I am Ernie Cooper, owner of E. Cooper Environmental Consulting, Adjunct Professor for the School of Criminology at SFU and an expert on the international trade in wildlife. Ask me anything!
Large numbers of live tarantulas are traded internationally to meet the demand created by the thriving tarantula pet hobby. Much of this trade is legal and sustainable, supporting the livelihoods of breeders and promoting appreciation of these many interesting species. However, illegal trade in wild-caught tarantulas is also common, and poses a significant threat to the long-term survival of some species in the wild.
I coauthored the CEC Action Plan for North American tarantulas and the CEC guide to the identification of CITES-listed tarantulas. I also facilitated the 2018 CEC Tarantula Trinational Trade and Enforcement Workshop and have been reviewing and analysing data on international trade in tarantulas. I have been working on international wildlife trade and conservation topics for more than 30 years.
My proof: https://www.facebook.com/ECEnvironmentalConsulting/photos/a.843009115801450/1563469277088760/?type=3&theater
LOL! You couldn't have planned out my career path! As a kid I decided to become a biologist when I was 8 years old. I originally planned to be a herpetologist but ended up going into marine biology when I got to university. I eventually started working in the research dept. at a public aquarium, researching the early life histories of larval marine fish and inverts. While working there I was offered a side contract to identify wildlife products detained by Canada Custome for CITES enforcement...and my career took a huge left turn! I was eventually offered a job with the Canadian government as a wildlife inspector. So I was a biologist first, and then moved into the world of enforcement and criminology...
I love the work, but it is very difficult to stay positive. There is so much bad news about global wildlife conservation it gets disheartening. I am constantly reminding myself of the successes to keep motivated. If I didn't think I was making a difference I would do something else a bit easier...
Good afternoon Mr.Cooper and thank you so much for making yourself available to the community this afternoon. I have a few questions, please.
Going forward, do you anticipate that other countries will put a similar model, to the Mexican program, in place to protect their native tarantulas? Is that even an option at this point? Do you feel that other countries would be willing to work with hobbyists at this stage?
Also, in your time as a wildlife inspector, how often would you see tarantulas specifically being imported illegally into Canada and what was the most common export country to see them come from? I am assuming that they would most often come from a European source and not from the original country of origin. Also, did you see an increase, or decrease, in the number of those instances involving tarantulas during your time as inspector?
And one more, just strictly for curiosity... what animal/type of animal is most frequently imported illegally into Canada today?
Thank you. I would very much like to see other countries emulate the Mexican approach. I was thinking about that yesterday. Poaching and smuggling of Brazilian tarantulas is a real problem. They are protected by Brazilian law, but of course there is great incentive to circumvent the law, and limited resources for Brazilian authorities. I was wondering whether a regulated captive-breeding program like the Mexican UMA program could be used to help reduce smuggling...
When I was an inspector, the tarantula hobby was nothing like it is now. There were far fewer species in the trade, and they were almost all wild-caught. I saw some imports, but they were very small compared to the reptile trade. I don't believe I ever encountered any illegal shipments of tarantulas back then. These days, most tarantula imports are coming from the EU and the US. Exports from the EU are increasing as far as I can tell, probably because of the restrictions on US wildlife exports.
Most of the imports into Canada are of captive-bred animals, and like you said, they aren't coming from the countries of origin. However, specimens of Mexican Brachypelma are periodically imported from Mexican breeders who are part of the UMA program.
Any time I give a presentation or an interview, I am ALWAYS asked what animal is most frequently imported illegally into Canada. The real answer is that if I knew of a species that was being imported into Canada I would immediately pass that information to Canadian authorities. I work closely with Canadian enforcement, and provide them with any wildlife trafficking information that I come across...
Yes! I have two Brachypelma auratum spiderlings from Tarantula Canada. I have ten different Brachypelma species, but most were bred locally and are older now. Although they are often difficult to breed, they aren't impossible.
Nice. Are you planning to breed them when they mature?
Unfortunately, I don't really have the ability to provide the cool down that they require. I recently tried breeding a couple of Chilean species, one Euathlus and one Homoeomma, but it wasn't successful. Keeping them in environments that they can thrive in is easy compared to emulating the conditions that result in successful egg sacs.
Interesting. Is room temp not cool enough?
Is the Chinese govt news media actively trying to change a culture that thinks pangolin scales and other such endangered animal products are medicinal?
Well, not as far as I can tell. The belief in Traditional Chinese Medicine is ingrained in Chinese (and other) culture. It is exceptionally difficult to diminish the market for medicinal products, even if there is no evidence that they don't work.
Not as far as I can see. The belief in traditional medicine is strongly ingrained into Chinese culture. It is exceptionally difficult to reduce the demand for wildlife that is perceived to have medicinal properties.
I am a recent Masters graduate in Ecology and conservation biology but I am struggling to find work in the field. Each job in environmental consulting/ abatement and restoration industry requires on the job experience. I gained the experience to learn the systems in my thesis while doing field work and the associated writing of my thesis and other publications.
Any tips or advice?
A small related aside: The place where I did my research had a massive tarantula population that would migrate during the late summer early fall..there is nothing like it to see this migration in person!
Yup, been there. Look for opportunities to volunteer to gain experience. Be willing to do the tough unpopular jobs to gain experience. When I first started it was very difficult to get work in biology. I worked in labs "picking bugs" (sorting benthic samples) and did a lot of field work...living in tents and working in the pouring rain. If you can afford it, do some volunteer work overseas, that shows clear commitment on your part and helps to make connections.
I'm envious of your field work! I'd love to work someplace where there were large numbers of tarantulas migrating!!!
I have this stupid ivory necklace that I inherieted that I don't want.
Is there any place I can donate it to, who can use it in some kind of educational role, like.... "Here. Look at this thing... An elephant died to make this absolute piece of garbage trinket" ?
Because that's what I think every time I see it but I feel like throwing it away is a waste, if it could be used for education.
I completely understand! You could check with local museums. Do you know whether it is elephant ivory or another species?
My wife always wanted a tarantula and I finally caved and got her a Poecilotheria metallica (the tarantula she's always found most beautiful) and now we have a Antilles pinktoe as well. I think hobbiests and trade of tarantula species is a net positive for our understanding of them. Do you have ideas on ways we could change the hobbiest aspects in order to increase the positive benefit?
On of the great benefits of the hobby is that it is helping people to understand that spiders are interesting and valuable animals. Hopefully the tarantula hobby will help reduce the prevalence of arachnophobia. The best thing a hobbyist can do is to always buy captive-bred animals from legitimate sources. Support breeders and anyone who is trying to do things right. Read lots and be as informed about tarantula biology and conservation as you can. Be an advocate for spiders!
What can we do to be less afraid of spiders? Tarantulas in particular.
When I was a kid I learned to be afraid of spiders from my mom. It drove me crazy because I knew it was irrational. Plus, it was embarrassing to me because I wanted to be a biologist. I finally cured myself by getting a number of tarantulas, which I kept in my bedroom. That exposure helped incredibly. Another thing for me is that I love macro photography. Spiders are extremely interesting to photograph, and getting up close to them helped. Basically, exposure to spiders is a good way to reduce arachnophobia. It worked well for me at least...
Good afternoon to you sir, and thank you for doing this Reddit.
I’m being transferred from Calgary to Houston, Texas. My kids have a pet red knee tarantula. Her name is Ursula. Do I need to do anything special to bring her into the US? Or is it ok since she is a pet? By the way, we are driving down, so no airport security.
Yes. That species is listed on Appendix II of CITES, so you will need to apply for a CITES Appendix II export permit from the Canadian government. See https://travel.gc.ca/travelling/documents/cites-permits
Keep in mind also that The US only allows wildlife to enter the country through specific border points, and all wildlife needs to be declared. Blaine (South of Vancouver) is one such border point. You should contact USFWS first if you intend to cross the border anywhere else.
Thank you for doing this! I have a question about effective policies for deterring the illegal wildlife trade. I recently live in Tanzania for six months and did some work with a professor specializing in the illegal trafficking of wild birds. Tanzania used to have a legal wildlife trade for live animals as well as animal products. Consequently, it became a hub for illegal trade as well. Surrounding countries would traffic illegal animals through Tanzania. It seems like a lack of oversight led to abuse and actually strengthened illegal trade. In fact, I heard that law enforcement agents and governments were involved. This was incredibly discouraging to me.
I know that outright bans are often ineffective, but it seems like countries with corrupt governments/ limited resources are ill-equipped to establish and enforce policy for sustainable trade. I have spent a lot of time thinking over these issues and still can't help but feel that there are no straightforward solutions. Perhaps it would be better to focus on limiting demand in other countries? It seems unfair to place such a heavy burden of responsibility on countries that are already struggling to address serious environmental and social issues without sufficient resources. Maybe bottom-up approaches to wildlife management and anti-poaching would be a good idea?
I know that there are no real answers to these questions, but I would really love to hear your perspective on this
You have summarised the problems well. There are no easy answers. Sustainable trade is possible and can be beneficial to both wildlife and people, but it has to be properly managed. Corruption is a massive problem in many countries. Perhaps the biggest challenge to global wildlife conservation...
How much do you hate people like Tom Crurchfield? Seriously, though, I see a lot of Instagram famous folks who basically run around taking photos with exotic animals. @Therealtarzan comes to mind. It just seems like an evolved roadside attraction. Has social media had an impact on the wildlife trade? I see lots of middle eastern guys with tigers, bears, apes too. Is the trade up, down, flat? Are rules able to keep up?
Social media has had a huge impact on wildlife trade-both good and bad. Social media has made it easier for traffickers to find a market, but it also facilitates investigations into wildlife trafficking. Plus, social media also allows enthusiasts to connect in support of captive breeding and other sustainable activities. There are always yahoos and idiots...they are just more visible with the emergence of social media.
Are you relative of D.B. Cooper?
I'll never tell...
What are your thoughts on private ownership of endangered animals as a means of conservation?
Wow...that is a complex question. I support private ownership of animals as long as the specimens are sourced sustainably, and there are no other serious humane or safety issues. One could argue that endangered species in private hands provide something of a refuge to ensure that those species don't go extinct. But the specimens in captivity are still lost from the wild and are not actually contributing to the recovery of the species.
So, you can end up with situations like the axolotl (Ambystoma mexicanum) which is critically endangered, if not extinct, in the wild. Yet is a very common laboratory and pet animal around the world. Its hard to argue against anyone keeping axolotls as pets as they are readily captive-bred in large numbers.
Two questions really. Why have you focused on Tarantulas? And what from your findings can be extrapolated to other illegal trade animals in North America?
Over the years I have worked on many different taxa. A few years ago the CEC started a project that looked at the use and trade of North American species that are listed on Appendix II of CITES. Tarantulas were identified as one priority group (along with parrots, sharks, turtles and timber species). I was hired to develop action plans for all 5. Once the action plans were published, a series of new projects were started to implement priority recommendations in the action plans. I was contracted to produce the guide and facilitate the workshop. Partly because I am particularly interested in terrestrial arthropods.
As to extrapolating to illegal trade in other animals, many of the issues are common to all wildlife trafficking. One particular aspect for tarantulas is that females tend to live a relatively long time, producing huge numbers of offspring, very few of which will survive. Hence, trade in wild-caught adults is not very sustainable. This is very similar to the biology and trade in turtles...again trade in wild-caught adults is not very sustainable. I find the similarities between the two taxa interesting...
How do I get a job in this field? I am getting a PhD in genetics, and want a way out of academia.
I'm afraid I don't have a good answer. In my case I have been lucky. But part of my success has been my willingness to jump on opportunities that came around due to luck. I have taken pay cuts in order to take positions that I thought would enable me to do more for conservation. Consider volunteering, especially overseas if you can afford it...
Preface: I’m a strong supporter of stats in sociology.
Question: From a professors POV... Why is there such a hard focus in criminology (but, really all social sciences) to put statistics over theory?
Its really disheartening meeting sociologists in graduate programs who’ve never read ‘Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts’ or ‘The Protestant Ethic.’
Well, I work specifically on the intersection of criminology and wildlife trade (wildlife trafficking). I prefer to work with hard evidence rather than theory, mainly because there are so many agendas when it comes to wildlife trade...
I saw you worked at Vancouver Aquarium. Have you ever read Frank Schatzing's The Swarm? Almost got through it... Almost. The Aquarium was prominently featured
Really? No I haven't. I'll have to look up a copy!
Has there been a lot of demand for C. darlingi in the pet trade recently?
I haven't seen exceptional demand for them, at least not in N. America.
what is the biggest misconception about tarantulas?
Good question. I think a lot of people still think all species are dangerously venomous. There are a some old-world species that have pretty toxic venom, but that isn't the case for the popular new-world species.
Where can I get a unicorn horn? OK, that was a lame joke.
Seriously, what do you think it will take to get people to let wildlife be wild. I am a cat fan, and a popular breed these days is the Bengal, which is a wild/domestic cross. Now there are lots of hybrids and people clamoring for wilder examples. Cats are top level predators, and no wild cat is a good idea for a pet. I think that few people are really happy with them. Criminal sanctions cannot be the answer. What do you think motivates people to seek wild animals and realistically what can we do about it?
Tough question. This is something that we all struggle with (in the world of wildlife trade and conservation). Criminal sanctions are an important response, but not the only answer, as you said. Reducing demand for wildlife is the answer, but actually doing that is a massive challenge. I wish I had the answer...
Beyond the obvious reason - money - why do people traffic wildlife?
Money is the usual reason, but people also traffic in wildlife for other aspects of personal gain. Some people can become obsessed with collecting specific species or groups of species. For example butterfly collectors that want specimens of the rarest species. People also traffic in wildlife for status...displaying some wildlife, in some cultures, can increase the owner's status amongst his/her peers.
- According to your experience, a) What is the most efficient way to use the Guide? b) Are there additional ways to promote/enhance a sustainable and legal trade of tarantulas?
(a) The advantage of the guide as a pdf is that it is easily searchable. Information about individual species can be easily searched for, and important text can be highlighted. Plus, it is possible to zoom in on photos for a closer look. It also works best if you view it in a 2-page view, so you can flip through it a bit more like a book.
(b) There is a lot that needs to be done. Brachypelma tarantulas are threatened by more than just trade, so more needs to be done to reduce habitat loss and deaths of male tarantulas when crossing roads, etc. And of course, more needs to be done to reduce poaching and illegal trade. I am consulting with colleagues on what to do next. I think it will be important to get EU authorities more engaged...
What are the most exciting changes you see happening regarding reduction in the illegal wildlife trade? I feel we are constantly inundated with bad news, is that simply because there is no good news?
We are constantly inundated with bad news because there is so much bad news! However, good news also doesn't make as good copy. I am most hopeful about how conservation management is starting to shift away from pure protectionism to promoting sustainable use. Prohibitions rarely work without huge resources thrown at enforcement. And even then it is rarely a long-term solution. Promoting sustainable use, especially when the people who actually live with the wildlife gain the benefit of that use, has been shown to be very successful when properly implemented.
What is your favorite lesser-known fact about tarantulas that people should be aware of?
That females can live for years in the same burrow, essentially becoming a fixture on the landscape. Removing that adult female removes the many thousands of offspring she would produce from the environment...
What’s the importance of creating a Guide to Identify Tarantulas?
Border control officers and other enforcement authorities that are responsible for stopping illegal trade are not usually trained biologists. Despite that, they are expected to be able to identify many thousands of different species. There are more than 34,000 species of animals listed in CITES alone. So identification guides and other tools that can assist officers are vital to efforts for stopping wildlife trafficking.
How many tarantulas do you personally own?
What is your favorite kind of tarantula and why?
What are your thoughts on building a space elevator?
I am very fond of Brachypelma both because some are very beautiful, but also because they can be very calm, docile animals. I have a B. hamorii that I bought specifically to photograph for the cover of the identification guide. It is a lovely animal.
What can we do to help curb the illegal trade with wild caught species?
Try to be well informed. If you buy a tarantula, purchase a captive-bred specimen from a very reliable dealer. if you buy captive-bred Brachypelma that come from Mexico you are supporting breeders that are trying to conserve the species. When you are traveling, be very cautious about buying wildlife products....
Which endangered animal species is the most overlooked by the media and public that we should be more aware of?
Tarantulas and other arachnids for sure. Actually, trade in any invertebrate tends to not get much attention.
Snakes too...there is a lot of unsustainable killing of snakes for their meat and skins. Not enough people care about snakes...
I am an SFU criminology alumni. Do you have any career openings?
LOL! Sorry, I am a one-man business. I do subcontract work sometimes. SFU crim is a great program...
If you were gonna eat a live tarantula would you start withe the head, the abdomen, or the legs?
Indigenous people in Venezuela twist off the abdomen, then cook the rest in a fire to burn off the urticating hairs. The abdomen is roasted separately. Apparently the legs taste like shrimp. The contents of the abdomen are eaten like a hard-boiled egg. Apparently it tastes quite bitter. I will never know!!!!
Huh that’s actually pretty interesting. Thanks for the reply!
You are very welcome...
A Few questions related to exotic animal trade.
First a common refrain about Zoo's is they are a necessary component of conservation as both a way of raising funds for conservation and as a means to educate the public. I'm curious if you have any thoughts on a zoo's effect on the exotic animal trade. Does it encourage it? Does it in someway facilitate a moral hazard in your opinion since people perceive there is a place to offload animals if they don't work out?
Second on social media every now and then there come around an example of dying horns and tusks of ivory pink to ruin their commercial value.
I've always wondered if this is a tactic that works? And if so is it common?
Legitimate zoos absolutely contribute to conservation and don't contribute to illegal wildlife trade. The trade in wildlife for zoos and other educational uses is minuscule compared to the trade in wildlife for commercial purposes. We are talking fractions of 1% of the volume of trade. I have seen the posts about dying horns and tusks pink...there is no actual such program. The photos I have seen have been photoshopped...
What did you make of the recent Sokal-like scandal involving the publication of hoax articles to social justice or so-called 'grievance studies' journals? Do you think this reflects badly on academy? And how do we create greater ideologically diversity in academia?
To be honest, I haven't followed this issue and would need to read about it first. Sorry.
Gives a rough overview. If you do get around to reading about it, it would be interesting to hear (see read) your thoughts.
I'll read it asap...
Channeling Brando in the Freshman: if I wanted to eat the most endangered animal I could, what would it be?
Wow. Maybe a Yangtze giant softshell turtle (Rafetus swinhoei)? There are 3 or 4 left, all in captivity.
Are you a mason?
Edit : so its actually. r/askmesomethings ? Fuck man
What a fantastic amalgamation of specialties. As a young biologist looking to specialize in something highly applied and positive for conservation, your work is inspiring.
How did you get to where you are today? Did you start in wildlife, or criminology? Do you like your work, and have you felt it has made a difference?
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