- A recent study reveals a vast and unregulated global trade in invertebrates, posing a risk of overexploitation of some species in the wild.
- A group of scientists scoured the internet and discovered that a total of 1,264 species are being traded online.
- Tarantulas are particularly in demand, with 25% of species described as new to science since 2000 popular with collectors.
- Africa is prominent in this trade as both a source and transit hub for tarantulas and scorpions.
When John Midgley dug a golden brown tarantula out of its burrow in the remote woodlands of southeastern Angola, he felt he had found “one of the most astonishing animals ever.” Examining the spider by headlamp in his camp, the South African entomologist marveled at the horn on its back, longer than any found on similar species from the same genus, Ceratogyrus, or baboon spiders, because of their hairy appearance.
Midgley knew something else: that this eye-catching appendage, given its novelty, would likely put the animals at risk from traders and collectors of exotic pets. He and his team made every effort to mitigate this. When it came to publishing their paper, they intentionally left out the GPS coordinates for where they’d located the species, he recalled.
But the spiders are relatively easy to find in the wild, he concedes. “Any experienced collector — legal or illegal — would be able to find several per trip,” he told Mongabay.
Now, more than six years after it was revealed to the world, it does appear that some of the spiders known to Angolans as chandachuly and to Midgley and his co-authors as Ceratogyrus attonitifer, have found their way into the online trade. That’s according to Alice Hughes, the lead author of a recent study on the vast and unregulated global trade in invertebrates.
“We only see trade [about chandachuly] being discussed [online] so it is likely occurring at very low levels,” Hughes told Mongabay. “They [collectors] like new things.”
The chandachuly isn’t the only spider facing this hazard. Hughes’s study found that 25% of new tarantula species described by scientists since 2000 have entered into international trade.
Hughes, a biologist at the University of Hong Kong, scoured online databases and the internet with her colleagues to uncover a total of 1,264 arachnid species, including tarantulas, being traded worldwide.
Many tarantulas are long-lived and have comparatively slow reproductive rates, making them vulnerable to overharvesting. It’s a vulnerability they share with scorpions. Without the data to tackle both illegal and unsustainable trade, however, many species of spider and scorpion may be scuttling toward extinction, Hughes and her co-authors wrote.
How these animals get onto the international market is a key part of Hughes’s research. On every continent, she said, at least one country becomes “a mega-conduit” for spiders and scorpions from the rest of the region.
“For countries screening baggage more, or which require a permit to export animals, it’s much easier to just pass [a consignment of arachnids] over your border to the neighboring country with an airport that checks it a lot less.”
Her study identified China, Chile and Ghana as three such conduits. “Ghana is exporting a lot of species from the wild that don’t occur in Ghana. It’s likely that they’re coming over land borders and being exported from that country,” Hughes said.
While scooping up hundreds or thousands of a particular species in one part of the world may threaten it with local extinction, transporting it to trading hubs across regions or between continents creates another potential hazard: “alien invasion.”
That’s an ever-present threat in South Africa, which has emerged as a destination and hub for the trade in mostly non-native tarantulas. South Africa has a climate suitable for many of these species to proliferate, should they escape or be released from captivity.
This could lead to negative impacts on local animal and plant life, Hughes said.
“In addition to that, we know that there are certain types of mites and diseases, which will spread with these animals,” she said. “There is a huge capability for them to bring diseases and pathogens with them.”
Tinyiko Shivambu, a zoologist based at the University of Pretoria, was the lead author of a separate study in 2020 that focused on tarantulas in South Africa’s pet trade.
He and his colleagues discovered that one of the top three species available, and the cheapest, was the Mexican redrump (Brachypelma vagans). It’s a species that’s become established in the wild in Belize, in Central America, and in Florida, in the U.S. It was introduced to both countries via the pet trade.
Parts of South Africa appear equally favorable to the Mexican redrump, Shivambu’s study said.
South Africa’s status as a hub and destination for exotic pets is partly to do with laws that restrict trade in local species, the zoologist told Mongabay.
“South African biodiversity law does not allow the trade of any of our native species, hence pet shops or online trade mostly offer non-native species.”
During his Ph.D. work, Shivambu assisted his wife and fellow scientist Ndivhuwo Shivambu with her research on the trade in exotic small mammal pets across South Africa.
“We visited about 122 pet shops and observed that tarantulas are sold in all the provinces and found in almost all the pet shops,” he said.
That’s not to say that South Africa’s arachnids aren’t being illegally shipped out in breach of the Threatened or Protected Species (TOPS) Regulations, part of the country’s Biodiversity Act.
Midgley, the South African entomologist who, like Shivambu, wasn’t part of Hughes’s study, recalls how his own online investigations in 2013 found adult specimens of the TOPS-listed golden blue-legged baboon spider (Harpactira pulchripes) selling internationally for 3,000 euros each (about $4,000 at the time).
Three years later, young spiders of the same species were selling for just 150 euros (about $165).
Price drops like that can be instructive, Midgely said. They can help determine whether a species is being bred sustainably in captivity, or is facing the risk of overharvesting in the wild.
“Prices in the thousands [of dollars or euros] means only wild-collected specimens are available; hundreds means they are being bred in captivity,” he said.
The trade in a number of large tarantula species around the world is regulated by CITES, the international treaty set up to protect endangered plants and animals. But most other invertebrates are woefully unprotected. Hughes’s study found that more than 73% of the arachnid species for sale online were not even listed as being in trade either by CITES or the Law Enforcement Management Information System run by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). This lack of critical information on what species are being traded, and what their population sizes are in the wild, is what Hughes refers to as the “gray zone of trade.”
“For most of these species we don’t have the data, but we’re also focusing so much on species like elephants, that we’ve forgotten that literally 99.9% of [arachnid] species are not getting the level of attention they deserve,” she said.
Some groups are harder-hit than others. Take scorpions.
Unlike tarantulas that can be readily raised in captivity, thereby reducing pressure on wild populations, scorpions are difficult to subject to “captive husbandry.” Many have specialized ecological requirements, and species from arid environments are particularly vulnerable to overharvesting, says Lorenzo Prendini, curator of arachnida and myriapoda at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.
Species could be lost before they have even been described for science, he said.
“I know of [some scorpion] species in Namibia and South Africa that exist only on a single hillside and I worry about that information becoming available on the internet,” he told Mongabay.
“As already happened with many succulent plants, an unscrupulous collector could nearly wipe out such species in a single collecting event.”
Prendini, who was not part of Hughes’s study, said he worries that social media and citizen science websites developed by well-meaning people to promote the discovery and understanding of biodiversity are being trawled for information by traders for what he termed “biodiversity crime.”
The shifting nature of scorpion taxonomy presents another problem for conservationists, and an opportunity for unscrupulous traders.
Prendini said he’s contacted regularly by the USFWS and equivalent agencies in Germany, Israel, South Africa and elsewhere to verify identifications, which often turn out to be false.
“It’s commonplace for traders to disguise CITES species as closely related species that are unregulated,” he said.
Not only are species being falsified, but so are their countries of origin. Invertebrates ostensibly imported from Mozambique and Tanzania, where they have no official protection, have been found by Prendini and colleagues to originate in Kenya, Namibia and South Africa, where they do.
He recommended broad-based protection by CITES. Instead of regulating trade in a particular species, such as the emperor scorpion (Pandinus imperator) that’s popular in the U.S. and mostly wild-caught, officials could regulate trade in the entire Scorpionidae family, a large group that covers hundreds of known species.