Could poaching be helping tarantula conservation?

It sounds like an unlikely statement but could poaching actually help spider conservation?

As someone who has kept and bred critically endangered tarantulas, it is not lost on me that many of the species we see in captivity are probably descended from illegally collected adults. But is this necessarily a bad thing from a conservation point of view?

When a new species of tarantula is discovered, offspring are offered for sale in Europe in almost no time at all. The parents of the offspring are almost always collected and exported illegally but does the fact that they are poached by experienced spider breeders make this a more tolerable crime?

Instead of thousands of wild adult spiders being exported to meet consumer demand only a handful have been taken. In a matter of months those few spiders have been mated, produced hundreds of babies and in no time at all the market gets flooded with captive bred animals. There is now little to no market for buying wild caught animals.

It sounds like a pretty effective solution, doesn’t it? A few spiders are taken from the wild so that 99.99% of them can stay there. But unfortunately this scenario isn’t always played out and tarantula poaching has wiped out populations of spiders in places like Mexico.

The reason for this might partly be down to the reproductive biology of many new world tarantulas. Unlike a lot of Asian tarantulas, Mexican species are slow growing and take a lot longer to reach sexual maturity. When spiders are poached from Asia the F1 (first) generation is often available for sale within a year and the F2 (second) generation maybe 18-24 months after that. They grow quickly and supply soon outstrips demand. With species like the Mexican Red knee (Brachypelma hamorii) in could be closer to 7-8 years before the F2 captive bred generation is available. This means that demand outstrips supply and people turn to buying wild caught animals. Thankfully Mexico has cracked down on illegal collecting and perpetrators face fines and jail terms.

Mexican Red Knee tarantula (Brachypelma sp.)

Even when a species has been frequently bred in captivity, wild collecting sometimes continues to take place. Take the Burgundy Goliath bird eating tarantula (Theraphosa stirmi) for example – it is not especially difficult to breed but countless adult specimens are legally exported from Guyana each year. I suspect that this particular example is driven by society’s demand for instant gratification – why wait several years for a spiderling to grow when you can buy an impressive 10 inch adult immediately. It is difficult to quantify what affect the annual removal of this many breeding-size females will have on the species’ ecology but it is unlikely to be a positive one.

There are of course consequences to small scale illegal collecting. No matter how you dress it up, it is still poaching – animals are being illegally taken from the wild and smuggled abroad to meet the demands of buyers. If those poachers manage to smuggle out a highly desirable species then they are potentially set to make tens of thousands of pounds. It is not unusual for the babies (known as spiderlings) of some newly available species to sell for a couple of hundred pounds each. Considering that each adult female might produce 100+ young then a healthy profit can be made, especially if multiple females have been poached.

Of course, over a short period of time prices begin to fall and the first person that produces the spiderlings will make the most money. But successive breeders and retailers will all profit from the original, poached spiders. The only people who won’t benefit are those who live in the country where the spiders were taken from – there is unlikely to be a domestic market for tarantulas in their native countries and now that Europe and North America have access to captive bred animals, there is no profit to be made.

It is essentially a sort of perverse Robin Hood tactic – steal from the poor and sell to the rich. This activity is the underlying motive for all forms of poaching, be it rhinos, tigers or tarantulas. Stealing the natural resources of one country to make a profit is known as biopiracy and even respectable institutions like Kew Gardens have committed it. In recent years a number of high profile spider researchers and traders have also been implicated in poaching and biopiracy.

In 2006, three conservationists and members of the British Tarantula Society were arrested at the Vrolijkheid nature reserve in South Africa for illegally collecting 27 baboon spiders. All three pleaded guilty and were fined 10,000 Rand (£515) with 7000 Rand suspended for five years.

In 2009 Lee Arden owner of The Spider Shop, arguably the UK’s top tarantula supplier was arrested at Rio de Janeiro airport for trying to smuggle 900 tarantulas out of Brazil. Arden stated that the spiders were collected in Paraguay and he was only passing through Brazil on his way back to London. He potentially faced 6 months to a year in prison or a fine of £450,000. This shows how important it is to understand the wildlife laws of all countries visited, even if you are in transit with legally collected spiders.

A Wild Life Blog has also received evidence that in the same year a spider conservationist had been approaching multiple private collectors and attempting to sell them wild caught tarantulas, centipedes and geckos from India, as well as endangered spiders from Sri Lanka.

In the correspondence I have seen he initially said: “I do not poach. I supply a few animals to dedicated hobbyists… who work to preserve species in captivity. India being a third world country, if we cannot save our tigers because of rampant corruption you can forget about anyone giving a damn for a few spiders…It breaks my heart.” He then goes on to say that he is selling them “since I NEED a new laptop for my exams and MSc course.”

When threatened with being reported he first became worried, saying: “What are they going to do? Did they tell you?… Did they hint at any forthcoming trouble? Dude my career will be ruined.” He then became more defensive in his response, saying that he was approached by tarantula hobbyists and was only pretending to sell the animals to expose them, however I have seen correspondence from multiple people showing that the perpetrator directly approached them and used his conservation credentials to try and convince them he was above board and legal.

I’m told that the individual’s details had been reported to the relevant Indian and Sri Lankan authorities but it seems that no charges were brought against him.

Blue tarantulas are extremely popular with collectors (Chromatopelma cyaneopubescens)

Biopiracy can also be attributed to scientific research and in 2019 a beautiful new species of tarantula (Birupes simoroxigorum) with electric blue legs became something of a celebrity when Ray Gabriel and Daniella Sherwood were accused of using illegally smuggled specimens to describe it. Science Magazine claimed that the researchers had received their specimens from private collectors in Poland and Britain who had poached them in Malaysia.

Both researchers claim to have been shown documents to prove that the specimens were acquired legally but the forest department of Sarawak says that they were collected and exported illegally. The researchers don’t appear to have responded to requests to show proof of the documentation either.

Regardless as to how the specimens were acquired, it cannot be denied that their paper has increased our scientific understanding of tarantulas. First of all we didn’t know that B.simoroxigorum even existed. Now we know that it exists but know very little about it and as a direct result of their work, conservationists can use their paper as a spring board to conduct further research into the species. Now that we know it exists, we can attempt to conserve it.

It’s plausible that the researchers may have been naively implicated in biopiracy and have perhaps been treated more unfairly than the three people who originally smuggled the spiders: Krzysztof Juchniewicz, Emil Piorun, and Jakub Skowronek.

What I find curious is that despite claiming that the two spiders they collected died without breeding, a short time after the paper was published, Piorun and Skowronek were advertising captive bred B.simoroxigorum spiderlings for sale. Juchniewicz claimed that all B. simoroxigorum on the market have been caught in the wild and smuggled in “very, very big amounts” by others. So, someone is lying.

What also needs talking about is that Malaysian wildlife officials were very quick to discredit the researchers for acquiring two illegally caught spiders, yet the Malaysian government is complicit in the wholesale destruction of the Bornean rainforest for palm oil production. It seems as though the authorities just wanted to appear to be doing something. In instances like this, wide scale habitat destruction poses a far greater threat to the conservation of tarantulas and other organisms than small scale collecting does. And owing to the fact that many zoos lack the knowledge or desire to conserve tarantulas, ex-situ conservation is currently being led by amateur collectors.

Another issue I would like to briefly touch upon is the edible tarantula trade in Cambodia. Under the brutal regime of the Khmer Rouge, millions of Cambodians faced starvation and were forced to catch and eat whatever animals they could, including tarantulas. Although the Khmer Rouge are long gone, the practice of frying and eating tarantulas has continued and many thousands of spiders are harvested annually.

Cyriopagopus albostriatus – a species that is often eaten in Asia

Visitors to markets in Cambodia are greeted with baskets full of spiders, their fangs removed and ready for consumption. You could be fooled into believing that the trade is having little effect on wild tarantula populations as this practice has been continuing for decades. But tarantula traders will tell you that the spiders are becoming harder to find and collectors are having to travel further and further to collect them.

Clearly at some point the practice of collecting and eating wild tarantulas in Cambodia is going to have to end. But considering just how many wild spiders have been harvested, it raises the question of whether the collecting of some species of wild tarantula may be more sustainable than we think. The important point to remember is that different tarantula species and populations will have varying levels of tolerance to collecting.

So, to go back to the original question – could tarantula poaching actually be helping conservation? In some instances yes, it may have inadvertently helped conservation but in most instances it doesn’t. Human greed knows no bounds and the desire to make quick money by widespread collecting of wild animals has the ability to wipe out entire populations and species.

Granted, habitat destruction is a far greater threat, as is the case with the critically endangered Yellow Backed Ornamental tarantula (Poecilotheria smithi). Destruction of its forest habitat for agriculture and timber means that only a few individuals remain in the wild. If poachers were to collect this species it is likely that they would quickly become extinct in the wild. However, P.smithi entered the tarantula hobby a number of years ago and it is possible to buy captive bred specimens. Whether or not the original animals were collected legally remains open to debate but by having that captive population we can ensure that the species doesn’t become extinct should its habitat be completely destroyed. It would seem that a healthy captive population combined with Sri Lanka’s strong wildlife laws has played a pivotal role in ending the collection of wild P.smithi.

It is often said that the end doesn’t justify the means and although small scale poaching and captive breeding has in some instances aided conservation by preventing wide scale collection, poaching is poaching and it can’t be condoned. Perhaps what is needed is a more organised approach to tarantula conservation, where wildlife authorities work alongside professional breeders. Done properly it could eliminate the need for illegal collecting and provide tarantula hobbyists with legally acquired captive bred specimens – as has been done with Tarantulas de Mexico.

Realistically however, it is highly unlikely that many (if any) wildlife authorities would back such a program. In a world where red tape often impedes conservation efforts, people will unfortunately continue to break the law – be it for financial or scientific gain.

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