Here are just a few of the remarkable species that call these places home.