Animals

There’s no way these cute, spiny creatures are all sold legally

Because echidnas are so difficult to breed in captivity, poached wild animals are being passed off as captive bred.Saturday, 28 September 2019

By Danielle Beurteaux
Short-beaked echidnas, found in Australia and New Guinea, are very difficult to breed in captivity. As a result, self-proclaimed ’breeders‘ are likely taking them from the wild.

What, you might ask, is a puggle?

A puggle is a baby echidna, an animal with quills that looks a bit like a small, round porcupine with a long nose. The baby emerges from an egg incubated in its mother’s pouch for about 10 days. Naked, blind, and less than an inch long at birth, it stays in the pouch for two months or so, until its growing quills start poking the mother and she moves her spiky offspring into a protective burrow she’s built. (Where the name puggle came from for echidna babies is a mystery, but puggles are also dogs—pug-beagle mixes.)

Short-beaked echidnas are found in Australia and on the island of New Guinea. They’re one of the world’s five egg-laying mammals called monotremes: four species of echidna and the duck-billed platypus. They use their short, strong legs, sharp claws, snout, and long tongue to dig up and eat termites (preferred) and ants. They’re such active diggers that they’re considered natural engineers—animals that help keep ecosystems healthy by turning over the soil. Short-beaked echidnas are cute enough that zoos want them and some people want them as household pets. But with their highly specific diet, digging behaviour, and potentially long life spans—up to nearly 60 years—they don’t make good pets.

It’s not known how many short-beaked echidnas are in the wild. In Australia, they’re a protected species, making it illegal to capture or trade them. Indonesia, where they don’t have protected status, sets an annual quota for the number that can be bred in commercial facilities and has a permitting system for trading them.

In captivity, says Arthur Ferguson, Australian fauna supervisor at Perth Zoo, in Western Australia, “they have been a very challenging species to breed, and breeding was quite sporadic in zoos.” (Perth Zoo is one of a handful of facilities that have successful short-beaked echidna breeding programs.) Species360, a conservation nonprofit based in Minnesota, notes that the zoo populations in the 96 countries it tracks are home to 180 short-beaked echidnas. And in all the years from 1902 to 2013, U.S. zoos, which kept a total of 119, bred only 19 puggles. Today, U.S. zoos have 28 short-beaked echidnas in 11 zoos, and according to the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, the last puggle birth was in 2008.

In 2012 in Indonesia alone, however, dealers sold as many as 40 short-beaked echidnas registered as captive bred into the exotic pet trade, according to Traffic, the nonprofit organisation that monitors cross-border commerce in wildlife.

Chris Shepherd, co-founder of Monitor Conservation Society—a nonprofit based in British Columbia, Canada, that focuses on the illegal trade of obscure wildlife—doubts that Indonesian facilities could have possibly bred 40 short-beaked echidnas in 2012. Similarly, a recent study calls into question whether Indonesia’s facilities could have bred as many as 50 in 2016, as claimed.

Traders, Shepherd says, are “clearly taking them from the wild.” Misrepresenting poached animals as captive bred—laundering them—is part of the complex supply chain of the illegal animal trade. Typically what happens, he says, is that a wild echidna is caught and smuggled to a dealer who requests a permit declaring it was captive bred. The animal, complete with paperwork, then enters the international wildlife trade.

The breeding challenge

In the wild, the mating behaviour of short-beaked echidnas may involve a train of up to 10 males following a female, says Alexandra Summerell, Ph.D. candidate at the Australian Museum and the University of Technology, both in Sydney, Australia. “This can go on for up to two weeks until she’s ready to mate.”

It was only recently that Ferguson and researchers at Perth Zoo figured out the conditions short-beaked echidnas need to breed in captivity. They closely observed the animals’ behaviour in the lead-up to their breeding season, and after mating occurred, they removed males from the female’s enclosure. They also built nursery burrow boxes outfitted with heat lamps for the female to isolate herself during incubation. As Ferguson says, the nursery burrow “is really important to provide the female a place to deposit the puggle and for careful management of that nursery burrow to support the successful rearing of the offspring.”

But even with its cracking of the echidna breeding code, Perth Zoo managed to raise only 12 puggles between 2007 and 2016, and two of them died. Since 2014, five institutions in Australia (including Perth Zoo) accredited with the Zoo and Aquarium Association, a nonprofit organisation for zoos and aquariums in Australasia, have birthed just 39 puggles.

A study by researchers with Monitor and Traffic noted that Indonesia reported having 33 short beaked echidnas in registered breeding facilities in 2016, including 15 mature adults and 18 echidnas born during the previous breeding season. Indonesia’s quota for breeding (and exporting) short beaked echidnas in 2016 was set at 50. Fifteen adult animals, if they’re all females, would likely produce only seven babies, explains co-author Jordi Janssen. And, since short-beaked echidnas don’t become sexually mature until about three years of age, the 18 animals bred in 2015 couldn’t add any new births to the 2016 numbers. Counting animals from previous breeding seasons, Janssen says, is one way to inflate the stock—creating a loophole that makes it possible to claim that wild-caught echidnas were captive bred.

“The numbers the [Indonesian] breeding facilities are putting out are just crazy,” says Summerell, who wasn’t involved in the study. “There’s no way you could breed these within that time period when Australian researchers have done so much research on them and aren’t getting these numbers.”

Shepherd says he and others have visited warehouses on the outskirts of Indonesia’s capital, Jakarta, where short-beaked echidnas are purportedly bred. The buildings, he says, are filled with shelves holding hundreds of plastic boxes or small wire cages containing various animals, from reptiles to mammals. In his judgment, these places couldn’t have been breeding facilities—they lacked the infrastructure, such as adequate space and proper long-term housing. Instead, they had the hallmarks of waystations for the trafficking of wild-caught animals to pet markets abroad.

“The facilities are not adequate to breed echidnas, and echidnas as a species are not suitable for captive breeding,” Shepherd says.

According to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service records for the years 2009 to 2017, S&S Exotic Animals—a business in Houston, Texas—acquired 16 short-beaked echidnas from Indonesia between 2011 and 2013. In 2013, S&S Exotics, whose Twitter account features a photo of a short-beaked echidna, imported six from an Indonesian exporter PT Alam Nussantara Jayatama, at a declared total value of £12,500. That’s half as many echidnas as Perth Zoo bred in a span of 11 years.

Since 2014, five accredited institutions in Australia have bred only 39 puggles, as baby echidnas are called. The last puggle birth in an accredited U.S. zoo was in 2008. In a single year, Indonesia sold 40 short-beaked echidnas registered as captive bred into the exotic pet trade, according to the organisation that monitors cross-border trade in wildlife.

PT Alam Nussantara Jayatama is run by Danny Gunalen, a sometime author and owner of Faunaland zoo, in Jakarta. Of the 16 animals sold to S&S Exotics, 11 are listed in U.S. Fish and Wildlife records as source F—a designation for animals born in captivity that don’t meet the stricter definition of captive bred under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora, which regulates cross-border trade in wildlife. (Attempts to reach Gunalen for information about his breeding program were unsuccessful. Additionally, S&S Exotic Animals did not respond to several requests for comment about the short-beaked echidnas they obtained from PT Alam Nussantara Jayatama.)

Indonesia’s Natural Resources and Ecosystem Conservation Department at the Ministry of Environment and Forestry is responsible for administering echidna quotas and issuing trade permits. Numerous attempts to ask Wiratno, the department’s director general, for the 2019 echidna quota and information regarding numbers of animals being bred and sold were unsuccessful. Questions about quotas addressed to Indra Exploitasia, director of Biodiversity Conservation, another department at the Ministry of Environment and Forestry that oversees captive breeding, also weren’t answered. Attempts to establish how many, if any, short-beaked echidnas are bred in and traded from Papua New Guinea were unsuccessful.

Smuggled echidnas—the detection challenge

Determining if a short-beaked echidna is from the wild—and therefore illegal—is difficult to do at ports of entry, as this UN World Wildlife Crime Report notes, and enforcement is less likely in source countries than at entry points in importing countries. Authorities test for parasites, which differ between wild and captive animals, but that indicator is imperfect because animals kept together may share the same parasites.

“There’s no tool that enforcement officers on the ground have to tell them whether an animal has been taken from the wild or legally bred,” says Kate Brandis, research fellow at the Centre for Ecosystem Science, at the University of New South Wales, in Sydney. To help solve that problem, Brandis says a tool is needed for “use in the field that’s non-destructive and will give you an answer relatively quickly.”

She and her colleagues are working on such a solution. They’ve developed a test on echidna quills, which are made of keratin, the material our fingernails are made of. (With time, quills fall out naturally or may become loose and can be extracted painlessly.) An echidna’s diet, identifiable in the keratin, can reliably indicate where it came from. Using high-resolution X-ray fluorescence, the researchers scanned quills and sorted the results into captive-bred and wild-caught signatures. They now need funding so they can produce a prototype hand-held device for law enforcement officers to try out.

Meanwhile, Alexandra Summerell has developed a lab test that uses mitochondrial DNA obtained from the root of short-beaked echidna quills to determine whether an animal originated in, say, New Guinea or Australia. She has validated the test to ensure its consistency, making it acceptable as evidence in court cases.

“If a zoo wants to know if [an echidna] is legitimate or not, they can send me a quill, and I can slot it into my data and see where it fits. If it’s sitting with the New Guinea ones, we might go back and have a look at where the animal is coming from.” That’s because there’s a good chance that a short-beaked echidna originating in New Guinea has been trafficked, whereas an Australian echidna may have been traded between institutions or injured in the wild and sent to a recovery centre.

Summerell says her research results suggest that the test will also be able to pinpoint the particular region an echidna came from.

The next step will be to use findings about the pedigree of short-beaked echidnas to assess relationships among individuals and to tell if echidnas have come from the same breeder. Summerell wants to extend the test to determine the provenance of critically endangered Western long-beaked echidnas, one of which was found recently during an animal seizure in the Philippines.

Weak enforcement

No test, however accurate and easy to apply, is effective without rigorous law enforcement.

If licensing rules and oversight by exporting countries are lax, says Monitor’s Chris Shepherd, the trade of laundered wild short-beaked echidnas will continue. Importing countries must be more stringent in enforcing regulations and controls. Wildlife exporters know the laws but often take advantage of importing countries’ leniency and of corruption along the supply chain, he says.

When exotic wildlife fraudulently declared as captive bred enters a country, the onus is on the importing country’s authorities to prove otherwise, and that, he says, is practically impossible. There’s a lack of funding, training, staff, and tools such as the device Brandis is developing. The U.S., for example, has only 122 wildlife inspectors at its ports of entry—far too few to examine all imports, according to a report from the conservation nonprofit Defenders of Wildlife.

Researchers are working to develop devices that will help law enforcement officers determine whether animals registered as captive bred were taken from the wild and traded illegally.

“Importing countries should start to play hardball,” Shepherd says. “If you cannot prove these animals are from a legitimate captive-breeding operation that is legitimately breeding individual animals to second generation, we’re not going to allow import. That would be the responsible thing to do.”

Additionally, Shepherd says, importers and buyers of short-beaked echidnas should educate themselves about wildlife laundering and illegal sourcing before they acquire them. Short-beaked echidnas are not endangered now, but taking animals from the wild could lead to that. “Where are we going to draw the line? Can you have anything for a pet, doesn’t matter if it’s going extinct or not, as long as you can get a permit for it, you’re good?”

That, he might have added, is how an animal becomes critically endangered—or worse.

Danielle Beurteaux is a journalist based in Montréal. Follow her on Twitter.
Wildlife Watch is an investigative reporting project between National Geographic Society and National Geographic Partners focusing on wildlife crime and exploitation. Read more Wildlife Watch stories here, and learn more about National Geographic Society’s nonprofit mission at nationalgeographic.org . Send tips, feedback, and story ideas to ngwildlife@natgeo.com.
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