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Humans have always had a predilection for consuming reptiles, particularly in tropical and sub-tropical regions. Turtles and tortoises stand out as popular species, with turtles the most heavily exploited for human consumption.1 Another growing threat to reptiles is the Southeast Asian traditional medicinal trade, with turtles and snakes in particularly high demand.2

Pig-nosed turtle, wanted locally and internationally

A turtle species which has suffered from over exploitation in New Guinea is the pig-nosed turtle (Carettochelys insculpta), also known as pitted-shell turtle, Fly River turtle or New Guinea plateless turtle.

In addition to being consumed in large quantities by indigenous people in Papua Province (Indonesia) and Papua New Guinea, trade in this species has intensified due to an increase in hatchlings being supplied to the international pet market.3

The pig-nosed turtle’s characteristic tubular nose has earned it a global reputation in the pet trade. As a popular collectors' item worldwide, its population is suffering from high demand. In its native area, juvenile turtles are being snatched for trade and the turtles' nests are robbed of their eggs, which are eaten.4

Crocodiles, leaving New Guinea as skins and back straps

Compared to turtles, data shows that crocodiles, snakes, and lizards are exploited in a less intense and generally non-commercial manner for human consumption (a few lizard species are an exception to this rule).

However, crocodiles, along with several large snakes and lizards, remain very vulnerable to the commercial skin trade.

Although both species of New Guinea crocodiles are currently listed under Appendix II (species not necessarily threatened with extinction, but in which trade must be controlled in order to avoid utilization incompatible with their survival) of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora (CITES), Papua New Guinea still exports wild-harvested and captive-bred crocodile products.5

These exports are contributing to a severe decline in crocodile populations and consequently a reduction in the biological diversity of Papua New Guinea.6

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Much sought after as pets or for their feathers, several birds of the forests of New Guinea such as parrots, lorries and birds of paradise are illegally exported for trade. But just the local use of a species can be detrimental to its survival; wildlife capture and trade of cassowary for traditional use has severely reduced their populations in some areas and where they remain, there is increased pressure for trade.7

Birds of paradise have also been historically traded, especially for their feathers. While West Papuans' use of the birds' feathers in cultural celebrations is part of their tradition, Europe was once the main market for the plumes, to be used for women's hats and accessories. Trade peaked in the late 19th century, when plumes from more than 50,000 birds were exported every year, generally to Paris for capes and hats.8

Birds of paradise continue to be smuggled out of Papua Province, Indonesia. The trade in the birds adds to the pressure they already get from continued hunting and the destruction of their habitat by logging, road construction and conversion for human use. Although banned by the Indonesian government since 1990, trading in the feathers of the birds of paradise is still ongoing.9

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Bird of paradise 
Bird of paradise
Clearly, the plants most at risk from over exploitation in New Guinea's forests are its tropical hardwood trees, such as merbau. Vast quantities are being exported illegally from both Papua New Guinea and Indonesia.

Agarwood, threatened fragrance

Other species that have come under stress are the trees producing agarwood. Also known as gaharu, aloeswood and eaglewood, this resinous, fragrant and highly valuable heartwood is formed in the trunk and roots of incense trees (Aquilaria species) that have been infected by a fungus.

Vital element of ageless practices
Agarwood has been traded since biblical times for cultural, medicinal and aromatic purposes. Ayurvedic, Tibetan and East Asian medicine turn to agarwood to treat a range of disorders including pleurisy, asthma, rheumatism and jaundice. Agarwood incense is also used in religious ceremonies and as a customary perfume, while its essences are used to perfume soaps and shampoos.

Agarwood-producing trees under threat
Because demand for this product vastly exceeds remaining supplies, several Aquilaria species have declined to the point where they are categorised as threatened in IUCN’s Red List. Six of these are considered at risk from over-exploitation for agarwood.

One of the problems with agarwood collection is that target trees are often cut regardless of infection, instead of being checked first for the presence of agarwood.

In Papua New Guinea and Papua Province (Indonesia), agarwood extraction on the rise
Since the Indonesian monetary crisis of 1997, agarwood harvesting in Papua Province has risen. On the Papua New Guinea (PNG) side of the border, harvesting is believed to have started around 1997. PNG's lowland forests have been the setting for an "agarwood rush" as local communities are now on the hunt for an aromatic wood previously unknown in the country.10

Trade routes
Transport of agarwood from PNG to Indonesia usually occurs by foot or by small boat. Singapore is believed to be the most common international destination for large shipments of PNG-sourced agarwood, mostly transported by ship and commercial air flights.11

What is WWF doing about this problem?

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An extracted section of agarwood. 
© Brent Stirton / Getty Images / WWF-UK
An extracted section of agarwood.
© Brent Stirton / Getty Images / WWF-UK

1 Klemens M, Thorbjarnarson J. 1995. Reptiles as a food source. Biodiversity and Conservation. Vol 4(3). Pp 281 - 298.
2 Conway T. 1998.  A Framework for Assessing the Relationship between Trade Liberalization and Biodiversity Conservation. Working paper. UNEP/IISD.
3 TRAFFIC website. Accessed 12/01/2005.
4 Klemens M, Thorbjarnarson J. 1995. Reptiles as a food source. Biodiversity and Conservation. Vol 4(3). Pp 281 - 298.
5 Klemens M, Thorbjarnarson J. 1995. Reptiles as a food source. Biodiversity and Conservation. Vol 4(3). Pp 281 - 298.
6 Hutton J, Ross P, Webb G. 2001. Using the Market to Create Incentives for the Conservation of Crocodilians: A Review. IUCN/SSC Crocodile Specialist Group.
7 Johnson A, Bino R, Igag P. 2004. A preliminary evaluation of the sustainability of cassowary (Aves: Casuariidae) capture and trade in Papua New Guinea. Animal Conservation. Vol 7(2), pp. 129-137.
8 Sinaga S. Unchecked illegal trade goes on in Birds of Paradise. June 12, 2001. The Jakarta Post.
9 Dursin R. Birds of paradise on flight to oblivion. March 3, 2001. Asia Times Online.
10  TRAFFIC. 2001. The last frontier of agarwood under threat in Papua New Guinea.
11 Zich, F. & Compton, J. 2001. Agarwood (Gaharu) Harvest and Trade in Papua New Guinea: A Preliminary Assessment. An information document prepared by TRAFFIC Oceania for the Eleventh Meeting of the CITES Plants Committee, with reference to CITES Decisions 11.112 and 11.113 regarding Aquilaria spp. TRAFFIC Oceania. 7 pp.