Adorable isn’t a word usually applied to lizards, but crocodile skinks check all the boxes. With their large, anime eyes, dinosaur-like head plates, and body spines that resemble, well, crocodiles, these hand-size lizards look like they crawled straight out of the Pokémon universe. Not surprisingly, they make for popular exotic pets in places like the U.S.
Anecdotally, international trade in all 10 crocodile skink species, which come from New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and Indonesia, seems to be on the rise. Yet no one has any idea how many of these lizards are caught in the wild each year, where they wind up, or whether or not their populations are being affected. This is because, like thousands upon thousands of other species, they aren’t included in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), the 45-year-old treaty that’s supposed to ensure that international commercial trade of wildlife doesn’t send plants and animals careening toward extinction.
For species like crocodile skinks that are overlooked by CITES, trade “is largely a free for all,” says Chris Shepherd, executive director of Monitor, a nonprofit organization that works to end illegal and unsustainable wildlife trade. “We’re losing many of them because the trade is going on unnoticed.”
Based on species’ conservation status, under CITES, animals and plants are added to one of three lists that determine levels of permitted trade. Highly endangered species are usually barred from trade, while less threatened ones can be traded with permits. Signatories to CITES—nearly every country in the world—record all their trades in an open database.
But plants and animals aren’t automatically listed under CITES. Instead, it’s up to the individual country to add species that are potentially threatened by trade to the appropriate list.
According to Shepherd, countries usually wait until a species reaches crisis mode before they propose a CITES listing. At that point, it may be too late to reverse the losses. And in many cases, crocodile skinks being one, studies of an animal or plant in the wild may be scarce, making it impossible to say how their populations are faring.
The problem, Shepherd says, is staggering in scope: “There are as many, or perhaps even more, non-CITES-listed species in international trade as listed ones.” Only 8 percent of the world’s 10,700 reptile species, for example, are recognized by the treaty. The crocodile skink isn’t one of them.
To shed light on this, Shepherd and co-author Jordi Janssen undertook a case study, published this month, of international trade in crocodile skinks. The Solomon Islands issues domestic protections for their crocodile skinks, and Papua New Guinea bans export of the lizards, while Indonesia issues annual export quotas for 3,500 individuals.
Few countries report trade in non-CITES species, but the U.S. and, to some extent, Europe, are exceptions. Shepherd and Janssen mined U.S. and European trade and seizure data for all traces of crocodile skinks. They also tried to examine imports into Japan—another large market for exotic pets, many of which are not listed under CITES—but found that the country’s customs agency doesn’t provide a more detailed description beyond “lizard.”
According to the study’s findings, 15,630 crocodile skinks entered the U.S. between 2000 and 2014. Nearly all were caught in the wild. Most came from Indonesia, but some came from the Solomon Islands, despite domestic laws that prohibit their capture and export. European authorities monitor only a few select species of crocodile skinks, but they still recorded 6,805 imports between 2000 and 2016. The researchers also spotted a number of crocodile skinks for sale at Japanese pet shops and expos, indicating that Japan is importing them.
All told, the available data for the crocodile skink trade were “confusing, irregular and far from complete,” Shepherd and Janssen reported. The sparse data they were able to dig up depended entirely on the diligence and willingness of importing countries to actually create records and make them publicly available.
Indeed, most countries’ customs agencies only concern themselves with CITES-listed species, says John Scanlon, the former Secretary-General of CITES, who was not involved in the research. If animals arrive that aren’t on that list, “there is no check on whether the specimens have been legally sourced and there is no mandated reporting on the trade.”
This includes many threatened and even critically endangered species, and many more that are protected domestically in their home ranges. “They’re not on CITES because no one has championed them yet,” says Vincent Nijman, an anthropologist at Oxford Brookes University, in the U.K. “If no one proposes a listing, then nothing will happen.”
The problem disproportionately affects reptiles, amphibians, songbirds, invertebrates, fish, and small mammals—easily overlooked species that are nevertheless traded in the hundreds of thousands to millions each year. Local hunters in many countries increasingly report that many such animals are becoming harder to find or even have disappeared, Shepherd says, but most policy makers, activists, and conservationists remain oblivious to those species’ plights.
“By and large, people have a very limited view of what international wildlife trade is, because they always see the same few species, all of which are mammals and all of which are traded, at most, in the tens of thousands,” Nijman says. “For people who are actually more aware of the full scope of wildlife trade, tens of thousands is a Wednesday afternoon.”
Expecting countries suddenly to add tens of thousands of overlooked species to CITES is not realistic. “Who has time to look into all of these species and to figure out what the scope of international trade is and how it affects wild populations?” Nijman says. “You’d need an army of people—it’s simply not workable.”
To get around that, rather than list one species at a time, Shepherd advocates for adding whole groups of actively traded plants and animals, as was previously done for parrots, primates, raptors, orchids, and cats. This would behoove countries to monitor and report trade in all species that fell under the protective group umbrella, providing an early warning if populations begin to decline.
“Sure, people will complain that there’s a lot more paperwork, but I’d rather see a lot more paperwork being done than species disappearing,” Shepherd says. “If countries care about the conservation of their wildlife, then preventing overexploitation is essential.”
Wildlife Watch is an investigative reporting project between National Geographic Society and National Geographic Partners focusing on wildlife crime and exploitation. Read more Wildlife Watch stories here, and learn more about National Geographic Society’s nonprofit mission at nationalgeographic.org. Send tips, feedback, and story ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.