Ecological Impact of Ball Python Trading
Updated: Mar 6
I was going to write another species profile on the ball python (mainly because I have one,) but decided to change it when I came across how they are collected in their native Africa for the pet trade.
Ball pythons are the most popular snake in the pet trade. The name “python” just screams “really exotic!” The fact that they are great beginner snakes, easy to take care of, only grow to three to six feet, hardiness and personality make them great pets. Plus, they are just too darn cute! There are also enough captive-bred ball pythons in the pet trade that there doesn’t need to be any being imported from Africa. But they are...breeders like to find unusual patterns or colors to breed to come up with yet another morph. According to World of Pythons, there are over 7,300 recognized morphs. But because wild-caught ball pythons are cheaper, wholesalers import them by the tens of thousands to sell to breeders, stores, or directly to buyers.
Before I begin, I need to explain a couple of organizations that determine how animals are traded:
IUCN - stands for the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. An international organization, the United Nations has given them an observer and consultative status. They play an important role in starting several international conventions (like CITES) on nature conservation and biodiversity and their scientists are involved in data gathering and analysis, research, field projects, advocacy, and education. Their stated mission is to “influence, encourage and assist societies throughout the world to conserve nature and to ensure that any use of natural resources is equitable and ecologically sustainable.”
They are probably most known for the Red List of Threatened Species (IUCN Red List or Red Data Book.)The Red List is a worldwide list of the global conservation of biological species. It uses precise criteria to evaluate the extinction risk of thousands of species and subspecies. They have three categories, each with subcategories. Extinct - with the subcategories of Extinct (EX) and Extinct in the Wild (EW.) Threatened includes the subcategories of Critically Endangered (CR,) Endangered (EN,) and Vulnerable (VU.) And under Lower Risk has Near Threatened (NT,) Conservation Dependent (CD,) and Least Concern (LC.)
CITES was drafted as a resolution at a 1963 meeting of members of the IUCN.
CITES - stands for the “Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species” of Wild Fauna and Flora. It is a multilateral treaty to protect plants and animals by ensuring that the international trade of species does not threaten their survival in the wild. They have three lists, known as Appendices. Appendix I - are species that are threatened with extinction and collection is illegal, permitted only by in extraordinary circumstances. Appendix II - are species that are not necessarily threatened with extinction but may become so the trade of these animals and plants are subject to strict regulations. (Ball pythons are on Appendix II.) Appendix III - are species that are not necessarily threatened with extinction globally, but a member country is asking for assistance in controlling the trade of a particular species.
It is one of the oldest conservation and sustainable use agreements and countries that have agreed are bound by the convention. While CITES deals with international trade, the member countries are responsible for their domestic laws concerning wildlife.
Though ball pythons are native to many African countries, they are primarily exported from Togo, Ghana, and Benin and have been since 1979. In the 1980s and early 1990s, they weren’t that popular and were relatively cheap. That changed in 1992 when the first first “designer snakes” hit the market. Breeders and dealers would search thousands of imports looking for a snake that had different colorations or patterns to make more “designer” pythons - and they were wildly successful. Today, ball pythons are the most exported live species in all of Africa, even though there are more than enough captive-bred pythons that make it difficult to justify the continued imports at such high numbers. Importing, though, is still in high demand because the market is still there. Wholesalers and dealers can sell them cheaply and every breeder is on the lookout for the next new ball python morph that can be sold for thousands of dollars.
Ball pythons are a CITES protected species in Appendix II - meaning that though they may not be threatened, there are strict regulations in place to protect any wild populations. The quotas numbers are based on scientific evidence showing that the wild population is stable. Only the problem with ball pythons is that little is known about the state of the wild population. There is no assessment of how the export trade, habitat loss, climate change, availability of food sources, and hunting for bushmeat or medicinal purposes has had in the decades-long exportation of the species.
In a series of peer-reviewed studies, Herpetologist Neil D”Cruze from World Animal Protection and visiting Oxford WildCRU researcher, along with an international and diverse team of scientists that specialize in socioeconomics, python husbandry, genetics, welfare, and pathology, among others discovered that along with the high import numbers, lack of any reliable data, and gaps in the oversight makes it just about impossible to make educated decisions based on science to manage wild populations.
How high are the quotas? Three countries export ball pythons commercially - Togo, Ghana, and Benin. These days, ball pythons are “ranched,” though these aren’t considered traditional ranches (and I will get into this shortly.) Togo (the country that is focused on in this study) can export 62,500 ranched animals and 1,500 wild-caught. Ghana is allowed to export 60,000 ranched snakes and 200 captive-bred. Finally, Benin is allowed 32,000 ranched, 500 captive-born, and 200 taken from the wild.
Ball python ranches are considered a potential solution to taking animals directly out of the wild while at the same time, being continuously dependent on wild sources. Yeah, I know, that doesn’t make sense at all. I understand the concept, and now let’s see if I can explain it. Out of a clutch of 30 eggs laid in the wild, two may reach breeding age but that same clutch laid at a ranch could have 30 viable eggs. Ranches are required to release adult females after they have laid their clutches and a portion of the hatchlings. In my example, if the ranch releases the female and two hatchlings, then
they have, technically, taken no animals out of the wild. The 28 snakes that would not have made it in the wild are instead exported. At least theoretically, that is. There isn’t very much oversight.
Three-quarters of Togolese snake hunters interviewed have said that they are seeing fewer pythons than they did five years ago. Even though this a concern, Zoologist and scientific advisor for CITES Gabriel Segniagbeto, doesn’t think that it’s necessary to reduce Togo’s export quota. The trade has economic value for those that collect the snakes and livelihoods are also important and must be protected.
Justification on this end is well...interesting? Some importers state that commercialization creates sustainability and therefore contributes to conservation. It places a “value” on the snakes and gives local people an incentive to keep them around. In other words, people won’t kill wild snakes because the snakes are worth money in the pet trade. This would hardly be an incentive if the snakes are being killed for food or bushmeat. So that doesn’t make sense to me. After all, that’s what the quota system is for. According to D’Cruze, until there is data that the pet trade is an important tool for their survival, it is merely an assumption.
Many females are not released until much later or at all and at least half of the snake hunters state that they aren’t just collecting eggs, juveniles, and pregnant females. They are also collecting adult males and females who aren’t gravid and they do it indiscriminately. And there is absolutely no data on the survivability of juveniles that are released.
If that isn’t enough, there isn’t any system in place to ensure that snakes are collected in the same country where the ranch is. Many snake hunters will travel across the border to Ghana and Benin to collect snakes and take them to ranches in Togo. Which doesn’t sound like that big a deal except it undermines the quota systems that are in place to protect the wild snakes. In Ghana and Benin, ball pythons are considered under “severe threat.” For example, if Ghana has a quota of 20 snakes and five are taken to Togo and are included under Togo’s trade permit, there are an extra five that can be taken out of the wild to be exported.
It just seems that the only thing that is under any control is how out of control the situation is.
To say that I’m against exotics in the pet trade would make me nothing but a hypocrite. I am against animals in the pet trade at the expense of the wild population. If there is any question, all trade should halt until scientific data is proving that the wild populations are stable and can remain so.
Specifically, with ball pythons, there no longer needs to be any animals exported out of Africa - at least not in the numbers that they are now. But as long as there is a demand for them, ball python ranches will continue.
Breeders still want to find that next new high-end morph, and it's cheaper to buy wild-caught snakes than it is to breed them. Especially wholesalers who either sell to pet stores or the unsuspecting people who attend reptile shows without researching them first.
Ultimately, it's the snakes who pay...both in wild populations and those imported for the pet trade. There has to be more emphasis placed on captive-bred and born snakes.