• Patrick Aust

The rise of the reptiles

Reptile meat is a cultural norm for nearly half the world’s population. The practice is mostly confined to the tropics where an abundance of sunshine supports healthy heliophiles. Here, the nutritional and material value of reptiles has great antiquity, going back millennia.

One of the primary reasons for the recent upsurge in the global trade in reptiles is supply. Trade has been stimulated by the availability and affordability of a wide range of reptiles and reptile products. This phenomenon can be explained in part by the synergies that exist between reptile evolutionary imperatives and the energy-food-water challenges currently manifesting in our tropical landscapes.

Unlike most species, some reptiles are well suited to the constraints and opportunities brought about by global change. The rise of the reptile trade is partly the result of a growing prevalence of reptiles in our human landscapes.

For reptiles to persist alongside high-performance birds and mammals, they have needed to evolve a competitive edge. Whilst warm-blooded species typically require vast amounts of food and water to power their high-octane life strategies, reptiles have focused on the opposite. They are the dominant large vertebrate group in many challenging environments (e.g., deserts) simply because the unpredictability of essential resources cannot support more extravagant warm-blooded lifeforms.

Agricultural landscapes are characterised by simple productivity cycles. From an ecological perspective, they are severely handicapped by discrete harvest seasons; boom or bust. Beyond specialist pest species, few animals can tolerate the volatility of 'green deserts'.

Many reptiles are a cryptic combination of camouflage and clandestine behaviour. Even large species can persist in close proximity to humans. Their feast-or-famine biology is well suited to the dynamics of agricultural pest species. They can track erratic prey populations in real time; lie dormant for months in village fields to suddenly emerge and gorge on seasonal outbreaks.

An impressive assemblage of reptile species inhabit the patchwork mosaics of tropical landscapes. In many cases, populations exist in higher densities on farmland than they do in natural habitat. Farmers often see reptiles as both a natural pest controller and as a valuable co-product. Many species are harvested on a regular basis for their meat, skin and medicinal value.

The recent uptick in the reptile trade is also the result of climate change. Increasingly unpredictable and extreme weather events such as floods, heatwaves and droughts are undermining agricultural productivity. Frequent crop failures are forcing a reliance on contingency plans. Reptiles are well-adapted to surviving famine, and harvesting resilient populations has become a dependable insurance policy for many vulnerable communities.

On the flip side, there are also disadvantages. Several reptile species pose a public health risk. Venomous snakes kill tens of thousands of people every year, whilst some of the larger species attack livestock animals and even people. Offsetting these costs through sustainable utilisation helps to mitigate human reptile conflict and maintain symbiotic relationships between wildlife and humans.

Those rural communities who do benefit from reptile harvests are more likely to protect reptiles and their habitat. Reductions in retaliatory killings and the preservation of pesticide-free greenbelts are prime examples. It is these sorts of traditional relationships that have preserved the positive correlations between agriculture and environmental sustainability.

The subtle approaches farmers employ to preserve reptile populations are only now being realised, but it is clear that these approaches have cascading benefits for a myriad of other species. In this way, the reptile trade is incentivising and supporting robust agri-food systems built on functional and healthy ecosystems.

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