Where are the pink iguanas of the Galapagos?
Updated: Apr 28
(Better translation from Spanish with all links updated)
Europe: Wildlife illegal trade in Galapagos. Land and marine iguanas were laundered in Switzerland and Uganda, where a hatchery is operating to export juveniles. These unique reptiles (endemic) are sold in Mali, Thailand, Sweden, Sudan, Japan, and Indonesia. The Ecuadorian Ministry of the Environment confirmed that those iguanas were exported without permits and that used patrons have an illegal origin.
Pink iguanas (Conolophus marthae) are the prey of smuggling to end up as pets in Europe and Asia. Photo: Courtesy of the Ministry of the Environment, Water and Ecological Transition (MAATE)
Endemic animals from Galapagos are sold online, animals that do not suppose to exist anywhere else in the world because Ecuador has not authorized any export. However, they are marketed with CITES permits (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) under the approval of local authorities in Switzerland, Mali, Thailand, Japan, and Uganda. The Ecuadorian Ministry of the Environment confirmed that live land and marine iguanas were exported without permits.
Since 1975, 415 land iguanas (including 2 pink iguanas) and 32 marine iguanas, all with CITES permits, have been commercialized in the world. These numbers are a minimal fraction of the world trade, only the amount to be presumed to be "legal", although after this report, is irrefutable that they also represent an illegal trade of stolen turtles and iguanas from the Galapagos. There are several recent records of these wildlife thefts in the islands:
In March 2021: 185 babies of giant tortoises were found inside a suitcase in Baltra airport.
Between 2017 and 2018, 150 turtles disappeared from the breeding center on Isabela Island, between small and juveniles; 29 were found in Peru and returned to Ecuador.
In 2015 a Mexican was sentenced for trying to fly out of Ecuador with 2 land and 9 marine iguanas.
In 2012 a German citizen was arrested and imprisoned for trying to remove 4 land iguanas.
Marine iguanas on Isabela Island, Galapagos. Photo: Franklin Vega
The recent seizures of protected species of Galapagos show the existence of a market for these animals considered exotic pets. A millionaire business. The rarer and more unique the specie, the more money that collectors in Europe and Asia are willing to pay. Unfortunately, these two characteristics also coincide with the degree of threat to the species, as is the case of the Galapagos land and marine iguanas, which are listed as endangered and vulnerable by the IUCN.
In 2010, two Galapagos pink iguanas (Conolophus marthae) were exported from Mali to Switzerland under CITES permits.
Alerts of this illegal trade are frequent on social networks. The most recent notice occurred on March 1, 2022, a Twitter post by Alfredo Carrasco an Ecuadorian green politic, unleashed a long chain of complaints and claims to the Ministry of the Environment and the Galapagos National Park. The publication showed a video of the sale of four Galapagos land iguanas (genus Conolophus) in Surabaya, an Indonesian city. The advertisement claimed the "legal" origin of the animals from a breeding farm in Uganda.
The Ministry of the Environment, Water and Ecological Transition (MAATE) stressed to Bitacora Ambiental that Ecuador has not issued any CITES permit for live animals with commercial or scientific fines for any Galapagos species. “If you look at the origin of iguana exports, they are other countries, not Ecuador. Therefore, the offspring or patrons, if they exist, left the country illegally”, highlights a MAATE spokesperson.
How feasible is it to breed Galapagos iguanas in captivity in a non-island environment? The answer from Washington Tapia, a herpetologist recognized for his work in the reproduction of turtles and former director of the Galapagos National Park, considers that it is unlikely that land and marine iguanas will be reproduced in captivity. “It is a complex process due to their behavior, they are animals that are difficult to adapt to captivity. The program that managed the Galapagos National Park had several problems when it kept iguanas in captivity until they were fed and cared for properly.”
Photograph of one of the Galapagos iguanas that is in Uganda. The image corresponds to an adult male of Conolophus subcristatus, scientists estimate that this specimen is between six to eight years old. Photo credit: private file.
On this ground, it can be inferred that the iguanas that are sold online are the result of illegal trafficking, that they leave from the islands circumventing the controls. This assertion is shared by several sources consulted on the islands, who requested that their name be withheld for fear of reprisals. They also indicated that the criminal group that sells the fauna has at least 15 people involved. Despite these indications, the investigations have not advanced. In the case of the turtles seized at the Baltra Airport on March 28, 2021, only one police officer was sanctioned with eight months in jail.
Coming back to the Indonesian video is relevant to mention that this was one of the most important pieces of evidence that the Ministry of the Environment of Ecuador presented at the CITES Standing Committee that took place in Lyon, France, from March 7-11, 2022. The long-term goal is that the iguanas that have been stolen return to Galapagos. "It is impossible for iguanas to have legal export documents," stressed a Ministry official. However, the document presented by Ecuador in the CITES assembly does not have an official character and is taken only as an informative document and was not included in the formal agenda, following CITES procedures.
The alert is higher, as the owner of the Indonesian exotic pet store claimed to have Galapagos land iguanas. He even mentioned the price of Galapagos pink iguanas (Conolophus marthae) saying that they can fetch several hundred thousand dollars, for their rarity.
Screenshot of CV KAREPKU CHANNEL YouTube video showing one of the four Galapagos iguanas shipped from Uganda with CITES documents, claiming it is a legal farm.
The MAATE announced that they will seek the repatriation of the iguanas. However, the first step should be to send a formal communication to CITES before June 17 to be considered at the Conference of the Parties (CoP19) to be held in Panama. The sending of this official document is essential to formally consider the illegal origin of the iguanas According to the MAATE it is in preparation.
Bruce J. Weissgold, a wildlife conservation policy consultant and part of the IUCN Iguana Specialist Group, believes that it is impractical to seek the return of Galapagos iguanas to Ecuador. "The cost of paying lawyers' fees, bureaucratic paperwork, and travel are high. It is necessary to stop the legal trade that in the long run supports illegal traffic."
If Ecuador undertakes the task of recovering the endemic Galapagos iguanas, it must first determine the final destination of the first two pink iguanas that were exported in 2010 from Mali to Switzerland and were reported as captive-bred. This international purchase raises some questions since the Galapagos pink iguanas were only described to science in 2009 by herpetologists Gabriele Gentile from the Università Tor Vergata (in Rome, Italy) and Howard Snell from the University of New Mexico (Albuquerque, United States).
In other words, Mali already had iguanas long before they were described by science and they had managed to reproduce them successfully enough to export them. In addition, the traffic of live Galapagos iguanas has a gap in official data between 2002 and 2009. During this period, the trade of live Galapagos iguanas is not recorded in the CITES database, but the sale of articles made of their skins is.
Part of this traffic is explained by the fact that the protection of Galapagos species is relatively recent in Ecuador. The CITES agreement has been applied in the country since 1994 and since 1998 with the passing of the Special Law of Galapagos, controls for the extraction of fauna and flora from the islands were reinforced.
Complaints to CITES for the laundering of iguana smuggling
Ecuador's claim is not the first for the smuggling of iguanas that end up as pets. In 2015, the IUCN Iguana Specialist Group (ISG) in its 2015 report stated:
“In 2011 and 2012, Galapagos land (Conolophus subcristatus) and marine (Amblyrhynchus cristatus) iguanas were smuggled from Ecuador to Switzerland via Mali. In 2014, the Swiss CITES management authority issued export permits for these iguanas to be translocated to Uganda. The CITES trade database confirms that Ecuador has never reported the export of live specimens of any of these species for trade, so this export from Switzerland effectively laundered these species into the pet trade. In September 2015, a Mexican national was arrested in Ecuador for attempting to smuggle additional marine iguanas into Uganda.
Sandra Altherr, from Pro Wildlife, an NGO dedicated to combating animal trafficking, confirmed that "in addition to official trade (with CITES permits) unfortunately, there is also ongoing trafficking, whose hatching is still captured in the wild."
The CITES central office, when consulted by Bitacora, stated that “the investigation of these facts (the laundering of iguanas in Switzerland) is still open. This means that it is believed that there are still leads related to this incident. The CITES system is designed to accurately track specimens throughout their life cycle and not allow wild-caught animals to be reclassified as captive-bred. It's a complete system and we think it works."
For its part, the Swiss CITES office responded that they process more than 500 requests for export, import, and re-export authorizations for animals covered by the protection of the CITES Convention daily. On the laundering or legalization denounced by the IUCN iguana specialists in 2015, Bruno Mainini, CITES Deputy Head in Switzerland, remarked: “We had an import of a small number of an Appendix II species confirmed by another CITES authority as farmed in captivity. According to the information we obtained later, we would never have allowed the import and re-export of these animals. Since then, we have changed our procedure regarding the import and export/re-export of live animals and even strengthened our legal basis.”
Mainini indicated that in Switzerland they applied article 9 of CITES, which grants the right to prohibit the importation of species that are protected in other countries, even if they are not included in CITES. “That means that our new national legislation goes beyond CITES. All CITES members are required to report regularly to the CITES Secretariat on changes to the Law. Since this change came into force this year, it might be some time before everyone is informed.”
“There are no longer any Galapagos land iguanas left in Switzerland and the people involved left that country. CITES Switzerland informed the authorities”. Bruno Mainini, Deputy, CITES Switzerland
While the law change is applied in Switzerland and the Ecuadorian Ministry of the Environment takes the legal steps to denounce illicit trafficking, the Galapagos land iguanas continue to be marketed in the world and advertised on social networks and specialized pages of exotic pets.
After analyzing the CITES database, it can be verified that since 2017 (after the traffic complaint of iguanas in Switzerland) 24 Galapagos land iguanas have been exported from Uganda to Japan, Thailand, Indonesia, Sudan, and Sweden, declared as captive-bred. This journal sent information requests to all the countries involved in the trafficking of iguanas. So far only the local CITES authorities of Switzerland and Indonesia have responded.
Joko Nugroho, CITES Indonesian Management Authority of the Ministry of Environment and Forestry, indicated that “importation of Galapagos land iguana species to Indonesia is accompanied by complete documents (including CITES export permits from the country of origin) that the validity of each of these documents is confirmed to the sending country; that the origin of the animal comes from captive breeding and that the country of origin of the animal is not Ecuador.”
However, the Indonesian authority did not respond about the four additional Galapagos land iguanas that were sold in 2021 and that are not included in the CITES database, but that the buyer said he had. Is there an under-reporting of the animal trade or are not all the permits that are issued counted?
A hatchery with stolen species that is advertised on social networks
Screenshot of social networks where the hatchery of land and marine iguanas endemic to Galapagos in Uganda is advertised.
Locating the hatchery in Uganda is possible if one spends a few hours cross-referencing and reviewing hundreds of internet pages. Its founder and owner was born in Switzerland and was arrested along with the Mexican who was imprisoned in Ecuador in 2010 in New Zealand for stealing two geckos (a small lizard) and trying to sell them. At the request of the authorities investigating the case, we omit the names, addresses, and videos that may interfere with the investigation and that show the person responsible for this business. However, we publish two photos that confirm the existence and sale of Galapagos iguanas, both marine and terrestrial, in Uganda.
The question for the authorities in charge of world trade is: why you do not act?. If an independent, sponsored news portal, manages to locate most of the data of those responsible for illegal trade, why are the authorities of Ecuador, Switzerland, Uganda, and Mali and CITES officials, who are called upon to prevent these cases from occurring, do not intervene immediately?
A single Galapagos iguana sold abroad is already a crime. An insult to the hundreds of park rangers and researchers who protect marine and land iguanas. The work of park rangers and scientists kept iguanas from extinction in the 20th century, but they are now sold as exotic pets. In the document to download a brief account of the work done to save iguanas from extinction in the 20th century and this link is a sample of the current efforts so that the iguanas do not disappear from the islands.
As in the illegal felling of the forest, the “legal” wood ends up being processed along with the illegal one, laundering it on world markets. The unique Galapagos iguanas in the world end up being sold under the umbrella of CITES. Legal is just a category on paper.
Cristina Cely, an activist against illegal fishing, points out that it is possible to identify through DNA tests if the iguanas that are sold come from the specimens that are used as reproducers: "it is something that can be done in all the iguanas that are kept in the hatcheries, thus clarifying its origin".
In addition to land and marine iguanas, there are giant tortoises (Cheoloidis nigra) and even lava lizards (Microlophus albemarlensis) for sale online.
The Galapagos wildlife smuggling routes
How do Galapagos iguanas and tortoises get out? To answer this, we must first consider that reptiles, due to their intrinsic conditions, such as their low metabolism and their docility, are easily "trafficked" because, being cold-blooded animals remain immobile for long periods, even weeks.
The sources consulted on the islands and who requested that their names be reserved mention three ways of removing tortoises and iguanas from the Galapagos:
Galapagos Guayaquil by air and from there to Lima by land. The extraction of the animals would be done through San Cristóbal because, in Baltra, the Ecological Airport carries out X-ray control of all cargo and suitcases. From Guayaquil by land to Lima and the port of Callao to be sent by ship to Asia or Europe.
On the left is one of the commercial maritime routes between Peru and Europe. The journey of the containerized merchant ship lasts 34 days on average and they depart every week. Source: Integrated Foreign Trade Information System of Peru.
Seaway; traffickers leave Isabela Island at night for the open sea and deliver the iguanas, turtles, and lizards (among other animals) to an intermediary on a fishing boat or cargo ship that would take the consignment of animals to Peru and from there they are sent to Europe and Asia.
The sad thing about this trade is that only a fraction of the animals reaches their destination alive. Due to the terrible conditions of the trip and the stress, it is estimated that eight of the ten animals that leave die. A sample of the high degree of mortality in wildlife trafficking was evidenced in 2021 in Galapagos. Of the 185 turtles discovered in the suitcase at the Baltra Ecological Airport, 20 died from stress, a high rate considering that barely two days had passed since the beginning of the trip.
Part of the success of this wildlife trade depends on how the animals are received and cared for. This reflects that in the trade of these reptiles economic resources and great specific knowledge are needed. In the case of the Galapagos land and marine iguanas, they even appear in a book on the care of exotic species: Manual of Exotic Pet Practice, which is available in online book stores.On the left one of the commercial maritime routes between Peru and Europe. The journey of the containerized merchant ship lasts 34 days on average and they depart every week. Source: Integrated Foreign Trade Information System of Peru.
Galapagos lava lizards without international protection
On the internet, along with land and marine iguanas, other Galapagos animals are offered as exotic pets. Those who do not have the resources to buy and maintain a large iguana can afford the "luxury" of buying a lava lizard, although this is a protected species in Ecuador, it is also trafficked.
The alert about the trade of this reptile reached Bitacora Ambiental through social networks, the researcher Verónica Toral and the activist against illegal fishing Cristina Cely alerted the sale of this species from another farm of animals in captivity. When looking for the origin, it was determined that it was in Ukraine. Unfortunately, due to the invasion of Russia, it was not possible to collect information on how the breeding reptiles arrived in that part of Europe.
Of the genus Microlophus, it has been determined that 12 species are present in Ecuador, and nine are only found in the Galapagos Islands. But these lizards are only protected by Ecuadorian legislation, they are not on the CITES lists. Appendix one is for the most threatened, endangered species, and Appendix II is for those whose trade is allowed subject to strict regulation to avoid utilization incompatible with their survival.
Why are the Galapagos lava lizard species not included in any of the international protection standards? CITES responds that the Galapagos lava lizard (Microlophus albemarlensis) is not considered endangered and therefore does not appear on the CITES Appendices. "We are regularly reviewing and collecting information on which species may be threatened, but currently, apart from the threat brought about by Climate Change, no additional threats to the species are believed to be present," the CITES head office replied.
Washington Tapia, a herpetologist and former director of the Galapagos National Park, considers that the CITES and IUCN standards do not consider the particular conditions of each country, worse than a particular ecosystem. "We have a gap in information about the lava lizard, about its habits and the status of its populations, not only for the Galapagos lizards. Those same standards apply to other species such as the Galapagos petrel (Pterodroma phaeopygia) that is considered Critically Endangered, although their populations have recovered thanks to the work of protecting their nesting places".
For its part, the Ministry of the Environment did not indicate the procedure to increase the protection of the lava lizard of Isabela.
Screenshot of the Isabela lava lizard offer on a website of a reptile hatchery in Ukraine.
New stories coming on the international trade of the Galapagos giant tortoises and the modern history of their depredation.
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