Inside the exotic pet trade

Exotic animals such as lizards, hedgehogs, monkeys, macaws and even tigers and bears, are often purchased from stores, over the internet, or in auctions, so that people can keep them as “pets”.  However, this frequently results in pain and death for these animals, as they can easily suffer from loneliness, malnutrition and the crushing stress of confinement to an uncomfortable and unnatural environment.  For every animal who is seen in the store or auction, there are countless others who have died along the way.

Tiger cubs that have been rescued from smuggling.  Image courtesy of BBC News Asia

Tiger cubs that have been rescued from smuggling. Image courtesy of BBC News Asia

The buying and selling of protected wildlife species is a multibillion-dollar business, and one of the largest sources of criminal earning, behind only drug and arms trafficking.  The U.S. is the central destination for endangered and exotic animals.  Local, state and national governments are passing laws which prohibit the capture and sale of a number of species.  However, most of these laws are poorly enforced and designed to protect humans from disease, rather than ensuring that animals are handled in a humane and kind way.

Many of these animals are taken from places like Africa, Australia and the jungles of Brazil.  There are few penalties and laws against this, which hardly discourages traders in the light of the money that is made from illegal smuggling.  Prices on animals’ heads can range from tens of thousands of dollars.

When the animals are taken from their natural habitats, they often change hands numerous times through intermediaries and exporters, and they have to suffer through appalling transport conditions.  For example, parrots may have their feet and beaks taped, and are stuffed into plastic tubes that can be hidden easily in luggage.  Other birds or reptile eggs can be concealed in special vests so that couriers can go through airport X-ray machines.  Infant pythons have been transported in CD cases, and baby turtles may be taped as to be trapped inside their shells and are shoved by the dozen into tube socks.  In one case, a man had Asian leopard cats in his backpack, pygmy monkeys in his underwear and birds of paradise in his additional luggage; he was arrested at Los Angeles airport.  There is a mortality rate of 80 or 90% for these animals.

Image courtesy of sun bears.wildlifedirect.org

Image courtesy of sun bears.wildlifedirect.org

Exotic animals are often further hurt at the hands of dealers who sell them to zoos and pet stores.  PETA’s undercover investigation of U.S. Global Exotics led to a raid in Arlington, Texas, of a dealer’s warehouse.  There was a seizure of over 27 000 animals who had been enduring poor ventilation, crowded living conditions, and a lack of water, food and basic care.  Hundreds of dead animals were discovered during the raid, many just abandoned due to canceled orders.  Over 6000 animals died afterwards, as they were too sick to be saved.

There is also often inadequate care for the animals that do survive long enough.  Caretakers are often unable or unprepared to care for the needs of animals that are so far removed from their natural habitats.  The head of South Africa’s Environment Crime Investigation unit in the Western Cape estimates that 90 percent of reptiles die within a year.

Ignorance amongst these new owners causes much harm for the exotic animals.  People who find that they cannot care for these animals often dump them at zoos, or outside of zoo gates.  Others just dump these animals out along rural roads.  As these animals do not have appropriate rehabilitation or habitat, they fall victim to the elements or predators or starve to death.

Alternatively, animals who do survive could overpopulate and cause problems for the ecosystems, killing indigenous species.  Such as the Burmese python, which was kept as pets, but then escaped into the Everglades, where it has flourished and threatens native snakes and endangered birds.

An exotic snake that was smuggled in a suitcase.  Image courtesy of Reptile Related News

An exotic snake that was smuggled in a suitcase. Image courtesy of Reptile Related News

 

According the to the U.S. Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 75% of all new contagious diseases originate from nonhuman animals.  There could be a range of exotic animals that may be unknown carriers of human diseases.  There was a monkeypox outbreak which affected dozens in Midwest American in 2003, this was traced all the way back to a Gambian rat from the Africa.  The rat had been kept with prairie dogs in an Illinois animal dealer’s shed.  The prairie dogs were known to have carried the plague and tularemia.  The herpes B virus can be conveyed to humans from macaques, and human contact with reptiles and other exotic animals has led to 74 000 cases of salmonellosis each year.  Hedgehogs can convey salmonella bacteria, as well as fungal and viral diseases to humans.  The Exotic Newcastle disease, which destroyed whole flocks of chickens and turkeys in the 1970s, was believed to have been transmitted to the U.S. from South American parrots, that were smuggled in through the illegal pet trade.  There is also the threat of human diseases being transferred to these animals.

National Geographic has reported that for every tiger or lion in a zoo, there could be as many as 10 privately owned.  People buy the tiger when it is about 8 weeks old, however, after about 6 months, it is about 600 pounds, has caused a great deal of harm to you, and torn your house.  There have been dozens of reports of captive big-cat attacks in recent years.  Wolf hybrids have also become more popular, it is estimated that there are hundreds of thousands kept as pets just in the U.S. alone.  It is a gross representation to sell and breed these animals as pets.

Smugglers find ways around inspections of governmental regulations.  Protected species are often hidden among legal animals, or dangerous species, where officers are unlikely to thoroughly hand-inspect shipments.  Regulations against wildlife poaching is also often lacking in resources.

Turtles that were being smuggled.  Image courtesy of news.turtleconservancy.org

Turtles that were being smuggled. Image courtesy of news.turtleconservancy.org

It is very important for people to stop buying animals illegally, this is particularly crucial for exotic animals that have been smuggled into various countries.  These are animals that they simply cannot take care of, and thus the animals endure further hardship in their ownership, if they had even survived the journey from their native environment.  It would save a lot of animals from misery, and it would help to decrease the illegal international wildlife trafficking network.

 

For more information, please see: PETA: inside the exotic animal trade, or Born Free: the dirty side of the exotic animal pet trade.

Park rangers come under the firing line trying to protect endangered species

It is not just endangered animals that face the ruthlessness of dangerous gangs and smugglers: park rangers have also come under the firing line. Heavily armed criminal syndicates and smugglers, and even rebel militia in some cases, are running the global wildlife trade. These gangs will stop at nothing, placing park rangers who are tasked with protecting these species in danger.

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A ranger who is tasked with protecting the beautiful, but isolated stretch of Savannah, in the heart of one of the poorest regions on earth

Over recent years hundreds of rangers have been killed, as poachers are relentless in their quest for lucrative animal parts such as rhino horn and ivory.  France24 reported that Sean Willmore, president of the International Ranger Federation (IRF), said that at least 1000 rangers have been killed in 35 countries over the past decade; however, he added that the true global figure could be closer to between 3000 – 5000. There seems to be war at the frontline of conservation. Willmore cited the example of the Democratic Republic of Congo, where a group of 50 rangers came across a group of 5000 militia out poaching and armed with AK47s.

Zakouma National Park, Chad, demonstrates one example: elephant poachers shot down an entire squad of rangers. These poachers shot with a deadly precision. They crouched in the bushes from a triangle of different spots, whilst the rangers had been hunched over in prayer just before dawn. Among the freshly dug graves and empty bullet shells, the cost of protecting wildlife is horrifically clear. Ivory poaching is becoming more militarized, as rebel groups, and even government armies are slaughtering thousands of elephants across Africa. Wildlife rangers, who tend to be older, yet incredibly knowledgeable about the environment and animals, are wading through the bushes only to find hardened soldiers.

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Park rangers travel on horseback, sleep in the bush and start patrolling early in the morning

Ivory poachers seem to be becoming increasingly ruthless and reckless. Dozens of African rangers have been killed in coldblooded murder. In Zimbabwe, poachers are using deadly poison on elephant carcasses to kill the vultures. These birds serve as a natural early warning system that a kill has taken place. Therefore making it even more dangerous for rangers as they then have no idea when poachers are around.

Zakouma rangers are trying to make a last stand. The park’s once great and magnificent herd of elephants has nearly been exterminated. It is one of the most extreme declines of an elephant population in Africa, as 90% of the herd has been poached off in the last 10 years. There has only been one confirmed birth of an elephant calf in the past 2 years, as with all the shooting and stress, the elephants do not breed.

Elephant herd of Zakouma National Park

Elephant herd of Zakouma National Park

Attacks by elephants or lions do make poachers’ work dangerous enough. They also have a lack of training and equipment, and low wages weighing against them. Although, wildlife crime has always been known as a low-risk crime, with high profits. These criminals are still determined to capitalise on large animal reserves in the world’s most unstable and poorest countries, such as the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo. To worsen the situation, these groups are not only involved in wildlife crime, but also other illicit trades such as human trafficking and drug smuggling.

The countries that have faced the most damage due to wildlife trafficking are willing to tackle this issue, but they do so with limited means. However, some countries have not even made wildlife trafficking a serious crime, which makes convictions of the criminals difficult. Political commitment against the poaching needs to be accompanied and assisted by national and international resources. There must be sustainable movements against the actual poachers, but middlemen working in transit countries must also be dealt with, as well as the distributors and merchandisers in market countries. The whole corrupt network of wildlife crime needs to be taken apart. This is a very difficult task, as much of these trafficked animal products are destined for use in Asia as traditional medicines or delicacies.

Elephant herd in Zakouma National Park

Elephant herd in Zakouma National Park

This is an article that was featured in the New York Times, demonstrating rangers in isolated Central Africa, under the grim cost of protecting wildlife.