Strengthening protection of endemic wildlife threatened by the international pet trade: The case of the Australian shingleback lizard

Australian reptiles face serious conservation threats from illegal poaching fuelled by international demand and the exotic pet trade. We investigated the extent of illegal trade in a charismatic Australian lizard: the shingleback, also known as the bobtail or sleepy lizard. Using government records, media reports, and online advertisements, we found clear evidence that many shinglebacks have been illegally poached from the wild and are smuggled overseas to be traded as pets. Not only are our findings concerning from a conservation and animal welfare perspective, but they also highlight a major legal loophole. Once shinglebacks are illegally smuggled out of Australia, there are no legal actions available to prevent or regulate overseas trade. To address this, we recommend using an existing and under-utilised legislative tool (Appendix III of CITES, an international treaty) to protect Australian shinglebacks and help to curtail global trade.

By Sarah Heinrich, Adam Toomes, Chris R. Shepherd, Oliver C. Stringham, Matt Swan, Phillip Cassey in Research

July 5, 2021


Unsustainable wildlife trade threatens an increasing number of species globally. Australia has a particularly rich and endemic herpetofauna, which is coveted on the international pet market. While Australia implements domestic protection of most of its native species, there is little to no regulation of international trade once live animals have been smuggled out of the country. This is a threat for a variety of rare, unique and/or range-restricted species, subspecies and locality morphs. One of these species is the shingleback lizard (Tiliqua rugosa).

We compiled Australian seizure data and international online trade data pertaining to shinglebacks. We found all four subspecies in trade across Asia, Europe and North America. Here we provide evidence that all four shingleback subspecies are illegally extracted from the wild in Australia and smuggled to international destinations, where they are sold and distributed globally.

While shinglebacks are a protected species in Australia and can only be exported legally under a federal permit, their import into, and trade between, other countries is often not illegal, even in the absence of such a permit. These contradictory legal frameworks apply to the majority of nationally protected native fauna and must be addressed by each importing country on an individual basis; that is, by changing their legislation to cover and protect species that are nationally protected in their native range. Meanwhile, however, we argue that listing T. rugosa in Appendix III of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora is a meaningful way to provide other countries with the legal means to confiscate illegally exported shinglebacks from Australia. Our findings and recommendations are directly relevant for potential future Appendix III consideration of other nationally protected species that are found in international trade.

Posted on:
July 5, 2021
2 minute read, 289 words
conservation wildlife trade illegal wildlife trade cites exotic pet trade
See Also:
Drivers of the Australian native pet trade: The role of species traits, socioeconomic attributes and regulatory systems
Response to the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment's 'Proposed amendments to the Appendices of CITES for Australian Native Reptiles'
Challenges and perspectives on tackling illegal or unsustainable wildlife trade