Our planet’s precious wildlife is put at risk due to a variety of reasons linked to human activity: pollution, climate change or loss of habitat. But few of us think that numerous species are being threatened because they are illegally captured and traded as pets.
The sad reality is that not only are around 20,000 African elephants killed by poachers each year by poachers , but Peruvian titi monkeys, African grey parrots and Madagascar’s plowshare tortoises are falling victims to illegal global pet trade.
For example, only in 2016, Indonesian authorities seized 4,500 turtles destined for the pet trade in China; this included 900 critically endangered snake-necked turtles [2,3].
So let us try to shed some line on the situation regarding illegal pet trade with some brief but important facts.
Illegal wildlife trade facts that should concern us
#1 Illegal pet trade ravages wild populations of many iconic species
The consequences of illegal pet trade are truly concerning for a variety of species. Over the last 30 years, 1.3 million African grey parrots have been removed from their natural habitat for the international pet trade.
Due to this, this species is now threatened. These birds used to be abundant but they are now increasingly rare. What is more, Central and West African forests have probably lost twice as many parrots due to unreported illegal trade and high mortality in capture and transport .
Another iconic species, Madagascar’s beloved ring-tailed lemurs, have almost disappeared from many of the island’s forests. Two studies published very recently estimate that their population has fallen to between 2,000 and 2,400 animals which represents a shocking 95% decrease since 2000.
To put that into context, there are now fewer ring-tailed lemurs living in the wild than there are living in zoos around the world .
#2 Keeping illegal pet is cool in some countries
Illegal pet trade is also one of the biggest threats to orangutans, another endangered species. It appears that orangutans are in demand both in the domestic market and the international market.
The practice of keeping pets is widespread in many parts of Indonesia, and wildlife markets are a feature of most larger towns and cities. Despite being illegal, keeping primates as pets is common in these areas. These primates are most often orangutans and gibbons and they will often be kept by families, in good condition, just like families in western countries keep domestic pets such as cats and dogs.
Orangutans are sometimes acquired by people exactly because it is illegal to do so, it demonstrates that the owner is above the law.
For example, investigations in Sumatra have shown that orangutans are owned by local politicians, senior military and police staff .
But it is not only birds, monkeys and primates that are illegally traded as pets. Larger wild mammals are also kept as pets. The WWF estimates there are 5,000 tigers being kept in U.S. backyards.
This is an incredibly high number if one considers that there are only around 3,000 left in the wild .
#3 Most animals die during the export
Illegal pet trade is highly damaging and very often lethal to the species being traded. The animals usually change hands several times through different intermediaries and exporters, and throughout their journey they are subjected to horrendous transport conditions.
Parrots might have their beaks and feet taped and be stuffed into plastic tubes while infant pythons have been shipped in CD cases.
This is not only inhuman but experts suggest that it reduces the chances of the species being kept alive. Customs agents are quoted saying that mortality reaches 80 – 90 % .
#4 Illegally introduced wildlife can destroy the whole ecosystem
Illegal wildlife pet trade does not only damage the species being traded or its natural habitat from where the species has been taken or the species population itself, it can also cause problems to the environment in which the exotic pet is taken. Such species are considered “alien” species and will naturally compete with native species upsetting the balance of nature.
For example, pet Burmese pythons let loose by their owners are now considered a major pest in Florida’s everglades .
#5 Exotic pets might carry dangerous diseases
What is more, owning such exotic pets may create a number of health issues, also for the owners of these pets. According to the US Humane Society, all reptiles and amphibians carry salmonella, and more than 74,000 cases of salmonella poisoning are linked to these pets each year in the US alone.
Exotic pets like monkeys and African rodents often carry viruses like herpes B, monkey pox and rabies, all of which are highly infectious and potentially fatal to humans .