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The National Environmental Management: Biodiversity Act requires that a risk assessment be done before a permit is issued for the importation of any alien species. There are, however, no standard protocols to guide such assessments. Nicola van Wilgen, an MSc student at the C·I·B, working under the supervision of Professor Dave Richardson, has started working on the development of a risk assessment protocol (RAP) for alien reptiles and amphibians (together known as herptiles).

Though herptile species are generally not seen as top priorities among invasive species worldwide, a handful of invasive alien reptiles and amphibians have had disastrous consequences in some parts of the world. These include the infamous cane toad and brown tree snake. This snake has been responsible for the loss of all of Guam’s native mammal species, most of its lizards, and 9 of the 12 native forest birds. Apart from devastating the native fauna, this snake has also had significant social and economic impacts. It causes power failures by short-circuiting electrical systems when it climbs onto power lines in search of prey costing over US$ 1 million annually.

Nicola van Wilgen and Dave Richardson (taken at Butterfly World and Tygerberg Zoo).

As far as we know, there are currently no invasive alien herptile species in South Africa, but the number of species being imported as pets is increasing. It is only a matter of time before some imported species becomes invasive. One problem is that each province in South Africa has different rules and regulations regarding the import of alien species. The first phase of the project involves a survey to determine what alien herptile species are currently present in South Africa. Information is being gathered from permits that have been issued by the nine provinces in the country as well as from zoos, private dealers, and animal rehabilitation centres. One of the aims is to establish trends in the imports of these species into South Africa as well as which species are in public demand and for what reasons. The data obtained so far suggests that nearly all imports and sales of exotic herptiles in South Africa are related to the pet trade.

The second component of the project involves an analysis of what other countries are doing with regard to risk assessment and how experience from these countries can be applied to the South African situation. The end product will be a risk assessment protocol which is implementable at national level in order to standardize assessment procedures and reduce the threat posed by invasive species, while permitting the introduction of those low-risk species for which there is sufficient demand.

Anyone who has any ideas for the project or sources of information, please feel free to contact us.;; (021) 808 2834