A deadly fungus could lead to a lucrative black market in salamanders

It turns out the US is a "hot spot" for salamander smuggling

Last month, the US Fish and Wildlife Service banned the interstate and international trade of about 200 species of salamanders to protect them from a fungus — a move some experts fear will create a black market.

The ban is intended to protect North American salamanders from a fungus called Batrachochytrium salamandrivorans, or Bsal, which has been wiping out salamander populations in Europe. The ruling prohibits the importation and interstate trade of 201 species of salamanders, dead or alive. Enforcement agents at domestic shipping centers, at airports, and at ports who intercept a salamander will have to check its species. If the species is banned, the officer could confiscate the amphibian; smugglers could be slapped with up to $5,000 in fines and six months in prison.

The US is a "hot spot" for the illegal salamander trade

The illegal trade of endangered salamanders, especially the prettiest and most brightly colored species, has been going on for years — and the US is a "hot spot" for the illegal market, says Christina M. Meister, a spokeswoman from FWS. The ban will push many small-time vendors out of business since they will no longer be allowed to receive or ship salamanders across state lines — and may give some an incentive to join illegal trade. So many suppliers and buyers are still interested in the banned species that some traders believe that the illegal trade will grow astronomically.

"Anything illegal doubles in value — all [FWS] is doing is creating a black market," says Felton Willis, the owner of Reptile City Inc in Honey Grove, Texas. "Sometime in the future, some kid will wake up and say, ‘I want an eastern spotted newt,’ the parents will go searching online, and they’ll have to tell their kids that buying [a salamander] is like buying a kilo of cocaine."

The species covered in the new ban join other animals smuggled for the exotic pet trade. For example, over the past five years, pet traders in Iran have been dipping into rivers in the Zagros Mountains to catch the Luristan newt, also known as the Kaiser’s spotted newt, which sells online for $150. Experts now estimate that less than 1,000 are left in the wild.


Frosted Flatwoods Salamander (USGS)

Then there’s the Laotian Newt. Immediately after it was discovered in 2002, pet traders started selling it illegally all over the world. Importers were even forging its paperwork, says Joseph Mendelson, a biologist at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

Because Bsal poses such a threat to native salamander populations, conservationists and ecologists have been pushing for a ban for years. But for mild-mannered amphibian retailers who don’t want to break the law, there’s a very tangible economic impact. While amphibians make up a tiny portion of the estimated $60.6 billion Americans spent on their pets in 2015, FWS acknowledges that the ban will lead to an estimated $3.9 million in lost sales from pet vendors. The losses will be felt most acutely by hobbyists and small-time vendors that only trade domestic species; FWS estimates that about $2.3 million in losses, about 60 percent of the overall estimate, will come from small businesses alone. And factoring in indirect losses — for instance, people buying habitat items for their salamanders — the total cost to pet stores will be about $10.7 million, the report says.

the ban will lead to an estimated $3.9 million in lost sales

While distributors generally agree that limiting the import of salamanders is necessary to protect the amphibians, the ban on interstate shipping is what will hurt the small vendors the most, they say. That ban is essentially meant to prevent the spread of Bsal if it arrives in the US, according to FWS. Distributors don’t see it that way. They sell salamanders caught wild in nearly every state in the country along with hundreds of thousands bred in captivity, shipping them to individual pet owners or mom-and-pop pet stores in other states. If these small distributors disappear, people who would supply those companies would feel the loss of income, too. With thousands of salamanders at their disposal, some might look to sell the amphibians illegally, sending them across state lines themselves.

"For companies like ours, processing 500–600 orders per week, 95 percent of our business is done across state lines," Willis says. "That ban will take a big cut out of our revenue." Peter Lembcke, a science educator who breeds salamanders in kiddie pools in his backyard, says that the ban is going to stop him from selling the few hundred salamanders he ships per year — which means he’ll lose a fifth of his income. He used to make most of his sales online, he says, but finding buyers that way will be nearly impossible since he’s restricted to selling salamanders within South Carolina, where he lives.

Michael Shrom, a machinist who provides salamanders to NASA and other research institutions experimenting with limb regrowth, says that the ban on interstate trade is going to drastically hinder research. While scientists can receive permits to ship or receive banned species of salamanders, Shrom says he will no longer have enough economic incentive to keep breeding them.

Whenever something is banned, there’s always the risk that customers will find other ways to get the product illegally. "[Salamander smuggling] is a concern. I have no idea if that’ll happen, but I imagine that it could," says Reid Harris, a biology professor at James Madison University.

In the past, when the FWS has listed a species as injurious to native wildlife, online distributors linking buyers and sellers of those species have disappeared. David Hoskins, the assistant director of the FWS Fish and Aquatic Conservation Program, says that FWS doesn’t believe an illegal salamander trade is imminent — hundreds of species aren’t known to transmit Bsal, so they can still be traded, and Hoskins hopes that customers will simply purchase one of those species if they don’t want pet salamanders native to their home states.

James Lewis, the director of operations at the conservation nonprofit Amphibian Survival Alliance, believes that illegal trade won’t be much of an issue because the people who supply that industry know the risks of trading them illegally. "The vast majority of salamander owners are passionate about their hobby and supportive of conservation. They understand the need to protect wild salamanders, and I think very few will be interested or support an illegal trade," he says.


Cheat Mountain Salamander (US FWS)

The vendors themselves, however, are less convinced. "Oh, the black market is going to be huge," Willis says. "A customer asked me if this ban is going to stop anything. I said, ‘No, now you’re just going to pay $30 to $40 for a salamander that someone got out of the creek.’"

Lembcke, the kiddie-pool breeder, agrees that a black market is inevitable, though he’s not sure it’ll be quite so big. Customers who have heard about the ban are buying up salamanders much more quickly than usual — Lembcke says he’s sold more salamanders in the two weeks before the ban went into effect than he typically would have in several months.

"A customer asked me if this ban is going to stop anything. No, you're just going to pay $30 to $40 for a salamander that someone got out of the creek."

Lewis, of the conservation nonprofit, sees an additional risk in importing the species that were rarely traded before the ban. Now these non-prohibited species will be some of the few salamanders still freely sold as pets. Many of them are hard to breed in captivity, he says, so the salamander pet trade might see an uptick in wild-caught salamanders. That could reduce the numbers still found in the wild.

The ban looks like it will be here to stay; Hoskins says the feedback on the initial ruling has been largely positive. But Harris says that the ban didn’t go far enough — it didn’t restrict one species of newt (newts are a type of salamander) that might be a carrier of Bsal but simply hasn’t been tested yet. Even if the ban were airtight, experts know better than to think it can keep Bsal out forever. But it might delay the fungus’s arrival just long enough to develop strategies to quarantine and treat infected salamanders. After that point, the salamander trade might be able to resume again, though there’s currently no "sunset clause" in the ban that might allow it to someday become defunct.

The ban went into effect on January 28th, but the comment period is open until mid-March. In that time, scientists and vendors will try to voice their concerns to make the ruling more or less restrictive accordingly. To the distributors, customers are the ones that suffer; it will now be much harder for young kids geeked out on science to indulge their curiosity by owning a pet salamander. "Lots of people get into science because enjoy learning about the animals. And this ban is going to make it more difficult for people to interact with these animals because they won’t find them the pet stores they know," Lembcke says. For proponents of the ban, that’s a small price to pay to save North America’s diverse salamander populations — without the arrival of Bsal, kids can still go out to backyard streams and catch their own salamanders.