Humanity has been trading animals for thousands of years. Emperors and kings demanded bizarre animals from the four corners of the globe, which started a trend that still exists today.
The trade in endangered animals is the third largest market for illicit items, coming in behind drugs and arms trafficking.
But what few collectors know, is that by removing these animals from their native habitats, they upset the delicate balances found in these environments.
This article looks at the issues created by the exotic pet trade and informs you about the environmental impacts of these markets.
What are the origins of exotic animals?
Hundreds of millions of animals enter the exotic pet trade annually. Some are captured from the wild in their native homelands (often tropical areas), which disrupts delicate ecosystems. These animals are mostly caught using inhumane methods, and are transported incorrectly. Thousands die in transit each year. Species include rare and exotic birds, reef fish, small mammals, insects and arachnids (spiders and scorpions), and reptiles of every shape and size.
Others come from captive breeding facilities. Even though captive breeding is less environmentally destructive than wild capture, the conditions in these industries are often less than ideal. Animals used for breeding in captive conditions mostly come from wild populations.
There has also been an increase in the sale of exotic animals previously kept by zoos and circuses. Due to rampant over-breeding in these public attractions, there is regularly a surplus of exotic animals that cannot be kept. Another issue is when baby animals reach adulthood and are traded out to make room for a new batch of younger animals.
The scale of the problem
It’s almost impossible to name an animal or plant species anywhere on the planet that has not been traded either legally or illegally. Every year countries like China, the US, Japan and numerous European nations purchase wildlife collected from biologically-rich parts of the world.
While no one knows exactly how large the illegal wildlife trade is, it is extraordinarily lucrative, worth close to $20 billion each year. Few poachers and traders are ever caught, and penalties are usually no more severe than a parking fine. Smugglers evade detection by hiding illegal wildlife in legal shipments or they bribe wildlife managers and customs officials. They also alter or forge documents such as CITES permits, which should accompany a shipment of endangered animals.
What is the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) all about?
Started in 1963, CITES is a global agreement between 175 governments. Its aim is to ensure that international trade in over 30 000 specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival in the wild. CITES looks at the trade in certain populations, and insists that any movement of these animals across international borders must be accompanied by formal documentation. Without these permits, it becomes illegal to transport and trade these animals or plants. CITES offers varying degrees of protection, based on scientific data on species populations and specific trade data.
What is the environmental impact of the exotic pet trade?
Many of the animals in the exotic pet trade are taken out of environmentally sensitive areas. The effects of this poaching include:
- Reduction in biological diversity.
- Loss of genetic diversity.
- Upsetting predator-prey relationships.
- Reduction in ecosystem functions – pollination and seed spreading.
In many cases, it is the juveniles that are preferred in the trade, and often the mother is killed in order to take her young. This further increases the chance of extinction of many already endangered animals.
There are a number of things that we can do to limit the impacts of the exotic pet trade.
- The simplest advice is to not buy exotic animals, such as macaws, iguanas or tarantulas. Not only do these species come with a hefty price tag, but often require expensive food, housing, upkeep and medication.
- Refuse to support stores and websites that sell exotic pets. Some may operate legally and ethically, but the majority source their animals from poachers and illegal traffickers, either directly or indirectly.
- If you opt to buy from a store that uses captive bred animals, ask for legitimate documentation that states this. Most governments will have formal certification policies that can verify this, such as CITES permits.
- Educate family and friends about the environmental impacts and animal welfare concerns related to keeping exotic animals.
- Take a more active role by working with local animal charities. Alternatively, start a movement to get your government to pass legislation that prohibits the sale or keeping of exotic animals.
Trade of terror
The international trade in endangered, exotic species is increasing every year. At current poaching rates, thousands of species will become extinct in the wild in our lifetimes. Because of the illicit nature of trading in endangered species, no one knows what animals are traded, or the amounts poached from various countries.
What is known is that there are people out there that will find you anything that walks, crawls, flies or swims, because everything comes with a price! So, the next time you see a bizarre animal for sale in a shop window or online, know that the true cost of purchasing that animal is a lot higher than the price advertised.