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Study documents how Sri Lanka’s protected reptiles are traded as pets

Sri Lanka Green Pit Viper

Sri Lanka Green Pit Viper (Trimeresurus trigonocephalus). Photo by J. Janssen.

  • A new research paper has highlighted how rare lizards found only in Sri Lanka are trafficked and sold as exotic pets, prompting conservationists to renew their call for enhanced global protection for several of these species.
  • Much of the species studied in this survey of the online trade, in particular a family of colorful lizards known as dragon lizards, ended up in Europe.
  • These lizards can sell for more than $1,000 each, with single specimens and breeding pairs fetching higher prices as the trade continues to thrive, despite domestic and international restrictions on wildlife trade and collection.

A new study has shed light on how rare lizards found only in Sri Lanka are winding up in Europe as part of the illegal trade in exotic wildlife.

The study, carried out by the Canada-based Monitor Conservation Research Society in collaboration with Sri Lankan herpetologist Anslem de Silva was recently  published in the TRAFFIC Bulletin, titled ‘The presence of protected reptiles from Sri Lanka in international commercial trade.’ 

Lead author, Jordi Janssen told Mongabay that the study reinforces the need for serious consideration of the specific species for inclusion in the CITES Appendices.

“Of the 14 countries that were documented to sell reptiles from Sri Lanka, only three were non-European. Although export from Sri Lanka has been prohibited, these species can be relatively freely traded in the EU, said Janssen, urging the EU to recognize the role this market plays as a destination and transit point for smuggled reptiles.

The study found 130 advertisements offering a total of 477 protected endemic reptiles, representing 18 species. A total of 13 out of 18 species observed in this study were not observed in a previous study carried out in 2014, indicating the demand for Sri Lanka’s endemic species is on the rise.

The Indian Star Tortoise (Geochelone elegans) was the most commonly observed species, with 116 specimens reported as originating in Sri Lanka.

Of the observed species in this study, it is the only one listed in the Appendices of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).  Currently in Appendix II, it has been proposed for listing in Appendix I, effectively prohibiting all international commercial trade in wild Indian Star Tortoises.

The lyre-head lizard (Lyriocephalus scutatus). Photo by Anslem de Silva.

“Through the study, we came to understand that Agamid lizards are extremely popular as pets and are regularly offered for sale, some being sold for over $1,000,” said de Silva, a senior herpetologist and co-author  of the study. He said Sri Lanka was endowed with a high diversity of wildlife, including 219 reptile species, many of them endemic to the tropical island’s multitude of natural ecosystems that include forests, grasslands, sand dunes, wetlands and mangroves.

“Agamid lizards, a family of reptiles also known as dragon lizards, were popular for three reasons: they are attractive, slow moving, and easy to maintain. “They don’t make rapid movements and can survive on a variety of foods, making them popular among pet owners,” he said.

The international pet trade has taken a new face with online sales, particularly targeting Sri Lankan reptiles, said de Silva: “There are frequent offers for sale on classified reptile websites, though very little is known about the scale or extent of this trade.”

De Silva and Janssen monitored three trading groups on Facebook and reptile classifieds sites between September 2016 and October 2018 to study trends.

Offers were collected in a random manner using keyword searches ( and notifications (Facebook) relating to species and genus names. Reptile offers were collected from groups that offered rare and uncommon species and websites that mentioned Sri Lankan endemic species or species for which Sri Lanka was the reported origin.

The spike in organized animal trafficking and collection in Sri Lanka comes despite a general prohibition on the trading of all reptile species, with a few exceptions. Under section 30 of the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance (FFPO) of 1993, all reptiles, except five venomous snake species, are protected and their collection is prohibited.

Export of all reptiles or parts/products of reptiles is prohibited without a permit under section 40 of the law and allowed only for scientific purposes and for exchanges with zoos, including captive breeding and the ranching of reptiles.

The most commonly traded was the Indian star tortoise (Geochelone elegans), with 116 specimens reported as originating from Sri Lanka, followed by  69 specimens of pygmy lizard (Cophotis ceylanica) and 57 specimens of the rhino-horned lizard (Ceratophora stoddartii), both found only in Sri Lanka.

The big markets, a website registered in Germany, was the main source for tracing Sri Lankan reptiles, with 402 of 477 reptiles (16 species) observed on this platform. Facebook posts accounted for 75 animals of 11 species.

Offers to sell were primarily linked to 14 countries, with vendors from Germany offering the largest number of Sri Lankan reptiles for sale: 248 individuals of 17 species.

Spain reported the second-highest numbers of Sri Lankan reptiles, with 69 individuals of just three species. Of the 14 countries documented to be selling Sri Lankan reptiles, only three were outside Europe, with the U.S. offering the largest number of Sri Lankan reptiles for sale, followed by vendors from Canada and Malaysia.

The data showed the animals were sold mainly in the European pet market, including Germany, France, the U.K., Italy and Spain, as well as Russia and the U.S., with single specimens or breeding pairs fetching high prices.

Offers for star tortoises, found in Sri Lanka, India and Pakistan, and pygmy lizards were recorded in six countries, suggesting that these species are relatively widespread in international commercial trade.

The leaf-nosed lizard (Ceratophora tennentii) and Sri Lanka green pit viper (Trimeresurus trigonocephalus), both endemic to the island, were offered for sale in five countries.

Janssen and de Silva used the LEMIS Database, which contains U.S. records for the import or export of four Sri Lankan species, with a total of 52 animals. The Sri Lanka green pit viper was the most commonly imported into the U.S., at 30 specimens between 2007 and 2013, according to the data. When it came to this snake species, the U.S., Poland, Germany and Slovakia had the most individuals on offer.

The lucrative nature of the exotic pet trade incentivizes poachers and traffickers and seriously threatens the animals being poached from the wild. Sri Lanka has proposed 10 sub-species of lizards for inclusion in CITES Appendix I, for increased protection.  All are already either on the National Red List, the IUCN’s Red List, or both, said de Silva, who has researched reptiles for over five decades.

The researchers also relied on unpublished data from Sri Lanka’s Department of Customs and other law enforcement agencies including the police, navy and the air force to further corroborate their findings, de Silva said.

The paper recorded at least 3,130 star tortoises seized between 2015 and 2017 alone, while some 124 Indian spotted turtles (Geoclemys hamiltonii), a CITES Appendix I-listed species and non-native to Sri Lanka, being confiscated by law enforcement agencies in 2015 en route through the country.

In 2018, researchers referred to a considerable increase in reptiles being smuggled through or out of the country, linking how Sri Lankan reptiles have previously been recorded in the European market. In 2010, German pet traders visited Sri Lanka to discuss export options for Sri Lankan reptiles, while in 2012, six foreigners were caught trying to smuggle Sri Lankan endemic reptiles and amphibians.

Seeking enhanced protection

Reptiles have always been smuggled through or out of Sri Lanka, said de Silva, who is calling for additional safeguards to prevent trafficking.

Sri Lanka has submitted the highest number of proposals for species listing in Appendix I and Appendix II at present, indicating a strong interest in conserving its biodiversity. In total, there are 57 proposals for consideration by all parties. The island was to host the Cop 18 of CITES later this month but was postponed due to the current security situation.

“We thought it’s timely to focus on commercial trade of Sri Lankan species with evidence to back the claims,” de Silva said.

Samantha Gunasekera, a director of the Colombo-based CoP18 secretariat, added: “This was the thinking … when Sri Lanka submitted four specific proposals concerning endemic lizards. We want robust implementation of domestic conservation laws and enhanced global protection to curb illegal trade.”

Despite enforcement efforts, customs authorities have not been able to reduce the export of species for commercial purposes, and the researchers believe that their placement on CITES Appendix I could exert greater pressure on import markets in Europe and elsewhere in the protection of those species.

Added Janssen: “The study also highlights once again that the lack of legal protection for nationally protected species in the EU, makes the EU a key player in the illegal trade in such species. “



The presence of protected reptiles from Sri Lanka in international commercial trade: Traffic Bulletin Vol. 31 No 1 (2019)

Banner image: Sri Lanka green pit viper (Trimeresurus trigonocephalus). Photo by J. Janssen.