Tapping the rich energy fabric of biodiversity
Reptiles are highly efficient at exploiting resource-poor ecological niches that exclude warm-blooded animals. This is why snakes and lizards are some of the most successful large vertebrate groups in desolate landscapes.
Agricultural landscapes are characterised by simple productivity cycles. From an ecological perspective they are degraded habitats severely handicapped by discrete harvest seasons. Reptiles are well suited to the hyperbolic ecological profile of these systems. They are cryptic organisms that can thrive on the boom-and-bust cycles of human environments.
An impressive assemblage of reptiles inhabit the patchwork mosaics of tropical agricultural landscapes. Some species are present in higher densities in farmland than they are in their natural habitats. Many small-scale farmers see reptiles as a natural means of controlling pests, such as rats and mice. Because of their sheer abundance, reptiles are also exploited as an agricultural co-product. Alongside rice and palm oil, several snake and lizard species are harvested on an ongoing basis for their meat, skin, medicinal and pet values. In this way, reptiles contribute directly towards food and livelihood security for thousands of people in some of the most vulnerable communities on the planet.
Increasingly unpredictable weather patterns such as floods, heatwaves and droughts are undermining agricultural productivity in the tropics. Frequent crop failures are forcing many farmers to rely on contingency livelihoods. Reptiles are perfectly suited to surviving months without food or water. They are also able to find refuge both underground and in tree-top refugia, and are thus well-adapted to surviving extreme weather events. Harvesting abundant and resilient populations of pythons, monitor lizards, water snakes, cobras and rat snakes has become a dependable supplementary income and insurance policy for many small-scale farmers suffering the effects of climate change.
Some of those reptile species that have benefited from agricultural expansion also pose a significant public health risk. Venomous snakes are a common cause of morbidity and mortality, while some of the larger pythons and monitor lizards occasionally attack people and livestock. Offsetting these costs through ongoing harvesting helps to mitigate the impacts of human wildlife conflicts. In effect, reptiles are helping to build accord between farmers and wildlife conservationists, especially in sensitive buffer zones around protected wildlife reserves.
Those farmers and rural communities who do benefit from reptile harvests are more likely to protect important reptile habitat. Reductions in the use of rodent pesticides, for example, helps to preserve the ecological integrity of greenbelts around cultivated fields. The subtle considerations farmers afford to valuable wild reptile populations have cascading benefits for a myriad of other species, especially insects and birds. In essence, the reptile trade is incentivising resilient food systems built on simple but functional ecosystems. Nature-based relationships such as these, are resulting in positive correlations between the reptile trade, agriculture and environmental sustainability.