Forty internationally recognized experts on trade in endangered flora and fauna gathered in Guadalajara last week for a four-day Commission on Environmental Cooperation (CEC) workshop directed toward the plight of Mexican tarantulas.
“Good,” I thought, when I first heard of the event. “But will it benefit the grassroots projects in Mexico which so badly need help?”
My less than enthusiastic response goes back to 1994 when the Carlsbad Caverns Association invited me to address a meeting of U.S. National Park people on the War Against Bats in the Mexican Countryside, caused by confusion of vampire bats with insect, fruit and nectar-eaters. My first-hand observations had resulted in an article entitled, “Who Cares about Mexican Bats?” which brought me to this meeting of those who, I thought, could easily provide funds for my dream project: radio spots on country-music stations, with Mexican singers explaining how to distinguish vampires from beneficial bats.
My slide show was warmly received by the park people who had been very upset about U.S. bats “disappearing” in Mexico, but at the end of the day I heard the dreaded words: “We’ll form a committee to discuss this.” Apparently they are still discussing it ... and my project still awaits funding.
Years ago, my friend Rodrigo Orozco devised an ingenious plan to save Mexico’s tarantulas from extinction by flooding the world market with inexpensive ones raised in captivity. He self-financed his personal war on poaching and succeeded admirably, but now needs funds to keep his project growing. Would last week’s gathering of international experts bring Tarántulas de México the financial assistance it desperately needs?
When these experts showed up practically in my back yard to visit the Tarantula Center in Pinar de la Venta, I asked for an overview of the CEC workshop from Hesiquio Benítez, director general of International Affairs and Implementation at CONABIO, the National Commission for Biodiversity in Mexico.
“This conference is about reducing illegal trade in tarantulas in Mexico, the United States and Canada,” Benítez told me. “It is the result of a project we started in 2015, analyzing international trade in CITES species in North America. We have a list of 56 species which we grouped into five action plans on parrots, turtles, sharks, tropical woods and tarantulas.”
In total, Benítez said, 16 species of tarantulas were the focus of these conversations, which, for the first time, put together people from academia, government officials, producers, traders, importers, exporters and investors.
“We almost put a lock on the room until all of us had the same information and understanding of the conventions, legal requirements, pros and cons for better conservation, management and trade of this group of species,” Benítez continued. “So far we are happy with this pilot workshop because the results exceeded our expectations. For example, during the coffee breaks, instead of everybody going off to use their cell phones, they were exchanging business cards, talking to one another and looking for cooperation. This is very good thing.”
Rodrigo “Tarantula Man” Orozco agreed it had been an exciting week.
“This workshop has drawn a lot of attention worldwide and this forces the three governments to pay attention to tarantulas, which is what I want” he said. “On the last two days we took steps to get Mexico’s red-knee tarantulas, brachypelma smithi, on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. This Red List is very important. It means official worldwide recognition of which animals are in danger of extinction. Some of our tarantulas will now be listed as endangered and critically endangered. This strengthens our argument that something needs to be done in Mexico, where up to now the government has shown no interest in these creatures.”
Another benefit of the meeting, Orozco told me, was communication with SEMARNAT (the Secretariat of Environment and Natural Resources) regarding problems faced by Mexican UMAs (Wildlife Management Units) that are legally exporting captivity-raised tarantulas. When they receive an order from abroad, they must request a permit, a process which can take from four to ten months. The long delay encourages U.S. buyers, for example, to turn to Europe for Mexican tarantulas illegally taken by poachers. For these, of course, there are no delays.
Orozco said Antonio García of SEMARNAT informed the meeting that delays are due to drastic cuts in personnel imposed by the government about two years ago. Nonetheless, he promised to “fast track” all future requests.
Orozco said SEMARNAT has not given any money to UMAs for the last two years, even though they are supposed to, but vowed to “keep begging” for funds.
“The trouble is that tarantulas are not emblematic animals like whales. No one is interested in them. However, I will apply yet again. I don’t give up easily.”
Rick West, a Canadian arachnologist and tarantula expert who attended the conference, spoke of his pride for Orozco and his work. “I’ve known him since 2002 and we’ve done many field trips together, but it’s the first time I’ve seen his breeding facility. He’s doing a really good conservation job here and the fact that he doesn’t get any financial support from his government is just staggering.”
Although CEC cannot provide funding, I hope it will draw the attention of some organization that does have money for worthy grassroots programs like Tarántulas de México, which, I hope, will fare better than my stillborn project to teach rancheros and campesinos about beneficial bats.