The world’s biggest reptile fair is also a hub for traffickers

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Mongabay, Germany

Held quarterly in Hamm, Germany, the fair is a meeting point for collectors seeking the rarest and best reptiles, including animals that are threatened with extinction and may have been poached from the wild.

HAMM, Germany — Two hours before the fair opens on a cold day in March, hundreds of people are already queuing outside.

“The best merchandise is sold in the morning,” a shivering woman explains. She’s looking to expand her collection of exotic pet centipedes, and the Terraristika reptile fair in the German city of Hamm is the perfect place to do so. “You’ll find everything you wouldn’t find anywhere else,” she says.

The Hamm reptile fair touts itself as the largest reptile trade show in the world / Credit: Anonymous

Styrofoam boxes loaded on dollies are pushed past the queue and inside the steamy warehouse, where some of the world’s most prolific wildlife breeders and traders are getting ready to sell tens of thousands of not just reptiles, like snakes and lizards, but also spiders, centipedes, insects and frogs.

The fair is simply referred to as “Hamm,” after the nondescript town in the middle of Germany’s rust belt where it’s held four times a year. Touted as the largest reptile trade show in the world, it’s a bazaar brimming with more than 550 sellers, reptile-enthusiasts and specialized transport companies that pick the animals up and drive them back to their clients in countries like the U.K. Some have come from as far as South Korea and the U.S., pushing past Indian giant tiger centipedes (Scolopendra hardwickei), which cost $550 a piece, and common pythons on offer as a “buy 2 get 3” deal.

For buyers, sellers and middlemen, Hamm is the pinnacle of a growing international trade worth millions of dollars annually and a meeting point for aficionados seeking the rarest and best “merchandise,” as the animals are referred to, from Chinese crocodile lizards (Shinisaurus crocodilurus) to manabi bird-eater tarantulas (Pamphobeteus sp. mascara) and beetles belonging to the scarab family (Scarabaeidae).

For conservationists, however, Hamm is something else: The biggest real-life marketplace for reptile traffickers who have learned to exploit the European Union’s weak laws and lack of enforcement to sell high-value, endangered and protected species.

“The things that are being sold there, you can’t even imagine,” says biologist Sandra Altherr, who co-founded the German conservation group Pro Wildlife. “There are lots of reptiles that are protected, and they are being sold freely at Hamm.”

Snakes in the parking lot

Hours before the fair officially opens, the parking lot of the nearby Cafe del Sol is bustling. Because not every seller pays for a stall, merchandise is also traded online — often on Facebook groups, despite Facebook’s ban on trading live animals — and exchanged in the parking lot.

Phones keep buzzing as buyers and sellers seek out each other. “Where are you? I’m wearing a red backpack,” a middle-aged man with a southern German accent says. “Look for someone Chinese, that’s me,” another buyer describes himself.

Reptiles change hands at the “Hamm” reptile fair / Credit: Anonymous

Poisonous snakes, scorpions and other animals are pulled out of their Styrofoam boxes, and payments of hundreds, sometimes thousands of euros are made in cash or via PayPal.

Each transaction comes with a quickly filled-in and pre-typed “proof of origin” form, in which the seller attests that he sold a specific, captive-bred animal to the new buyer. The system for acquiring and completing such paperwork is complex and seems to lack oversight, without inspections or questions asked.

No matter the international conservation status of the species, captive-bred individuals can generally be sold legally in Germany unless local laws specifically state otherwise. In many cases, a “proof of origin” letter is all one needs to show that the animal wasn’t poached from the wild — even though it may not be true.

Altherr says that Hamm marks a “proliferation of the illegal trade” as a lack of oversight and inspections, and a general disregard for low-priority crimes such as the trafficking of reptiles, allows traders to sell any species they’d like. These include animals that are threatened with extinction and could have been poached from the wild in countries like Madagascar or Sri Lanka and trafficked to Germany.

Representatives of local police and customs authorities who were not allowed to speak to the media confirmed to Mongabay that they were not going to inspect the fair in March. In 2015, however, a German customs unit followed a tipoff that led them to a hotel room in Hamm where more than 130 reptiles and amphibians, many of them protected and threatened species, were being sold on the sidelines.

The vast majority of reptiles at the fair can legally be sold, but, as one trader at Hamm put it: “If you’re looking for a special animal, I won’t say it’s not possible.”

Legal loopholes

International trade in certain animal and plant species is subject to restrictions under CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, which aims to ensure that threatened species aren’t pushed toward extinction by commercial trade. However, CITES only protects 8 percent of the world’s 10,700 known reptile species from the commercial trade.

Many more reptile species are protected under national laws, though. Since CITES generally lists species once their numbers are dwindling and trafficking has become rampant, the governments of countries like Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Brazil and Cuba have banned trading endemic wildlife in the hope of never seeing their numbers dwindle in the first place.

Green tree python or Morelia viridis is often illegally traded / Credit: Anonymous

It’s a pre-emptive measure, but one with gaping loopholes, says Jordi Janssen, a program officer with the Canada-based NGO Monitor Conservation Research Society, who specializes in the reptile trade. While nationally protected reptiles shouldn’t make it out of the country protecting them, bans no longer apply once they cross the border.

“This grey area is really the biggest problem at the moment,” Janssen says. Sri Lanka, he says, is a good example.

Out of the tropical island state’s 219 reptile species, many of which are endemic, all but four snakes are protected from being collected in the wild or traded. Yet trafficking in these species appears to be on the rise, Janssen and his colleague, Sri Lankan biologist Anslem de Silva, found in a recent study published in April this year.

The pair monitored online trading websites and a number of Facebook groups between 2016 and 2018 and found several hundred Sri Lankan reptiles for sale across Europe, with Germany being identified as the main hub. Most were advertised as captive-bred, but some were openly advertised as having been poached from the wild.

Protected at home, sold at Hamm

Species that fall under that category — protected by national law but not beyond the border — are a common sight at Hamm. Take, for example, Tiliqua rugosa. Known as the bobtail, this blue-tongued skink is relatively common in its native Australia, where it’s protected from trade under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act. This has made it a rare and highly coveted pet reptile outside Australia, with individuals fetching prices of more than $4,000. At Hamm, it’s one of the most expensive merchandises on offer.

“At the moment, they are really into curly endives,” a German breeder selling the reptiles, kept in small, glass terrariums, explains to an interested buyer from South Korea. All of them were bred in captivity, he says, given the strict regulations in Australia. Mongabay could not confirm his claims.

Both Altherr and Janssen say that no German or EU law stops the breeder from selling the species, even though at one point a couple of bobtails were trafficked out of Australia to begin captive breeding.

The Tiliqua rugosa pictured at Wyperfeld National Park is a protected species in Australia coveted at reptile fairs / Credit: Donald Hobern via Creative Commons

Just how tightly wound the legal and illegal trade are is exemplified by some of the sellers’ criminal records, with arrests for smuggling in countries like Costa Rica, New Zealand and Madagascar, according to news reports. Despite their records, fair organizer Frank Izaber continues to provide them with a trading platform. Izaber declined to comment for this story.

Journalists aren’t welcome at the fair, and photography is strictly banned. Security guards patrol the venue to remind everyone with a phone that they’ll be “escorted outside” if they don’t comply. Altherr says her advocacy got her banned from the fair.

To stymie the trade in Europe, conservationists have proposed a law modeled after the U.S. Lacey Act, which bans the trade in any species that was taken, transported or sold in violation not just of U.S. law, but the law of any foreign country of origin.

Such a regulation would also be needed in Europe, which experts say has become a popular hub and destination for trafficked wildlife, not just due to Hamm.

In 2015 alone, more than 2,000 reptiles were seized at the EU’s borders, which is believed to be less than 10 percent of the actual trade. In 2018, Spanish authorities dismantled an international reptile trafficking ring and confiscated more than 600 reptiles collected from all over the world. How many had already been trafficked and sold is unclear.

What is certain, however, is that reptile trafficking is highly lucrative. Some species can be bought for a few dozen dollars in their country of origin, are easily smuggled past airport and border authorities in check-in luggage or shipments and can be sold in countries like Germany for thousands of euros per individual. Izaber told a local paper in 2014 that some traders make 200,000 euros ($223,000) or more at the fair.

It’s so lucrative, in fact, that it pays off to fly in all the way from Asia, said the three South Koreans who had been bargaining for the Australian bobtail. They bought it for a little over 4,000 euros ($4,460). Toward the end of the fair, the trio had grabbed a table at the bustling Cafe del Sol. Together, they had spent more than 50,000 euros ($55,800) — a good exploit that will make them several times the buying price at home. Trading reptiles, they say, is their main job, and so they’ll be back for the next fair on June 1 this year.

“Hamm,” one of them says, pausing as he chews on a steak, “It’s just the best.”

Denise Hruby produced this story with the support of a grant from the Investigating Wildlife Trafficking project. A version was originally published on Mongabay on May 30, 2019.