Today I’m going to talk about the Lao newt, a species of salamander recently discovered in Laos (and yes, it was named after Laos). Before the newt was discovered there were no known species of salamander in Laos. And the way it was discovered was pretty unique. A herpetologist was in northern Laos for a wedding where people served alcohol with salamanders in it, supposedly for health benefits. The salamanders secrete a toxin from their skin, and locals believe that alcohol infused with these secretions is good for you. This isn’t as crazy as it sounds, a lot of natural venoms and toxins found in nature are used in modern medicine. But, there have been reports of negative side effects from consumption of Lao newts (people developed red spots on their body), so don’t go out drinking newt alcohol. Even on St. Patty’s day.
Anyway, the Lao newt was recognized as an unknown species almost right away; it doesn’t look like any other known species of salamander. It has warty skin, and broad yellow-orange stripes running down its back. Here’s a picture:
The geographic range of the Lao newt is relatively tiny, and it is this that contributes to the main story of this post. When the species was originally described in an article in the Journal of Herpetology in 2002, it was only known to occur in two locations. As is expected in scientific articles, the authors described these locations in detail. Adult Lao newts have only been found in flowing, slightly acidic streams in elevations of over 1,100m. Which explains its limited distribution; such specific conditions probably don’t occur in too many places. Where they do occur the salamanders are abundant – researchers found as many as 1,200 specimens in a 4.7km area.
When a new species is documented, most people are either mildly interested or excited that something ‘new’ has been discovered. There are always, however, those people who have minds that turn instantly to exploitation and profit, and have eyes that are permanently dollar signs. And alas, these people saw the article about the Lao newt, and sprung into action. Reptiles and amphibians are a growing market in the pet industry, and there are many ‘collectors’ out there. As anyone who collects anything knows, the rarer and more exotic the items in your collection, the better your collection is. And a newly discovered species so far only found in two locations is definitely a collectible. To add to the demand, the Lao newt’s beautiful colouration made it much desired in the pet market.
So greedy people followed the map the discoverers of the newt conveniently placed in the journal article, and began paying locals to harvest the newt. The villagers collecting the newts were payed from ten to twenty US cents per salamander, which would then be sold in European or Japanese markets for over 200 Euros. Not a bad deal for the resellers. But quite a bad deal for the newt. When there is a profit to be made, people stop being concerned with conservation and the species involved and simply think of the money. So large quantities of the newts were being exported for pets, before any research had been done on the species. And of course the Lao newt wasn’t a protected species, because no one had known about it before its discovery.
Eventually, through much more research and hard work, scientists managed to convince the government of Laos to protect the newt, making it illegal to harvest or sell the animal. Unfortunately, illegal trade continues, but at least it is now actually illegal. The Lao newt is not the only example of this story; a turtle in Indonesia and a rare gecko in southeastern China were both hunted nearly to extinction shortly after being discovered.
So what is the point of this story? I guess don’t go to Laos or anywhere else and harvest rare species. But more importantly, check where you get your pets from. There’s nothing wrong with owning a snake or a frog or whatever, so as long as you a) don’t release it into the wild and b) get it from a good source. Most of the popular reptilian species are bred in captivity now, so there’s no need for wild captures. If demand for rare exotic species goes down, there will be far less incentive for people to go capture them. That being said, I don’t think things are going to change in the foreseeable future. I really just thought it made an interesting, if sobering, post. Enjoy your St. Patty’s day!