Illegal Collection

The Species at Risk Act (SARA), as well as various provincial statutes, make it illegal to remove threatened and endangered species from the wild, or to buy or sell these species (or their parts, such as a shell). Despite this legal protection, illegal collection for the pet trade and for food is a serious threat to several reptile species in Canada. Turtles are illegally collected for food, primarily to satisfy growing demand from local and international Asian markets. This is a widespread problem in Canada, but it is most common in and around large urban areas. There is also a high demand for several Canadian reptile species in the illegal pet trade, including the Wood Turtle, Spotted Turtle and Massasauga rattlesnake. Consequently, these species (and others) are illegally collected from the wild in Canada and sold in the black market, often being smuggled into the U.S. or other international destinations. Illegal collection for the pet trade tends to target rare species (e.g. Wood Turtle, Spotted Turtle) and the removal of individuals from these already small and declining populations can result in the rapid extirpation of the target populations.

Illegal collection has been documented for every turtle species at risk in Canada in recent years, as well as the Massasauga rattlesnake, Eastern Foxsnake, Butler’s Gartersnake, and several other reptile species. In some cases, species-at-risk turtles were indiscriminately collected along with common species for food. However, in several cases, species at risk were intentionally targeted and collected for the illegal pet trade. In one instance, an individual tried to smuggle over 30 illegally collected Ontario Massasaugas into the US; he was captured and convicted thanks to a Canada-U.S. undercover operation focused on reptile poaching. Wildlife and law-enforcement officials are working tirelessly to address this threat at the provincial, national, and international level. However, illegal collection and sale of rare species is often carried out by international criminal organizations that specialize in illegal trafficking (guns, drugs, etc.), making this a particularly difficult issue to combat. All of Canada’s threatened and endangered turtle species have now been listed under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which restricts international trade and should make illegal export of these species more difficult.

In areas that are easily accessible to the public, incidental collection can also take its toll on amphibian and reptile populations. Again, Spotted Turtles and Wood Turtles are likely most susceptible to this form of collection because they are easy to catch when encountered on land and are considered by some to make good pets (they are small, docile, and attractive), at least in the short term. One study documented a significant decline in a Wood Turtle population after the area was opened up to human use, and the authors believed it to be a result of incidental collection (Garber and Burger 1995).

Illegal collection does not tend to pose a threat to Canada’s amphibian species. There is less demand for amphibians for both food and in the pet trade. Furthermore, many amphibian species are locally abundant and reproduce quickly, so what little collection does occur is likely sustainable. The only species in Canada for which there is some demand for food is the Bullfrog; however, harvest of this species is still legal throughout much of its native distribution in Canada, despite the potential negative consequences that harvest may have on local populations.

Further Reading

Garber, S.D., and J. Burger. 1995. A 20-yr study documenting the relationship between turtle decline and human recreation. Ecological Applications 5(4): 1151–1162.