High angle view of Fire salamander larva showing the external gills, Salamandra salamandra, in front of white background. Photo © Eric Isselee.

The Standing Committee of the Bern Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats has acted to help reduce the spread of a new deadly fungal disease capable of wiping out salamander and newt populations. At its annual meeting at the Palace of Europe in Strasbourg, France last week – thanks to prompt interest, research and action by the Swiss Authorities – the Committee adopted a recommendation for countries to take a wide range of new disease control measures including imposing immediate restrictions on the commercial salamander and newt trade in order to help prevent further spread of the disease.

The newly discovered flesh-eating chytrid fungus, Batrachochytrium salamandrivorans, is native to Asia and is thought to have been introduced to Europe via amphibians imported for the exotic pet trade. The disease has recently brought fire salamander populations in the Netherlands to the brink of extinction, causing up to 96% declines and is feared likely to have a devastating effect on amphibian biodiversity elsewhere in Europe. With almost one third of amphibian species already in global decline, these restrictions are seen as an important step in attempting to bring the disease under control. The Standing Committee also recommended that a scientific risk assessment be conducted to assess detailed aspects of the new controls.

The Animal Protection Agency alongside Eurogroup for Animals (a pan-European umbrella body representing 49 animal welfare organisations) of which it is a member, have welcomed the recommendation to restrict the trade and stressed the importance of its urgent implementation and enforcement in order to protect salamander biodiversity.

Says Elaine Toland, Director of the Animal Protection Agency, which campaigns against the trade in wild animals as pets: “The risk of importing new and unknown pathogens is inherent to the international exotic pet trade, which far too often has been allowed to continue regardless. We are thankful therefore for this recommendation and trust that Member States will take the urgent steps that need to be taken to stop the trade in salamanders and newts over the next few weeks. In the longer term, the EU should adopt a precautionary approach to the exotic pet trade and implement positive lists and bans where necessary.”

Says Tom Langton, conservation ecologist and expert consultant on amphibian and reptile conservation priorities to the Bern Convention in 2015: A huge debt of gratitude must be paid to the Council of Europe and the Swiss government for their prompt intervention. The massive risks to biodiversity from the increasingly damaging international pet trade are long known. Costs will be cripplingly high and with no guaranteed outcome. One has to look to the failure of CITES and EU controls over 20 years in arriving at such inevitable crisis. The meagre economic benefits of the often damaging trade in wild animals are not sustainable. Europeneeds a similar system to Australia, where wildlife management is more professional and credible.”

The fungal pathogen is already infecting wild amphibian populations in Belgium and has reached Germany. In the UK, where it has affected captive salamander collections, reserve managers are concerned about the threat posed to the declining great crested newt (Triturus cristatus). DEFRA is expected to take prompt action in days to follow the recommendation in accordance with its Bern duties and advice is expected shortly. Wild populations of other countries, and possibly other continents, are also under imminent threat from the spread of the disease if urgent action is not taken.

Says Dr Silviu Petrovan, Conservation Coordinator at Froglife, the UK amphibian and reptile conservation charity: “Decisive and rapid implementation of these measures is needed, coupled with adequate implementation of biosecurity protocols for people and organisations working with wetlands and amphibians. These will help stop the spread of this deadly fungus, which could wipe out a hugely important part of our biodiversity. The UK has three species of native newts and hosts internationally important populations of the European protected and declining great crested newt, all of which are at risk from this new disease.”

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