Reptile farming and ranching

Certain crocodilians (e.g., the American alligator and saltwater crocodile) and turtles (e.g., the common snapping turtle, Chelydra serpentina; red-eared slider, Trachemys scripta; and Chinese softshell turtle, Pelodiscus sinensis) are farm-raised in immense numbers for food and ancillary products. Using crocodilian and turtle farming as a foundation, attempts have been made to breed other reptiles on a large scale in other parts of the world. Specialty breeders supply the needs of the pet trade for some (mostly expensive) animals, and there are carefully monitored endangered species breeding projects undertaken to assure the continuance of a species and possibly providing stock for reintroduction into depleted areas.

Iguana ranches have been established in Honduras, El Salvador, and Belize to provide a renewable natural food supply as well as skins, but the demand for the pet industry has made them more valuable as live exports. It is hoped that eventually the pet requirements will decrease and the original intent of these farms will be realized.

Establishing similar ranches and farms in developing countries throughout the world has been slow. However, by providing jobs and demonstrating the quantity of animals that can be produced with minimal time and work, local people quickly realize the advantages that captive breeding and animal farming have over taking animals from the wild. The amount of space needed is minimal, and because many of the locations are Neotropical or tropical, climates and temperatures provide optimal conditions for inexpensive high yield harvests of many desirable species. Combined, these factors make reptile farming an ideal cottage industry. With such farms, ecologically minded organizations and governmental factions could readily and inexpensively subsidize the reproduction of rare and endangered animals for possible reestablishment in places where collecting has decimated populations.

American alligators: A successful conservation effort

The accomplishment of commercially ranching American alligators, combined with controlled harvesting of animals from the wild, is a classic case of turning a near ecological disaster into a financially rewarding industry that satisfies the demands of the food, fashion, and folk medicine markets while protecting the survival of wild populations and sustaining an excellent natural balance. It could act as a template for all governments facing the unbridled exploitation of their reptile populations.

Habitat destruction, overharvesting, poaching, and wanton killing forced the U.S. government to take measures to protect the American alligator. In 1963 it became illegal to kill alligators in the state of Louisiana, and in 1967 the alligator received federal protection under the U.S. Endangered Species Preservation Act. This protection was strengthened in 1969 with the Endangered Species Conservation Act, which

A view of holding facilities at a reptile importer. The aquarium cages contain medium sized snakes and lizards, and the shoeboxes (in racks along the wall) contain newborn, mostly captive bred snakes. This facility is unusual in that it is carefully maintained and scrupulously clean. The animals are of the highest quality, have an excellent chance for survival, and will be sold at excellent prices. (Photo by Manny Rubio. Reproduced by permission.)

A view of holding facilities at a reptile importer. The aquarium cages contain medium sized snakes and lizards, and the shoeboxes (in racks along the wall) contain newborn, mostly captive bred snakes. This facility is unusual in that it is carefully maintained and scrupulously clean. The animals are of the highest quality, have an excellent chance for survival, and will be sold at excellent prices. (Photo by Manny Rubio. Reproduced by permission.)

made interstate shipment of illegally taken alligators or hides a federal offense, and again in 1973 with the passage of the Endangered Species Act, which officially listed the alligator as Endangered. As alligator populations recovered in Louisiana, wildlife officials there began promoting heavily controlled ranching and culling of wild animals in three parishes in 1972, an effort that has become a $54 million annual industry in the state. Landowners quickly realized that supporting legal operations was much more productive, so poachers were actively pursued and the illegal taking of animals has been eliminated. All animals are tagged, allowing the skins to be identified easily as being legally produced. The majority of skins are sent overseas, while the meat is shared between domestic and international markets. Skulls, teeth, toes, and small pieces of skin are sold as curios. Tours of the ranches and related swamp tours are estimated to bring more than $5 million into the state's economy.

Controlled ranching and propagation combined with judiciously monitored nationwide protection and reestablishment of populations in areas where they had been eliminated has enabled American alligators to rebound. In 1987 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which enforces the Endangered Species Act, moved the American alligator from the Endangered list to the Threatened list. This kind of commitment and involvement on the part of federal and state authorities appears to be necessary to aid in the survival of many other reptiles. Although farming and captive colonies are major components of conservation, restraining habitat destruction and actively enforcing wildlife laws are primary steps to preventing the extinction of innumerable taxa.

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