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A species of Philippine forest spider. (Photo Source: Philippine Arachnophiles)

Results of the recently completed study supported by the National Research Council of the Philippines (NRCP) point to illegal spider trade – both foreign and domestic – as the main threat to the diversity and conservation of the spider species in the Philippines.

Dr. Aimee Lynn A. Barrion-Dupo, NRCP researcher from the Biological Sciences Division and a Research Professor from the University of the Philippines Los Baños, Laguna, reported that spiders especially forest-dwelling species are indiscriminately extracted from the wild to feed the growing demand for pet trade and spider-wrestling market in the country.

Dr. Dupo explained that collectors and poachers collect these spiders from rice fields adjacent to the forests and sell them to gamers for around P5.00 to as high as P 100.00 a piece for wrestling and derby games that involve large sums of money in form of bets ranging from P 500 to P 10,000 for a one-round game. “Each round can end up with either a dead spider or an injured one. Injured spiders are ‘recycled’ as feedstuff for other derby spiders and are never returned to the wild,” she added.

This scenario poses a great risk to the sustainability of the spider population because 96% of the spiders used in wresting are reproductive females according to Dr. Dupo’s report.

Spiders play a crucial role in agriculture and crop protection by serving as primary controllers of insect pests. Without spiders, agriculture will be in peril because our crops will be consumed by those pests. The future and sustainability of organic farming will also be uncertain because this agricultural practice relies heavily on biological pest control such as spiders.

Researchers at foreign research universities and institutions are now studying the potentials of chemicals present in the saliva of spiders in developing pain-control drugs and potential cure for patients suffering from muscular dystrophy.

However, there is also a growing international and local demand for spiders (e.g. tarantulas) as pets and certain spiders command high prices in the trade markets. Traders are lured to persist in the “business” because control measures and regulations are not effectively implemented in terms of trading and collection and the availability of market channels. Dr. Dupo reported that traders openly sell online even the Philippine endemic spider species Orphnaecus philippinus for $32.00 or P 1,500  a piece.

Two of our native spider species: Phlogiellus baeri and Orphnaecus philippinus are openly exported as pets without restrictions.  A quick search in the internet reveals the rampant open selling of our native tarantulas to local buyers and international traders.

Philippine native tarantulas (L: Phlogiellus baeri; R: Orphnaecus philippinus) openly sold online as pets. (Photo Source: Philippine Arachnophiles). These Old World tarantulas are sold from US$ 38 to US$ 45 a piece. The “rarity” of the species is often used as selling point.

How Basic Research Helped

To aid in the assessment of risks this unregulated collection activities may have to the diversity of spiders, the research team of Dr. Dupo explored various islands of the country to collect, code and classified the species of spider up to family level. The research work provided them basic knowledge on the distribution and diversity of spider species and which of the spider species are at risk or may be threatened as a result of the illegal collection activities or introduction of foreign species. Results of Dr. Dupo’s samplings increased the number of known spider species in the country from 517 in year 2000 to a total of 531 species from 38 families in 2015.

A number of these spider species are introduced species that enter to our country through pet trade; alarming examples of which are the Indian native species such as Poecilotheria metallica and P. rufilata   (tarantula species) classified as critically endangered and endangered, respectively, by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) yet have been imported to our country as pets.  

Data from basic research were also used as an effective tool to educate and engage people to be active partner in this research work. Dr. Dupo’s report noted that spider collectors, students and hobbyists became “citizen scientists” who provided vital information on spider trade as a result of effective information dissemination and awareness campaign. With the help of these citizens, Dr. Dupo came up with a list of spiders in the Philippines which are traded either as pet or as game animals. Alarmingly, from the total of 26 spider species present on the list, 10 species considered as game animals are traded locally.

Call for Action Through Policy Recommendations

The European Union Action to Fight Environmental Crime cites illegal wildlife trade as one of the fastest growing illegal markets worldwide with worth between 6 and 20 billion dollars annually. The widespread impacts of the illegal wildlife trade have led to increased international attention and forging of bilateral agreements between nations to help address the trade.

The Philippines being a country so rich in biodiversity but has weak controls of enforcement is left vulnerable to the impacts of illegal wildlife trade.

Dr. Dupo’s main recommendations call for evaluation of existing agreements on international trade to serve as instruments in improving local and national control measures. She added that there is a need to look into the provisions of CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) especially its listing of species classified as trade regulated and the actual spider species entering the country through international trade.  Dr. Dupo reported that at least 10 species of traded spiders are not covered by CITES on its list of “trade regulated” species that “require the prior grant and presentation of an export permit” (Article IV, CITES). This is to say that discrepancies exist in terms of level and type of protection accorded to these species.

Dr. Dupo also suggested studying opportunities for establishing exclusive trade relations with CITES-member countries following a mutual enforcement approach to export regulatory measures.

Another important recommendation posed by Dr. Dupo is to revisit the key provisions of the Wildlife Resources Conservation and Protection Act (RA 9147) to provide clear-cut criteria for evaluating and licensing procedures for wildlife traders and recipients, specific of which is the Section 11 of RA 9146 which allows the export or import of wildlife if “the recipient of the wildlife is technically and financially capable to maintain it.” This provision is cleverly taken advantage of by organized wildlife traders who can easily get export and import permits if they have license to rear, breed, and trade wildlife.

Other recommendations include prioritizing databasing of exotic spider species entering the country; regular technical consultations with scientific authorities such as the Ecosystems Research and Development Bureau to train and capacitate monitoring officials; and creating public awareness through education and communication.

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