Cold blooded and most definitely not cute or cuddly, instinct tells us to run – and scream! – when we see a slithering snake even though only 10 per cent of these impressive ambush predators are actually venomous.
Reptiles – defined as air-breathing vertebrates that shed their skins – may not be as charismatic as megafauna like elephants, but that doesn’t mean they’re any less deserving of our attention. In our lifetime, it’s predicted that one in five reptiles will go extinct. But would we even notice?
Despite roaming every continent of the planet apart from Antarctica, reptiles may as well be invisible. Very few of us have heard of the critically endangered gharial – a thin-snouted, fish-eating crocodile that inhabits Northern India – or Madagascar’s rear-fanged, leaf-nosed snake and even fewer want to get close to them.
But far from being boring, this remarkably versatile class of animal can climb, swim, fly and burrow. To quote Sir David Attenborough: ‘reptiles can be lethally fast, spectacularly beautiful, surprisingly affectionate and very sophisticated.’
Saying ‘see you later, alligator!’ to these creatures wouldn’t only spell disaster for the animal kingdom, it would be equivalent to erasing 16 billion years of evolutionary history.
Reptiles first appeared in the fossil record 315 million years ago. The tuatara – a lizard-like species endemic to New Zealand – is the last surviving member of an ancient lineage of animals called sphenodontia that slithered alongside dinosaurs.
Australia’s pig-nosed turtle has been described by Zoological Society of London (ZSL’s) Head of Wildlife Recovery Mike Hoffmann as ‘a living fossil.’ Hoffmann is also the co-author of the groundbreaking research paper that brought the scale of reptiles’ plight to light.
A collaboration between 900 researchers and 52 authors across the globe, the first-of-its-kind, 15-years-in-the-making study of 10,196 reptilian species – led by NatureServe, the IUCN and Conservation International – laid bare the profound, human-driven extinction emergency reptiles are facing.
Prey and Predator
Their ecological services in deserts, oceans, wetlands and forests can’t be understated. Pollinators, scavengers and pest-controllers, reptiles are both prey and predator, keeping populations in check. Costa Rica’s vulnerable Black-headed Bushmaster controls local rat numbers, Indonesia’s prehistoric-looking, carrion-eating Komodo dragons (classified endangered in 2021) limit the spread of disease, while herbivorous reptiles like the Giant tortoise are natural seed dispersers.
While reptiles inhabit wide-ranging ecosystems, more than half are forest dwellers – a habitat increasingly fragmented and razed for beef cattle, palm oil and ranching
The reptiles most under threat live in the Caribbean, West Africa, Northern Madagascar and the Northern Andes according to the major study. Almost all their nemeses stem from human activities, with habitat loss being cited as the driver of their decline.
‘Reptiles [in the UK] are often reliant on habitats such as lowland heath, which is rarer than tropical rainforest and will disappear without active management,’ a representative of Amphibian and Reptile Conservation Trust (ARC), a UK-based conservation charity, tells The Ethicalist.
The Scale of the Problem
While reptiles inhabit wide-ranging ecosystems, more than half are forest dwellers – a habitat increasingly fragmented and razed for beef cattle, palm oil and ranching. The research revealed that 30 per cent of reptiles living in forested areas are at risk of extinction compared to 14 per cent of those living in arid environments.
Invasive species introduced by humans are also pushing reptiles closer to the point of no return. In Australia – home to 10 per cent of the world’s reptiles – the non-native wolf snake has wiped out the blue-tailed skink population on Christmas Island, while mainland’s endangered Grassland Earless Dragons are primarily predated by feral cats.
The country’s 900 native reptile species are also threatened by foxes, red deer and the toxic cane toad (introduced Down Under in 1935 to control agricultural pests), along with lawless wildlife trade, which is rife in Australia.
Exotic Pet Trade
Stuffed into socks and gagged with tape, then shipped like pieces of mail, it’s estimated a quarter of all reptile species are bought and sold online as part of the exotic pet trade. From 2018 to 2019, The Australian Department of Agriculture, Water and Environment (DAWE) reported that nine out of 10 animals seized from wildlife smugglers were reptiles.
In some more positive news, the country added 127 reptilian species to CITE’s global treaty, created to safeguard wild animals from illegal trading. Regulations are scarcer in South East Asia, where cultural customs also undermine its reptilian population. Monitor lizards and pythons are slaughtered indiscriminately for their skin while the region’s snake wine – where an entire snake is bottled alive in a grain alcohol – is touted as a cure-all and peddled in shopping centres and tourist markets.
These crawling, creeping critters are also not immune to climate change, with island-dwelling species being the most vulnerable. An ARC representative tells The Ethicalist: ‘Our native [reptilian] species are particularly vulnerable; their low mobility makes them especially sensitive to changes in the environment.’
Reptiles rely on heat from their surroundings to increase their body temperature, but if this happens too fast, it can impact everything from when and where they can forage to their metabolism.
For many egg-laying reptiles, the incubation temperature of the egg determines the sex of their offspring. The beginnings of a breeding crisis, hotter sands triggered by a warming climate, are causing an uptick in female turtle hatchlings across the globe from Australia to America. Nine out of ten of the Northern Great Barrier Reef’s green turtles are female, while in America’s sunshine state, not a single male sea turtle was born last year according to Florida Keys’ Turtle Hospital .
Fear and Fascination
Turtles and crocodiles face the most uncertain future of all. According to The Wildlife Society, more than 60 per cent of turtle species are in trouble, enduring a perfect storm of unregulated fishing practices, coastal development and pollution.
Heartbreakingly, just three Yangtze giant softshell turtles –aka the world’s rarest reptile – survive in the wild today, their numbers decimated by decades of dam-building, over-fishing and hunting. Their fate is already sealed: the last known female perished four years ago in captivity in China’s Suzhou Zoo.
As for earth’s largest living reptile: the crocodile (a group that also includes caimans, alligators and gharials), more than half of all species are globally threatened according to conservationists. Far from being bloodthirsty baddies, these apex predators play a critical role in the wider food web.
As well as controlling catfish numbers that would otherwise decimate healthy fish populations, they create habitats and shelter for other animals by burrowing and nest building; the critically-endangered Chinese alligator being a master of this.
So, how do we safeguard the future of these living fossils? Greater habitat protections, controlling invasive species and tackling illegal reptilian trade are key, but perhaps what they most urgently need is more awareness.
‘They [reptiles] are often under-recorded and underrepresented,’ an ARC representative tells The Ethicalist, adding: ‘the need for a voice for reptile conservation has never been stronger.’ ARC’s own efforts are already paying off. ‘We have released over 10,000 sand lizards [the UK’s rarest lizard] establishing the species at 70 sites.’ Proof that there is hope yet for our cold-blooded friends…