The spider web has grown exponentially over the years: There are Facebook forums and places to buy and sell spiders and mystery spider unboxings on YouTube. And while the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) monitors some wildlife trade traffic, it doesn’t tend to pay as much attention to less cute animals like spiders.
That’s where Alice Hughes comes in. A conservation biologist at the University of Hong Kong, Hughes and her colleagues recently found that while 1,000 arachnid species are being traded online, only 2 percent are covered by CITES, the major international regulation in this space.
On Friday’s episode of What Next: TBD, I spoke with Hughes about the booming online marketplace of arachnids, how the pandemic contributed to its success, and the lack of sufficient regulations for the spider trade. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity
Lizzie O’Leary: One of the most striking things you’ve found is that these animals are not bred in captivity and that as many of 70 percent of the animals traded online come from the wild. How is this enabled by the internet?
Alice Hughes: In the past, your trader in the middle of Borneo did not have a mobile phone. You would’ve relied basically on quite a slow system of people going through a middleman and the middleman then going and saying, “OK, I’m trying to find these species,” or “Have you got anything new for me?” But now we live in a world where everyone is connected to the internet.
Often this is now taking place on things like Facebook and Instagram. The sellers are directly connected to the buyers and you have no middleman. No matter what corner of the planet you’re on, you can be accessing wildlife that comes directly from the wild, and there is no data on what quantity of wildlife is coming. When it started is difficult to know, but in the last few years, it’s just become an absolutely massive issue. It’s become very hard to regulate.
When you say this is a massive issue, how big?
It’s difficult to estimate quite how large it is because the data simply does not exist. CITES regulates a vanishingly small proportion of this trade.
That means that outside a small number of countries, there are not good inventories of publicly available information that actually shows what is being imported. For a region like Europe, there is virtually no accessible data. We know many of the animals that are in the online trade are coming from the wild, but we cannot say exactly how many because there is no mandate to make that information available.
But something that is also important to note is that many of these species are very range-limited. There may be only a small population or a small area. So if collectors go there, they could potentially collect out the entire wild population for the pet trade, and scientists may not know this happened until afterwards. They go back to check a site, and they can’t find the species anymore. We know that this has potentially happened to at least 21 amphibian species, but the potential for it to happen is absolutely massive. For example, we found that about 75 percent of the arachnid species in trade came from just one country. So if those countries don’t legislate to protect their species, most species could go extinct because they don’t occur anywhere else on the planet.
So if you have, say, some previously un-described Peruvian tarantula and all of those get collected and sold, that’s it, they’re gone?
Yeah. I mean, you’ll have a captive population, but that would be it. This is a much bigger issue than most people realize. Because one of the motivations for trade is novelty. You want to have it before anyone else does. A bit like Pokémon cards, you want the coolest, the newest thing. There’s actually a joke that when a new species of gecko gets described in Myanmar, two Germans get on a plane with suitcases. This is a real issue. We found a host of species in all of these groups that are being traded the year they get described, sometimes before they get described, because the traders will hear about it. But there are also scientists who now will not put the location of species they’ve described because they know if they do, the traders will go there to collect it.
I have watched several of these arachnid unboxings. Are these being sold at online arachnid merchandisers? Are they being sold via social media direct buying and selling? What is the mechanism?
All of the above. That’s one of the reasons it’s so hard to control. Terraristika is one of the major ones we’ve looked at for all of our assessments to get an idea of how trade is changing over time. For all of these groups, it tends to be increasing in terms of the number of species being traded. But in recent years, it’s also diversified probably in part because some types of media are trying to crack down or regulate the sale of some of these animals. So social media has become progressively used because it’s much harder to regulate or see what’s going on.
As the trade has grown, sellers have gotten more sophisticated, realizing they might get caught if they advertised an endangered tarantula openly in a Facebook group. Instead, they will send private messages to everyone in a group asking if they’re interested. What do platforms say about this?
Most of these platforms have mandated that they’re not allowed to have the sale of live animals. This is why in the last few years you have fewer groups that are buying and selling. But even if you report it, often those listings stay up. Often those sellers do not get banned. So it’s generally pretty ineffective. They have taken down things like tiger trade or pangolin scales, but for other animals, they just don’t seem to view it as a serious issue.
How has the pandemic played a role in all of this?
There’s two major different dimensions that we need to know about that impacted the pandemic on trade. One of them is what’s happening in the source countries. Now, many of these source countries, if we think about places like Malaysia, will have had movement restriction orders, and they will also have seen the loss of tourists.
Incredibly strict lockdown policies mean that the rangers who would normally be protecting a national park are not working, and they are not going anywhere near the park. They may not be being paid. This means that suddenly you have open access to areas that would normally have at least some level of safeguarding, meaning that many populations that would normally be at least a bit protected are not only vulnerable, but the people who’d normally be doing the patrolling are not getting a salary and they’d be looking for other sources of income. So you have potentially more extraction of vulnerable species.
At the same time, you have people who are stuck in their homes in a limited space and are bored, and having a house full of spiders is something that a lot of people are attracted by. If you look at the search trends online, what we found on things like the Google Trends is that searches for things like “tarantula for sale” all increased. People wanted to get more of these exotic, exciting pets while they were unable to leave their house. You have an increase of demand, and you have an increase of supply. You also have an increase of access to species that might not be that available. You have the perfect storm in terms of endangering these species.
The international treaty group CITES lists some species that are protected, and the International Union for Conservation of Nature designates species as endangered. Is there any other overarching legislation?
There is only national legislation. Of course, that means that every country has its own rules, and it can be very easy to circumnavigate them, especially given that you can’t expect a customs officer to recognize some random spider species. At the moment, we are in a situation where we are basically relying on people who have no expertise to decide what is legal and illegal. That means that it is very easy to launder out species under fake names, to change the numbers, to reuse CITES permits even if you have them. As a consequence, we have a lack of regulation for the majority of species in trade. Most of this is legal. Because if you only have 30 species of arachnids that have any protection under CITES, you have literally about 50,000 species with no protection under CITES. Whilst most of those are not being traded, a significant proportion are.
I think it’s a lot easier for people to be concerned about trade in beautiful parrots or in rare sloths or pangolins. Why should people should care if thousands of arachnids are crossing borders and being traded online?
Think about playing Jenga. Now, sometimes when you pull out a block, nothing happens. Sometimes the first time you pull out a block, the entire tower collapses, and sometimes when you pull out a few blocks, it collapses. When we remove species and we perturb ecosystems, it’s doing the same thing. You’re destabilizing the ecosystem. When you do it enough, that ecosystem could collapse and have fundamental, irreversible consequences, and those include things like spillover risk.
When we introduce invasive species, when we remove species, we force shifts in the ecosystems. For a group like arachnids, they’re predators. If you remove all the predators from a system, of course you’re going to get an explosion of the things that they are eating. That is going to then cause another problem, like, well you’ve just killed off the plants because there’s been too many things eating them. You have a cascade of different influences. We need to think in a much more holistic way that maybe you don’t like that spider, but you probably don’t like the mosquito that it ate even more than you didn’t like the spider. We need to make sure we protect the whole ecosystem and enjoy the many services it provides, some of which we enjoy, and we’re not even aware of the fact that all of this is a system. When we perturb it, we could face unintended consequences.
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.