The British Tarantula Societies Conservation Spider
Is Now Officially on the
IUCN Endangered “Red List”
With mixed feelings, the British Tarantula Society is both proud and saddened to announce that the endangered tarantula, Poecilotheria hanumavilasumica – a spider whose fate this society has championed for half a decade, has now been placed on the IUCN ‘Red Data List’. As many of you are aware this spider was discovered by myself, Paul Carpenter and Jackin Jayaram in 2003 and described in the BTS Journal in the following year – as Poecilotheria hanumavilasumica Smith 2004 – BTS Journal 19: 2. I have probably been cursed, a thousand times, for choosing such a name, but my defence is that it is the name of a small temple, which is found in the ancient tamarind plantation that I had hoped, would be preserved as a micro sanctuary. The story of the societies efforts to raise funds, influence important Indian conservation bodies and establish the first tarantula micro sanctuary can be found elsewhere on this site. Alas, it all ended in tears. We were able to convince that wonderful and august body, the Zoological Society of London of the justice of our cause (that this spider in 2003 was the most endangered tarantula in the world) and thus the absolute priority that was the need to conserve the degraded habitat of this spider, but we then ran into that infamous mire of procrastination - Indian red tape, coupled with conservation politics. It was bad enough when one Indian conservation society informed us that it did not want be seen to be associated with a western hobbyist society, whose reason for being was the keeping tarantula spiders – but then it got worse. A report was prepared, which informed ZSL that my team had exaggerated the fate of this spider and that it was essentially common in the acacia forests Rameshwaram. That facetious report damned us and damned the project.
Well, that has now all changed. We can now belatedly rejoice in the fact that one Indian conservation group has had the integrity to properly investigate the distribution of this spider, publish the truth and champion the need to protect it. I am less happy with the fact that they have confused the issue by arguing that a number of other Poecilotheria species are also endangered. This has been done for conservation/political purposes, because this group wishes to see the genus placed on a CITES appendix. I would cynically argue, the reason for this high profile lobbying, is that it will give them access to additional research funds - and that the listing of these species on the “Red List” will inevitably place the whole genus one step closer to a CITES categorisation.
Fortunately, the genus is not endangered nor are the species (with the exception of hanumavilasumica) listed on the Red List - critical. Every one of these species has at least part of their distribution in a national park or established sanctuary. There are only two critically endangered species – and in both cases it because of the wholesale destruction of their immediate habitats. The species are Poecilotheria hanumavilasumica and Poecilotheria smithi. The last spider is from Sri Lanka and is dear to my heart, not just because I have observed the extent of the destruction of its habitat but also because it is named after me. Both of these spiders are critically endangered, not because of the activities of tarantula hobbyists, but because they have no part of their distribution in a national park or sanctuary. Both are in habitats that are disappearing at a rapid pace – and in both cases this is because of agricultural change and thus destructive and invasive modern farming or wholesale forest replacement programmes. Placing the genus Poecilotheria on CITES - in order to lobby for additional research funds, will not save these spiders. What we want is action to preserve and protect their habitats. Unfortunately what we will get is Indian conservation politics, which will waste the critical years that lay ahead, and will inevitably result in the loss of hanumavilasumica – probably just before the genus is placed uselessly on a CITES appendix. But whatever, it is India’s spider and if Indian conservation groups wish to see the genus Poecilotheria on a CITES appendix, then so be it. Let’s just try and get something else done as well.
To give you some idea of how bad it is – I will quote a National Geographic summary of the 2008 “Red List”. A more detailed picture can be obtained from www.IUCNredlist.org/details/63563 The latter number will pop up metallica. 63561 will get you formosa and so on.
“The Rameshwaram Parachute Spider: Restricted to a handful of plantations on the island of Rameshwaram and the nearby mainland of India, the Rameshwaram parachute spider is a critically endangered tarantula on the 2008 Red List of threatened species. The spider likely numbers fewer than 500 individuals, as its woodland habitat is being destroyed as plantations are being converted into tourist destinations”.
You will note, of course, that the implication is that this is all the fault of the wicked western tourist. What this report fails to reveal is that the island of Rameshwaram is an important Hindu temple centre. Consequently, if there is a need to establish new hotel complexes, it is because of the need to cater for Indian religious pilgrims and tourists. We may thus conclude that if change is taking place, it is because of the wishes of the Islands religious authorities. In which case, Indian conservation groups should be asking - why cannot the local religious authorities put aside and protect what is essentially a local religious site. This is the irony of the scenario, in that a large part of the spider’s population is contained in an ancient tamarind plantation that is dedicated to the local god, Muneeshwarankovil. Protect the tamarind plantation and the ancient forest retreat of this local god and you protect the future of Poecilotheria hanumavilasumica - which, fortuitously, is named after the temple site!
So what is needed?
1. To begin with we need to revisit the idea of establishing micro sanctuaries on the island of Rameshwaram. An absolute priority is the need to protect the tamarind plantations – particularly the hanumavilasumica type-site. Everything else should be viewed as secondary to that desirable goal and interested Indian conservation groups should be lobbying influential Indian religious groups. I suspect that bearing in mind India’s long history of Jainism; they may find these religious groups sympathetic.
2. Indian conservation groups need to re-examine their hostility to seeking western funds from hobbyist’s organisations. We want you to carry out professional field surveys – as do you. Our money comes with no strings attached. We just want to see professional field studies published in independent publications. At the moment that is not taking place.
3. It would also be desirable to see a decent field survey of the genus Poecilotheria carried under the auspices of the Zoological Survey India. This will involve collecting voucher specimens of each species studied and then housing those specimens in the national Indian collection. I am sorry gentlemen, minor colleges will not do! Can somebody explain to me why the first Poecilotheria species to be described by an Indian biologist is not housed in the national collection in Calcutta? Where is this type going to be in 100 years time?
4. Poecilotheria smithi is also critically endangered. In my ignorance I am aware of only one Sri Lankan organisation that has the expertise with this genus to carry out a professional field survey, and that is IUCN – Sri Lanka. I have had the honour to work alongside this wonderful group of dedicated biologist’s and if funding was available, I am sure that they would be able to draw up a conservation policy study, with recommendations for the future of this spider. Once again the BTS would be honoured to assist in raising funds.
5. Captive breeding and reintroduction. This must be viewed as a last resort but it may be necessary for Indian and Sri Lankan zoological societies, university departments, conservation organisations to collect material for a captive breeding programme – come a worst case scenario. Please remember that it is not necessary to reinvent the wheel (despite nonsense published by US Fish & Wildlife, some years back (in support of a CITES application!) that the genus Poecilotheria is difficult to breed in captivity) this genus is commonly bred in Europe and countless papers have been published in the BTS Journal on the subject. I would ask all western zoos with invertebrate breeding facilities to experiment with the captive breeding of the genus Poecilotheria – so that you are familiar with this spider. We should also be looking at the establishment of a European and North American studbook and a creating list of experienced hobbyists with a history of breeding this genus. As for the thorny question of reintroduction, if you cannot reintroduce successfully an opportunistic arboreal tarantula like Poecilotheria – then it is unlikely you will be able to reintroduce any other endangered theraphosid spider in a worst-case scenario. And, once again, we should be looking at establishing micro sanctuaries in the inevitable patches of remnant forest that survives amongst the commercial plantations – with green corridors to ensure access. Think small and practical and commercial plantation owners may be sympathetic about putting aside land and preserving an arthropod predator that feeds on palm weevils and other crop pests.
Which brings me to the moral stand made by this societies webmaster, Mark Pennell concerning the banning of the sale of captive bred Poecilotheria hanumavilasumica spiderlings on the BTS website. I gather that he has been damned if he does and damned if he does not. Can I remind the membership that when we campaigned to save the Hanumavilasum tamarind plantation we asked all trader/collectors to please respect the site and not collect these endangered spiders? It would seem that this request was ignored and spiders were collected and we presume captive bred. A hobbyist who now resides in the UK has now offered the spiderlings / juveniles for sale (having purchased or intended to purchase them from the original German traders) and is now upset and bemused that Mark Pennell has turned down his request to market them on the BTS Website. Hopefully the tone of this whole article will give him some idea why it is morally unjustifiable for us to give tacit support to the marketing of these spiders. I am proud on the behalf of the hobby in the UK, to observe that this view is shared by all of the other leading British tarantula websites.
The Tarantula Store and Arachnophiles you are all righteous people.
Andrew M Smith
British Tarantula Society