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Iranian Salamander Gets Protected Status Due To E-Commerce Threat

  • Antoine Blua

There are thought to be fewer than 1,000 Kaiser's spotted newts left in the wild. Photo by WWF

There are thought to be fewer than 1,000 Kaiser's spotted newts left in the wild. Photo by WWF

Found only in a tiny region of Iran, the Kaiser's spotted newt, or Luristan newt (Neurergus kaiseri), boasts a mosaic of black and white patches, turning to red-orange on its legs, belly, and spine.

But the newt's beauty threatens to be its downfall, with the number of mature wild individuals estimated to have dropped by 80 percent in recent years to fewer than 1,000, in large part due to a vibrant international pet trade aided by the Internet.

In a move that is hoped to help curtail the pet trade, the 175-nation Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) meeting in Doha, Qatar, has endorsed an Iranian proposal to ban all international trade of wild-caught Kaiser's spotted newts.

Ernie Cooper, the Canadian representative of the wildlife trade monitoring agency TRAFFIC, attended the meeting of the United Nations body that ended on March 25.

He tells RFE/RL that the little-known Iranian salamander is a textbook example of what can happen to one species as a result of Internet trading.

"These animals sell maybe for $200-$300 a piece,” he says. “Most people aren't willing to spend that kind of money for a salamander, but through the Internet, you can find the 200 or 300 people that are willing to spend that kind of money. So the Internet was absolutely instrumental in creating the market that was driving the illegal poaching and the smuggling of this species."

Situation Critical

In 2006, the IUCN Red List classified the species, endemic to four streams in Iran's western Zagros Mountains, as critically endangered.

An investigation conducted the same year by TRAFFIC into the sale of the salamander found 10 websites claiming to stock the species. One Ukrainian company claimed to have sold more than 200 wild-caught specimens in a year.

Conservationists say endangered species and animal body parts are regularly traded on the Internet, as buyers and sellers take advantage of the vast global market the web can offer.

According to Cooper, the Internet has emerged as one of the biggest threats to endangered species. "What the Internet does is it provides an absolutely enormous market that anybody can tap into at very little expense, advertise their products, communicate with a market that is hundreds of millions of people. And that makes it very, very easy to find buyers for high-value or specialty items," Cooper says.

A three-month survey conducted in 2008 by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) found more than 7,000 species sold on auction sites, classified adds, and chat rooms, mostly in the United States but also Europe, China, Russia, and Australia. Most of what was traded was illegal African ivory, but also exotic birds and products such as tiger-bone wine and pelts from protected species like polar bears and leopards.

Conservationists say the size of problem is almost impossible to estimate. And addressing illegal Internet trade efficiently remains a huge challenge for the international community.

Small Steps For Conservation

At the meeting in Doha, participants in the CITES treaty endorsed a resolution calling on governments to draft measures to address the Internet trade in endangered species and on law enforcement agencies to dedicate a unit to focus on the issue.

IFAW campaign manager Paul Todd tells RFE/RL from Doha that the document shows that the parties recognized that Internet trade is a significant topic that needs to be addressed.

"The resolution calls on parties to look at domestic measures to see if they can be improved, to look at them taking the new realities of the online world into account,” Todd says. “Most parties wrote their domestic wildlife trade legislation decades ago, long before the Internet and the ability of the Internet to put people together at a global scale."

Delegates in Doha also voted for better international trade controls for overfished porbeagle sharks, and rejected requests from Zambia and Tanzania to hold one-off sales of their ivory stockpiles due to concerns that some may have been collected as a result of poaching or smuggling.

The ivory trade was banned in 1989, but two sales have since been granted to nations showing effective conservation.

In the private sector, the online auction site eBay has moved to limit the illegal trade by instituting a complete ban on the ivory trade in 2008.

But other high-profile attempts to give endangered species increased protection were defeated.

A proposal to regulate the trade in red and pink coral -- which is crafted into jewelry and sold extensively on the Internet -- was turned down mostly over concerns that the increased regulations might impact poor fishing communities.

Proposed international trade bans on five shark species and Atlantic bluefin tuna, which are in severe decline because of overfishing, also failed to pass. A similar proposal on polar-bear skins and body parts was also rejected.