The Current

Crocodiles, cobras and other at-risk reptiles need our help, says biologist

It may be hard to imagine a crocodile or a king cobra as species that need protection, but according to a recent report, they and many other reptiles are at risk, including turtles and snakes in Canada.

Despite their bite, 1 in 5 species of reptile are at risk of extinction: Nature report

Scott Gillingwater works to protect at-risk reptiles in Canada. (Submitted)

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It may be hard to imagine a crocodile or a king cobra needing protection, but according to a recent report, they and many other reptile species are at risk, including turtles and snakes in Canada.

"This is a serious issue affecting a large number of species in a large number of areas, and Canada is not immune," Scott Gillingwater, lead biologist for Southern Ontario At Risk Reptiles, told Matt Galloway on The Current

"It is that southern portion of the country that has… had very robust, large populations of reptiles, which are now feeling the effects of, for lack of a better term, human interference."

The at-risk Eastern hognose snake can be found in southwestern Ontario as well as the Great Lakes–St. Lawrence region of central Ontario. (Craig Edwards/CBC)

More than one in five species of reptiles worldwide are threatened with extinction, according to an assessment of thousands of species published this week in the journal Nature.

Of 10,196 reptile species analyzed, 21 per cent were classified as endangered, critically endangered or vulnerable to extinction.

In Canada, some of the species Gillingwater works to protect includes the spiny softshell turtle, the queen snake, the spotted turtle and the eastern hognose snake. 

Reasons for decline

Bruce Young, a co-author on the Nature report, says the reasons reptiles are going extinct varies depending on the part of the world, but they include deforestation, destruction of habitats, invasive species and climate change. 

And while Young says climate change is an overarching problem, the largest of those challenges is habitat loss. But he says the report — which involved nearly 1,000 scientists and 52 co-authors — is a good first step in protecting the creatures.

"The first step in conservation is to assess, to figure out which species are threatened, where they're threatened, why they're threatened," said Young. "Now we can plan to bring about actions that will actually preserve these species."

Snapping turtles can be found across Canada, from Saskatchewan to Nova Scotia. (Submitted by Scott Gillingwater)

And he says that if changes are made, including protecting habitats, that's going to have other benefits as well. 

"That's expanding the world's list of protected areas to include more areas where there are these large concentrations of threatened reptiles," said Young.

"And what we found actually is that when you do that, you're also going to protect lots of other kinds of species, because threatened species tend to occur in the same places."

This fall, there will be a summit on biodiversity in China, and Young said it will be important for governments to agree on targets for conservation.

Conservation in Canada

In Canada, Gillingwater said there are changes that could help protect reptiles on home soil. Like the mighty alligator, he says legislation needs some teeth. 

"I think we really need to put pressure on government to put the teeth back in legislation," said Gillingwater. "When you speak to enforcement officers, they say that it's just not enough of us and not enough funding to do the work that needs to be done."

Gillingwater said that specifically in Ontario, the Prevention of Endangered Species Act used to be effective, but amendments have made for too many loopholes, allowing developers and industrial companies to continue with projects and only minimizing — but not preventing or eliminating — harm to the habitats.

More than one in five species of reptiles worldwide, including the marine iguana, are threatened with extinction, according to a comprehensive new assessment of thousands of species published Wednesday, April 27, 2022, in the journal Nature. (Adrian Vasquez/The Associated Press)

And he says this is an important fight, because of how important reptiles are to our ecosystem. Snakes help control the rodent population, for example, and snapping turtles snack on dead fish to keep shores clean.

"I do worry that with so many impacts affecting people that it is hard to remain focused on one particular issue," said Gillingwater. 

"Maybe it takes people like myself… and others working with other species to maintain that interest, that passion, that excitement in these species and the protection of these species that will hopefully be carried on for a long period of time into the future to make real changes that will help these species."   

Written by Philip Drost with files from the Associated Press. Produced by Paul MacInnis, Joana Draghici, and Matt Meuse.

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