In China, keepers and traders of exotic pets are feeling the crackdown on wildlife crime in the country. Selling, buying and keeping without a permit a species included in CITES Appendix II can now easily land a person behind bars.
Many people purport to be unaware that they are breaking the law when buying their pets - many Appendix II species, especially parrots and turtles, have long been captive-bred on large scale in China and are still being sold openly.
However, it is becoming more difficult to claim ignorance. Reports of arrests for possession of African grey parrots, box-turtles and Burmese pythons are now commonplace in the Chinese media. Such reports usually come with warnings from the police for pet owners to check the status of the species they own or want to buy.
One of the latest casualties of the crackdown is one Li Song, a spider enthusiast and entrepreneur, who set up an on-line pet trading platform called “Reptile and Arthropod Family”, allegedly, the largest seller of pet spiders in northern China. The story of Li and his “Family's” demise was reported on no less than China Central Television.
The “Family”, that relied on live-streaming to sell its goods, had customers in 40 cities and 19 provinces across China, and, according to the police, made almost 1 million US dollars in profit since starting operations in 2018.
Li’s journey from an unemployed worker to spider-trading kingpin was made possible by one Mr Jiang, who gave Li a job at his spider raising business. And after two years of learning the craft from Jiang, to whom, the police say, Li always referred reverentially as shifu – “master”, Li went solo, setting up Reptile and Arthropod Family.
Li’s business model was simple. He bought young spiders (the police did not mention where) for less than 10 yuan (around one US dollar), and then sold them after a year for more than ten times the price.
Alongside legally traded species, Li also sold two species of Mexican tarantulas - Mexican firelegs (Brachypelma boehmei) and Mexican flame knees (Brachypelma auratum).
Mexican flame knees (Brachypelma auratum).
All species of giant tarantulas of Brachypelma genus are listed in CITES Appendix II. Their wild populations are threatened by over-collecting for pet trade – these large and beautiful spiders are extremely docile and easy to keep, and often recommended to beginner hobbyists.
On Chinese on-line arthropod trading forums, Brachypelma are simply called “B-genus”. According to CITES records, China’s total ever importation of B. boehmei and B. auratum stands at just 30 individuals.
Li was also charged with keeping and selling other Appendix II species without a permit, including Burmese pythons (Python bivittatus).
Li was sentenced to 2 years and one month in prison and fined 10,000 yuan (around USD 1,500). More than 5,000 animals were seized from Li’s specially-built facility where he kept and bred reptiles and arthropods. Over a hundred of Li’s customers, including people who re-sold the animals purchased from Li, were detained, and 49 are facing criminal charges.
The police were alarmed by the fact that over a third of Li’s customers were “youngsters”. The age was not given, but they are likely to have been teenagers.
The “youngsters” who bought pretty spiders on-line unaware of their CITES status, were not charged. The police are now carrying out educational work, explaining wildlife protection laws to both the youngsters and their parents.
These spider-loving youngsters did not impress much Li Fei, the head of the Jinan police team dealing with environmental crime. In an interview with China Central Television, Li Fei said: "The youngsters who like these kind of animals all have one thing in common. In terms of their social skills and personality - they have this kind of introverted, stuck-in-your-bedroom feeling about them."