The Exotic Pet Trade and Its Dark Underbelly 

Written by Praneetha Monipi

The Exotic Pet Trade industry rakes in more than $15 billion dollars annually and drives the extinction of hundreds, if not thousands of species worldwide. Exotic animal species are defined as animals present in an area outside their natural geographic range and those that are ‘unusual’ or not commonly occurring. As fancy as these animals seem on social media and while interacting with their ‘owners’, the background of this market is less than glamorous. The dark underbelly of the pet trade is bloodied with abuse, death, misinformation, money games and an absolute disregard for any form of life or their basic welfare. 

While researching for this article, the stats I came across were more than alarming. As per a 2019-20 survey, the US has about 85 million families that own pets of which a shocking 50% are only exotic species. As of 2018, the country has 3 million exotic birds as pets with parrot species being the most common, but a majority of them are sourced primarily from the black market. For aquariums, the US alone imports more than 11 million fish per year. Other commonly sold species are monkeys and big cats. A single capuchin monkey can fetch a dealer approx.., $8500. Even with a ban on owning big cats in 35 states, there are still 10,000 animals being owned by private owners of which 5000 tigers are held captive for various commercial purposes; this is higher than the number of wild tigers present. A mere 6% are in Zoos or rehabilitation centers where basic welfare can at least be expected.  

Singapore and North America remain the largest importers of exotic species yet, with an increase by 10% every year between 2016 and 2019. China has more than a million exotic pets while Brazil imports 70% of its pets from international borders too. Major trade hubs of exotic species remain in South-east Asia and South America. However, the Middle east and parts of Africa are also emerging and establishing themselves in the market. Even a small country like Indonesia with an approximate population of 27 crores has 22% pet owners. Alarmingly, less than 3% of them own domestic species like dogs and cats. Countries like India do not have documentation or monitoring of the import and export of exotic species for a clear data on the number of animals being captured or traded. 

Research from CITES trade records and published literature shows that reptiles are the most highly traded species across the globe with birds (upwards of 500 species of which more than half are parrots) being a close second. Three-quarter of these animals die in the first year in pet shops and even more during capture and transit due to the conditions they’re kept / handled in and the duress they are under.  

The exotic pet trade has its origins in 3 areas – Animals that are captive bred for retail, animals captured directly from their habitats and a surplus from Zoos. From auction sites or commercial sites, they are then sold to Zoos, private collectors, pet stores, exhibitors and pet owners. Even with the different sources, a majority of the animals are captured directly from the wild because it takes less resources and knowledge than raising an animal in captivity and has the added advantage of choice of animals that can be captured. More than half of all live traded carnivores and primates are caught from the wild. Threatened mammals and reptiles are preferred most by consumers and ironically, these are the animals that are scheduled under the Appendix 1 list of CITES, meaning they are in danger of extinction and their trade must be strictly regulated.  

WHY EXOTIC SPECIES? 

Humans have always had an innate tendency to own or control or modify anything that is different / unique / out of the capability of their understanding, instead of appreciating them. Animals worldwide have suffered at the behest of this madness. With the Internet growing as rampantly as it has over the last few decades, e-commerce and social media sites have emerged as the leading influence to own all kinds of wild animals due to its wide and diverse audience, ease of advertising, and popularizing the ownership of exotic species. Today, there are more than 1000 online sites that sell exotic species and dedicated webpages that allow ads for the same from dealers, breeders and even zoos. 

IMPACT ON THE ENVIRONMENT AND CONSERVATION EFFORTS: 

Wildlife trade has developed as one of the most direct threats to the survival of wild animals after habitat destruction. Animals and their parts are traded for meat, as medicines (most of which do not have any scientific basis or proven efficiency), in the entertainment industry and as pets. High volume trading is extremely common in the business where wild animals are smuggled via any and all means necessary; from crates to plastic bottles and even polythene covers, stuffed to suffocation. Animal products that are illegally traded are derived from more than 7000 protected species of wild plants and animals. 

Due to the steep demand to own exotic wildlife, animals from all parts of the world are at a constant risk. They are illegally poached from their wild, breeding populations to be sold locally, smuggled internationally and are often mislabeled as captive bred to reduce the hassle of paperwork and legalities. Wild animal capture has declined populations by over 70% globally. Individuals most frequently poached from the wild are juveniles or sub – adults as they are smaller, weaker and considered to be more “adorable” than adults, hence a greater selling price. This significantly reduces the number of reproductively active and viable individuals in the population. The gap between reproductive periods in wild populations and the rate at which they are poached leaves populations dying off and being unable to be replaced in time to maintain reproductive viability in the population. Most of these animal species are also protected under various laws and by international cum local organizations. Exotic species especially primates originate from lesser developed countries and are shipped internationally; the corrupted structure of the law and government in these countries coupled with their unstable financial or economic situation deters strict action against the trade in itself. 6/10 primates that are sold in Indonesia are protected by its National Legislation. However, in the race to meet the demand for their ownership and loopholes in the legalities, trade is still rampant. One successful capture from the wild comes after several failed and fatal attempts that can lead to injuries and severe distress among wild animals. To provide an estimate, one captured Chimpanzee for a zoo leaves behind at least 10 Chimps that were targeted for capture but could have lost life or limb in the process. The entire process leaves populations in severe decline, also aggravating their already endangered status in the wild. 

In addition, wild animals have evolved over millions of years with instincts honed for survival and different adaptations towards the habitats they live in. To keep them caged, limited or in unnatural settings can manifest in a number of unhealthy and sometimes, even dangerous patterns. As per reports, between 1990 and 2021, more than 1300 exotic pets have escaped. There have been incidents where wild animals being kept as pets have dangerously injured humans in defense or in a bid to escape. The animals that did manage to escape and leave others unharmed have been harmed themselves where they ended up being shot at or recaptured or met with accidents. In a particular incident, a man released more than 50 animals from his farm and later shot himself. The local sheriff reportedly shot and killed a few them; these animals included lions, wolves, bears and tigers. Animals that are scheduled species, maintain entire ecosystems and have dedicated conservation efforts toward their ensured survival across the globe ended up being shot for absolutely no fault of theirs except that someone wanted to own them and their demand was met.  

Every species in the wild, irrespective of its habitat or origin plays a crucial role in maintaining the balance of and keeping the overall health of an ecosystem intact. Species act as seed dispersers, prey base, maintain viable populations and provide ecological niches to other species around them to name a few of the roles they play. Removing one of them to a point where they can no longer successfully function means a cascade effect on the entire habitat which in due time does not remain isolated but spreads across the globe in different but very highly efficient ways. This includes reduction in seedling density, species richness, overgrowth of pest populations, depletion in soil quality etc.  

ANIMAL WELFARE

Apart from the devastating effects on the environment and conservation practices as a whole, animal welfare in the trade is in itself is in a beyond gut wrenching state. Majority of the collectors or pet owners have little to no information on the resources and facilities a wild animal requires. Their knowledge on the animal’s space and dietary requirements and their ecology is abysmal. Most do not have the financial ability to replicate habitats or maintain the animal’s wellbeing for the remainder of its life. Another colossal problem is the lack of permits as well as vets in urban cities with the required knowledge or experience to treat a wild animal and the array of health and hygiene problems that living in an artificial setting can bring to them. This leads to premature death, silent suffering, transfer of pathogens to other animals and humans around, behavioral issues, escape, being abandoned or released into the local habitat and sometimes, even crush deaths for small exotic animals.   

85% of non – native animals in any given geographic location are a result of exotic pets being released into local habitats due to reasons ranging from the animals being too high maintenance and shifting homes to simply not wanting to care for them anymore. Most animal species don’t make it due to conditions that may be exponentially different from their original habitat, being unable to find food or hiding spaces, being predated upon by local species and meeting with unfortunate accidents. The species that do manage to survive soon become invasive, outcompeting and being a top predator over local species that again results in the degradation of local ecosystems and disturbing their ecological roles.  

The exotic pet trade does not threaten only foreign species in a place but native wildlife too. Apart from the competition and predation, the same network used to trade exotic species are used to illegally smuggle protected, native species, most of which are in the endangered or threatened list of the IUCN and appendix I of CITES. Consignments of live imports of wild animals are labelled as for breeding and commercial purposes. Within the trade, dealers and consumers have consistently found loopholes to escape the law. Consignments of wild animals are labelled as being captive bred whereas the receiving localities have no captive breeding centers or operations or aren’t registered with CITES. The lack of information and awareness of local authorities doesn’t help the matter much either. The exotic pet trade has seen a steep rise in the last 2 decades with social media sites providing more access and anonymity to sellers and buyers equally. Even under conditions when wild animals are seized before being sold, the ones fortunate enough to still be alive can hardly ever be sent back to their origin country due to several problems. The first of these being that it’s nearly impossible to track the origin of an animal to its exact location; even when traced, it’s hard to establish if it came from a wild population or a farmed one where its genetic makeup can be mixed or there is risk of pathogen exposure / compromised immune systems. The second issue is slightly more political; if at all accurately traced, the origin country may refuse to take back the animal to under its regulatory laws due to the lack of economic stability. In either case, the rescued animals end up being behind bars in zoos for the rest of their life. 

The problems of the exotic pet trade don’t end here. Animals under duress are known to shed comparatively more pathogens than others. This combined with the deplorable conditions in which animals are stocked, shipped, hoarded and traded in, has since a century been the cause of several zoonotic diseases between wildlife and humans, and other domestic or local species of animals too. Ebola, Psittacosis and recently the Covid – 19 pandemics (alleged) are all ode to the fact that exploitation of wild animals inherently affects human lives as well. The Financial Action Task Force reported that wildlife trafficking is a global threat that links modern slavery, drugs and the arms trade!  

SITUATION IN INDIA

India is a biodiversity hotspot but it is also a hotspot for the trade of exotic wild animals in and out of the country. It is a country where people worship animals as Gods, but also believe in myths that have been more than fatal to our wildlife. 84 species of reptiles are imported into the country for the trade, of which 98.6% go unreported to CITES. A research paper discovered that social media sold more reptiles in the country than any website meant solely for the purpose of their trade. The states of Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, West Bengal, Kerala, Delhi and Uttar Pradesh serve as the main centers for trade. Between 1976 and 2018, there were 25 different consignments of live reptiles into the country with 1293 individuals but a meagre 18 being reported to CITES. The last 2 decades have seen an extensive rise in the volume of trade with undocumented and unreported numbers several times higher than the reported ones. Most of these animals belong to the Appendix 1 of CITES, meaning they’re threatened with extinction and their trade is prohibited. The import of live animals in India is regulated by CITES as well as the Customs Act 1962 which deems it mandatory for any exotic animal trader / owner to have a legal, valid license and obtain permission from the Chief Wildlife Warden of the State. 

Annually, over a 100 exotic bird species are trafficked into India’s black market. There have been increased confiscations in the North – East in the last 2 years, especially Mizoram as the state shares its border with Bangladesh and Myanmar making the route plausible for increased trade. India also imports from Brazil, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Papua New Guinea, Australia, New Zealand and parts of Africa. They enter the country via cargo ships, are loaded onto fishing boats, offloaded on the Konkan and Daman coasts and transported via road or rail to Metropolitan cities. Animals are also sold on the online shopping sites – OLX and Quikr which are not licensed by State Animal Welfare Boards. 

The Covid – 19 pandemic has seen a steep rise in the trade of exotic species but it has also created a wave of awareness and laws have been created / enforced more strictly to curb the trade of wild animal species. China banned illegal trade and consumption of wild animals, Vietnam temporarily banned the import of wild animals and their products and increased enforcement to control existing trade, and Bolivia prohibited the use of wild animals in food and medicine. However, India granted amnesty to exotic pet owners and gave them a 6 – month time frame to declare their ownership of pets; this strengthened the import and export across the borders leading to excess trading and legal lacunae while attempts were made to regulate it.  

WHAT IS THE SOLUTION? 

The most efficient and permanent solution to the problem of the exotic pet trade can only be found in the root of the issue. Although it is a painfully slow process, it is the only one that can bring a long – lasting change. To change perceptions, mindsets and to open people’s hearts and minds that we are not on a superior rung but are just one among thousands of species inhabiting the Earth. It begins with education, constant awareness and greater exposure to the marvels of how Nature works.  

To curb down the poaching of wild animals, however, there needs to be increased security within state and country borders; regular monitoring and check on movement, transported items and borders. On a legal and administrative scale, there needs to be a constant track on consignments in and out of a country, strengthening the regulations around trade such that eventually it’s existence would disappear. Another important solution would be a check on cyber traffic, the dark web and sites involved in the trade of wild animals. Countries also need to add precautionary and legal measures to protect exotic species entering their borders and not just for native wildlife.  

However, at the end of the day, the demand feeds the supply. Countering this root issue is our ultimate solution if we are to be able to conserve our wildlife and ecosystems while moving towards not just a more sustainable but increased ethical life with integrity towards the lives of not just humans but all lives. Equity of species is an overlooked factor because the conservation practices cannot be the same across the globe just as education and awareness cannot be the same prototype across all communities. Eventually, our love towards the planet and its beings is what will help us protect it and thrive in it; there is no option B, no backup solution. Love towards all life is the only way we can expect to continue thriving as a race.  

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