“What we know right now is that wildlife trade is only growing and the economic woes from the pandemic will take a toll on wildlife populations as more people turn towards payment instead of protection, especially in parts of Mexico,” said Cantu. “It’s a tragic situation across the board, but it undeniably spells out that right now is the time to increase trade regulations for imperiled species.”
Defenders of Wildlife and our partners in the Species Survival Network are urgently seeking increased protections for all 21 species of horned lizards as their populations continue to decline.
In a once every three-year chance, the United States or Mexico can bring a proposal to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) Conference of Parties next year in Panama and strengthen the trade regulations around one of the leading causes of their decline, international trade for the pet industry.
“You can’t say enough about how regionally important these species are ecologically and also culturally,” said Sharon Wilcox Ph.D., Texas representative for Defenders of Wildlife. “Almost everyone has a story to tell about horny toads, but today, many of them start with, ‘where did they all go?’. As threats like habitat loss, invasive ants, and domestic animal predation also stack up against horned lizards, Mexico or the United States has an incredible opportunity to lead on conservation efforts and propose alleviating the threat of unregulated international trade next year. It is an opportunity that can’t be missed.”
The most up to date numbers available from just the United States paint an appalling picture. In the 9 years leading up to 2015 more than 21,000 live horned lizards were shipped out of the United States. Roughly 94 percent of those were taken from the wild. The vast majority of those were desert horned lizards, which are unprotected and many were shipped to Europe.
In decades prior, estimates put the number of these iconic reptiles that were taken from their native habitats and sold as pets in the hundreds of thousands.
Additional data from Mexico over the last two decades shows they exported only 45 horned lizards for scientific purposes, but also seized hundreds of horned lizards for the illegal domestic trade, including threatened species.
"What we know right now is that wildlife trade is only growing and the economic woes from the pandemic will take a toll on wildlife populations as more people turn towards payment instead of protection, especially in parts of Mexico,” said Juan Carlos Cantu, consultant on Defenders of Wildlife’s Mexico program. “It’s a tragic situation across the board, but it undeniably spells out that right now is the time to increase trade regulations for imperiled species.”
Horned lizards are found strictly in North America and range from southern Canada to Mexico. They are known for their unique appearance, small size and are easily caught because of their slow nature and defense mechanisms. Instead of fleeing, horned lizards rely on camouflage, puffing up and some species are renowned for their ability so shoot blood from their eyes at potential predators.
While their cuteness and former prevalence may have made them an irresistible candidate for pethood, many actually die in captivity because they require very specialized diets consisting almost entirely of harvester ants.
Protections in Place for Horned Lizards:
• Currently, three species are CITES Appendix II-listed (Phrynosoma coronatum, blainvilli, cerreonse).
• Texas, Colorado, New Mexico and Oklahoma have given special concern protections, threatened listing or full protections for the Texas Horned Lizard (Phrynosoma cornutum).
• California and Arizona have given imperiled or threatened protections to flat-tailed horned lizards (Phrynosoma mcallii)
• New Mexico and Texas and Canda have given threatened, special or full protections to the greater short-horned lizard (Phrynosoma hernandesi)
• Mexico has given threatened or special protections to six other species.
• The most commonly traded species, the desert horned lizard (Phrynosoma platyrhinos) is not protected.
“It is clear from the numbers there is a high international demand for horned lizards as pets despite how horribly they do in captivity,” said Cantu. “As horned lizard species decline, CITES Appendix II-listing would help give countries the tools needed to better protect them. Including all species in the listing would eliminate opportunities for mistakes and mislabeling to skirt regulations while also setting them up for the future in this time of great environmental concern.”
What is CITES Appendix II?
• This listing would require any export of horned lizards to be authorized by an export permit.
• Covers species that are not necessarily currently threatened with extinction but could be if trade isn’t controlled.
• Includes “look-alike” species of CITES-listed species.
“Wildlife need a win right now and bringing a proposal to CITES for all species of horned lizards to be on Appendix II is one the Biden administration can easily give them,” said Wilcox. “People love ‘horny toads’ and for good reason, they are an amazing and unique species. States like Texas and Oklahoma, Arizona and Colorado, citizen groups and even zoos are stepping up to the plate for them. Let’s go all in at the international level to help out.”