The rise of exotic animal trade, both pets and parts, is a global phenomenon that has received plenty of media coverage in the last few years. The fact that wild animals and their by-products are traded internationally is well-known, and a lot of attention has been focused on illegal trade networks. There is no denying that this is an important topic of discussion, especially due to the implications of illegal trade on species’ survival. Illegal trading of animal parts stimulates a rise in poaching; a consequence of the value we have placed on exotic animals and their derivatives (1). For example, the continuous assault on our world’s elephant and rhino populations is the result of the value we have given their tusks (ivory) and horns. In fact, more than 23 metric tonnes of ivory, the equivalent of 2,500 elephants, was seized in 2011 alone. This is a monstrous depletion of our wildlife populations, and even threatens the overall survival of the species. Elephants and rhino aren’t the only victims of illegal trade either; many big cats are poached for their fur and bones. These species include, but are not limited to, Amur tiger, Bengal tiger, Amur leopard and snow leopard (2). Reptilian species, such as sea turtles and caiman to name only two are also threatened, and even many plant species find themselves under attack.
We have even recently seen arguments rage in relation to the dealing of animal parts, such as with the prementioned trade of ivory. Just last year, Zimbabwe, Namibia and South Africa failed in their efforts to reopen the ivory trade during a global wildlife conference (CITIES) in Johannesburg, South Africa (3).
The legalised trade was proposed to only involve stores of ivory that were collected from naturally deceased elephants. This ivory is gathered upon the death of elephants within game reserves or national parks, and stored in warehouses to prevent it from entering the illegal market. Officials from each country argued that this stored ivory is a natural resource to these areas and that it should be utilised to boost their economies, as other countries do with natural deposits of oil, gas or timber. The trade application was rejected on the grounds that the stores of naturally-harvested ivory were not of a large enough quantity to satiate the demands of the market. Officials believed that reopening the market would simply create more opportunity for illegal, poached ivory to be distributed (3).
For many, this was considered to be an enormous victory for the elephant populations of the world, and evidence of the advancement of a global, conservation-driven mindset. However, less media attention was paid to the fact that the same committee also failed to pass a proposal that would have given all elephants the highest level of international protection, which would effectively permanently eliminate the illegal ivory trade (3).
As the evidence stands, we are clearly aware of the implications of legal trade on promoting illegal issues. Yet, we still refuse to fully crunch down on and permanently destroy illegal trade due to insisting on blocking further legislation, resources and capital from going into monitoring legal trade. This reluctance to fully establish regulations to protect species, even while we fight against the illegal attacks on these species, is mirrored in the trade of live exotic pets.
The exotic pet trade is quickly being recognised as a threat as great to wild species’ survival as poaching for trade of body parts. The illegal global trade of live wildlife is an estimated multi-billion-dollar industry that threatens biodiversity, and acts as a pathway for the spread of diseases and invasive species (4). Annually, millions of animals are removed from their native habitats and sold commercially to generate illegal revenue. We have seen a continuous rise in the trade of exotic animals, especially through online platforms, to unsuspecting consumers that are unaware of their origins. These species, including an array of parrots, slow lorises, bush-babies, primates, reptiles, fish and spiders, are often transported under harsh conditions and die prior to reaching their destinations. Those that do survive distribution may be sold to aquariums or pet stores, having been misidentified as captive-bred (5).
Many legitimate pet-store franchises may be oblivious to the fact that their imports are illegally removed from the wild. Unfortunately, the activities of illegal trade are so undocumented, that we can do little except for speculate about their overwhelming control of the system. For example, it is estimated that 50% of live reptile exports from Asia, New Zealand and Madagascar are illegally captured in the wild. Of the rough total of 10,272 reptilian species globally, less than 8% have trade levels controlled and monitored. In fact, less than half even have their conservation statuses assessed. This means that we have no idea of the effects that removing these individuals could have on wild populations (6). In other words, we are most likely unknowingly driving entire species into extinction, simply due to our desire for a colourful or unusual pet.
Birds are also noted as being under severe threat from the pet trade (7). In fact, 3.33 million birds are estimated to be removed from the wild in just Southeast Asia annually. This includes 1.3 million that are removed from Indonesia alone (6). The removal of these birds from the wild is a cause for enormous concern, especially when you consider the fact that some species populations are down to mere hundreds. As well as this, traded species are noted as being one and a half times more likely to be red-listed by the IUCN than off-market species (8). Therefore, we are evidently exerting enormous pressure on wild bird species’ populations that are already struggling.
The trade of exotic pets possesses a multitude of issues; namely that illegal distributors continue to utilise legitimate trade networks. Unlike the potential future of trade in animal ‘by-products’, such as fur or ivory, it is unlikely that the pet trade will ever be shut down, though a similar reluctance to put protective legislation in place for threatened species is omnipresent between both the pet trade and trade of animal parts. It generates an enormous amount of revenue; estimated to be worth US$21 billion in 2005 for the legal market alone, and has continuing to expand rapidly in more recent years. This legal revenue does not represent the entire capacity of this market either. It is difficult to estimate the potential capital generated by the illegal market, due to lack of documentation. However, researchers would place it at somewhere between US$5-20 billion per annum, making it one of the most lucrative illegal businesses in the world, after narcotics (4). With this much capital being generated, legitimate officials within the legal exotic pet trade are entirely against eliminating this business. The solution, therefore, must reside in more effectively crunching down on the illegal sourcing of wild animals, and ensuring full health and welfare standards for transported and traded animals.
In terms of welfare, there are “five freedoms” that are generally used to define correct standards; that the animal is free from hunger and thirst; from discomfort; from pain, injury and disease; and from fear and distress; and is free to express natural behaviour (5). If these standards of care are not adhered to, then one can assume that the source is illegitimate, and the lead should be pursued and terminated. Often difficulties lie in trying to uncover illegal exotic transport, masked by falsified documents or under the guise of trade of other animal groups, for example agricultural stock. Officials emphasise that there is not currently sufficient scanning or inspections of in and outgoing wildlife resources to help effectively combat transport of illegally collected wild animals.
It is also emphasised that we need to develop and establish an international reference point on live-wildlife trade, in order to prevent animals from slipping through the cracks due to differences in legislation between countries. At the moment, international protocols exist to ensure the welfare and correct sourcing of farm, lab and companion animals, yet the pet-trade has managed to avoid this. Peter Knights, CEO of WildAid, states that all pets ought to be bred in captivity, and that pet retailers and the public require enforced education to ensure the legitimate sourcing of their animals (5).
So, the pet trade provides advantages to the human populations of various countries through the influx and generation of capital, but what are the implications or advantages of properly monitored, legal pet-trade for endangered species? This topic remains controversial, with many advocates for conservation and welfare stating that exotic animals should not be traded as pets, due to the unnatural conditions that they go on to live in, and the potential dangers that some species pose to the public.
Indeed, exotic pets can be dangerous for inexperienced carers, and correct standards of living conditions need to be adhered to and monitored by welfare officials. Exotic pets also hold the potential to transfer dangerous diseases to new areas, or pose a threat as an invasive species if they are to escape. However, despite these dangers, it is unlikely that the pet trade will be shut down due to the value of the market. Our most important next step is, therefore, to ensure that the animals that are sourced as exotic pets are not removed from wild populations, and that their captive habitats are monitored and of the highest quality and care.
By eliminating illegal trade, and working together as united nations to ensure the highest quality of welfare for domestic breeding of exotic pets, we could generate enormous advantages for wild populations. If conditions and licenses are monitored, and potential homes are properly examined to ensure that they can provide a safe and healthy environment for an exotic pet, there is the potential to morph the exotic pet trade into a benefit rather than an obstacle. The correct breeding of exotic pets could eliminate the demand driving the removal of individuals from the wild. This could eliminate an enormous pressure on flailing wild species, and provide them with better odds to increase in numbers (1). It may also have the potential benefit of providing a genetic pool to supplement wild populations with if their numbers drop; for example, after exposure to a new threat. Finally, if an endangered species was eliminated from the wild due to a natural disaster or new disease, the presence of a protected population of breeding individuals could form an overall safety net. These individuals may hold the potential to repopulate an area, once new generations are correctly rehabilitated to life in the wild.
I do not necessarily, personally agree with the ethics of the exotic pet trade. I am critical of the massive flaws with the system, and the pathways it provides for cruelty as well as removal of species from the wild. However, while the trade of animal parts is slowly being regulated and controlled through bans, it is simply reality that the exotic pet trade is here to stay. Given this inevitability, we must focus on thoroughly regulating it and ensure that it is as undamaging as possible to the animals it encompasses. If we could ensure that the system was properly monitored, and of the highest standards of welfare for breeding species, then it could prove to even be advantageous.
The secret lies with proper monitoring. We must ensure that every step in the exotic pet trade, from breeding through distribution to rehoming, is thoroughly monitored in order to avoid issues with welfare and illegal removal of animals from the wild. Wild species must also have their populations monitored closely, to better understand and document the impacts that our activities have had on their success. This would help to ensure that the correct measures are taken to salvage flagging populations, if required.
Mankind must be held responsible for our actions, and it is no longer acceptable to turn a blind eye to the illegal activity involved in the trade of animals and animal parts. If we are to move forward with successful conservation, we must first ensure that we eliminate these enormous threats to wild populations, and clean-up the handling of domestic populations. We have a responsibility to this planet, and it begins by removing the pressures that we are already placing on our planet’s species. Only then can our conservation efforts truly begin to be successful.
1) Tensen, L. (2016). Under what circumstances can wildlife farming benefit species conservation?. Global Ecology and Conservation, 6, 286-298.
2) WWF (2017). Illegal Wildlife Trade. https://www.worldwildlife.org/threats/illegal-wildlife-trade
3) Bale, R. (2016). Bid to Revive Ivory Trade Fails. National Geographic. https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2016/10/wildlife-watch-failed-ivory-trade-CITES-proposals/
4) Rosen, G. E., & Smith, K. F. (2010). Summarizing the evidence on the international trade in illegal wildlife. EcoHealth, 7(1), 24-32.
5) Nowak, K. (2016). The world has a chance to make the wild animal trade more humane. National Geographic. https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2016/02/160226-animal-trade-animal-welfare-exotic-pets-cites-wildlife-trafficking/
6) Hughes, A. C. (2017). Trading in extinction: how the pet trade is killing off many animal species. The Conversation. http://theconversation.com/trading-in-extinction-how-the-pet-trade-is-killing-off-many-animal-species-71571
7) Bush, E. R., Baker, S. E., & MacDonald, D. W. (2014). Global trade in exotic pets 2006–2012. Conservation Biology, 28(3), 663-676.
8) Becker, M. (2014). Exotic pet trade a threat to wild populations? Conservation this Week: University of Washington. http://www.conservationmagazine.org/2014/03/exotic-pet-trade-threat-wild-populations/
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