Steve's Herpetological Blog

An insight into the life of Steve, his research and the many books he reads

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#StevesLibrary: Stolen World

Whenever you next walk into a pet shop that stocks exotic animals, take a look at the reptiles that stare back at you from their vivariums. It is very likely that you’ll find species such as the royal python (Python regius), corn snake (Pantherophis guttatus) and bearded dragon (Pogona vitticeps) among others. These animals are perfect for a number of keepers but there are always those out there that wish to keep and house something a little rarer and more exotic than anyone else. In my mind it is driven by ego, being something that you can boast about to all of your friends, even if the acquisition of such was illegal. Stolen World by Jennie Erin Smith looks at the growing reptile trade in the US during the latter half of the 20th century and finishes up five decades later, all the while uncovering the truth about the men involved with smuggling rare and protected species for profit.

Smith quickly establishes the two main protagonists that keep cropping up at various times throughout, two rivals called Hank Molt and Tom Crutchfield. I was already aware of the shady activities of Crutchfield, he’s infamous for the animals he’s smuggled and peddled in the past. I was not however aware of Molt and so learning more about him and how he was tied to the narrative was extremely interesting. Molt who was a former Kraft Foods salesman decided to change careers and become a “specialist dealer in rare fauna”. Molt couldn’t have picked a better time to do this as CITES was yet to be a thing and the curators of zoos had to get their animals from somewhere. Molt would travel the world in search of the best and rarest reptiles to send back to his clients in the US. For everything else, he’d send out price lists with his inventory and the price he was asking for them. However, as the 60s turned into the 70s, new legislation (such as CITES) turned Molt into an unrelenting smuggler who continued to supply his same list of institutions, as long as they turned a blind eye to his activities. It’s insane to think that American zoos were complicit in the illegal smuggling of reptiles up to such a relatively recent moment in time – but they had to get their animals from somewhere!

Molt was doing fine until a rival appeared on the scene, Tom Crutchfield who was a little more flamboyant that Molt and tended to do trade in bulk in order to maximise profits. Crutchfield sported a Rolex as a daily business accessory which should tell you all you need to know about his attitude towards work. There are of course other players within Stolen World, the importation and smuggling of reptiles into the US wasn’t solely the work of two men. They had a number of associates and partners that would send them animals from afar, or do a little bit of collecting on their behalf with forged paperwork and illicitly gained export permits. Once the authorities managed to crack what was going on, the methods employed by Molt and others had to change in order to prevent them from serving some heavy jail time, if they were going to continue in their less than legal activities. The internet age and the boom in the market for ‘morphs’ changed the reptile world forever but by that time, Molt and Crutchfield were at retirement age and unable to complete their collecting trips as they used to.

It’s clear that Smith spent an inordinate amount of time working on Stolen World, becoming friends with most of the ‘villains’ within and conducting a range of interviews. Whilst the actions of the men contained within Stolen World are somewhat heinous and unforgiveable (from a conservation and welfare perspective), Smith tried not to vilify them too much and present everyone as the human beings that they are. After all, the motivations for the smuggling and sale of reptiles came from human emotions. In between this rivalry and later friendship, are stories of other smugglers in Malaysia, Germany and Australia. If you’re interested in the illegal wildlife trade, conservation or reptiles, then this is a book that I would certainly recommend! I found Stolen World as an eye-opening gateway to a world that I wasn’t entirely aware of, and I hope you do too.

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