The international wildlife trade is booming for many reasons including traditional medicine and food. Most such 'uses' for these (often endangered) animals are not particularly relevant to Western audiences: a lot of these traditions are non-existent or laws are in place to prevent or tightly regulate such activities in countries such as Australia, Canada or the US and UK.
One driving force of the wildlife trade certainly does have an impact though, and that is the exotic pet trade.
By definition, the West's idea of exotic pets are animals that are not native, and they tend to come from much poorer areas of the world. Most exotic pets are from Africa and South-East Asia, and are bound for countries which can more readily afford such luxuries, such as the North America, Europe and Australia.
Born Free reports that the number of exotic pets in the UK is rising as with the US and Australia. The relatively new problem of online pet sales is troubling, combining a lack of control and regulation with the inability to check a sellers credentials and the ability to buy an animal on impulse.
Just like any contraband, smuggled animals are extremely difficult to find and prevent from entering a country as cargo, especially for many of the countries in Asia with huge inland borders. Unfortunately these are the same countries in which these are is a huge market for wild-caught animals.
All around Asia, countries from China to Thailand try to police their borders; it is in their interests to do so as it is not only illegal goods, but also legal and taxable goods that disappear from the nations. It is a nigh-impossible task, with not just the huge borders as a problem, but also few resources, little co-operation between countries and corruption widespread in the region.
Thailand is a oft-cited hub for the wildlife trade in Asia, and Bangkok’s Chatuchak market is a famous spot to find all sorts of wildlife changing hands. As explained in this TRAFFIC report, Thailand's legal system requires law enforcement to prove that animals were illegally smuggled into the country. Once inside, they are able to simply claim they are captive-bred animals and trade them freely and legally. This 'captive-bred' claim is something that pet shops and traders in the West have gladly picked up on. While it doesn't always provide legal protection, it's a lie that does diminish the guilt of potential buyers.
Famously, according to a 2008 report, there are more tigers living in American backyards than there are in the wild on the rest of the planet.
Other big cats such as lions are also popular pets in North America, as well as monkeys and chimpanzees, all of which are legal in various states in the US.
It's not just the West, however. Ego and prestige, the same reasons for owning exotic pets the are equally abundant in the animals' native countries too. One of the most common reasons for the Sun bear (listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List) to enter the wildlife trade, is to be kept as pets.
It's one of life's cruel ironies and is the same story the world over: the rarer the animal, the more prestige granted to its owner.
Sugars gliders are undeniably cute creatures, and this is rapidly turning into a weakness, as they are becoming extremely popular as pets, especially in Australia. While they are native to Indonesia and the surrounding reason, some sub-species are native to Australia, and some Australian states (as well as most US states) allow them to be legally kept as pets.
Commonly for wild species, they are extremely difficult to keep alive in captivity. Stress, lack of space and a very specific diet mean they rarely survive very long, even in cases where the owners care to research what their new pet needs. This is one instance in which licensed breeders are used in the US to keep up with demand, although as mentioned before, it is often impossible to know whether or not this claim is true.
It certainly is in the case of the slow loris, which shares many of the problems in captivity with the sugar glider. It has the added issue of being venomous, causing traders to pull their teeth out before sale. Claims of captive breeding are almost certainly false. They are very difficult to breed even for expert facilities with the best care, so despite claims to the contrary its highly likely so called captive bred are actually from the wild. You can read more on the slow loris in my previous essay.
Without legislation and co-operation between governments, it's hard for any organisations to make a dent in the wildlife trade. Law enforcement are unable to act unless there are laws in place to deal with traders and poachers, and with the many neighbouring countries in South-East Asia, it is easy for traders to escape over the border to a country with more relaxed laws.
There are success stories. Organisations such as TRAFFIC and the Freeland Foundation are helping to bring the governments of the region together and increase the standard of regulation and enforcement across South-East Asia.
Cambodia is a country with relatively progressive laws on illegal wildlife, and Wildlife Alliance, in conjunction with the government have formed the well-respected Wildlife Rapid Rescue Team, who have the power to enforce these laws. This is a model that is hoped will be taken up in neighbouring countries.
Asia is only one end of the chain. Aside from the supply, there is also the demand to address. Europe's borders are not as porous as those in Asia, but there is still a lot of wildlife trafficking taking place and legal requirements are few. The laws protecting exotic species in the UK dates back to 1951. It is reported that 95% of pet fish and 84% of pet reptiles in the UK are wild-caught. An estimated 90% of these reptiles are carriers of salmonella. The way the US and Australia handle this issue varies from state to state, but meanwhile Norway has banned the import and sale of exotic animals completely.
So what can we do?
First and foremost, don't purchase or encourage the purchase of exotic pets. Secondly, find out about the laws in your region and find out who you can report violations to (if you think this is unlikely, I have actually done this, apologies if that person is reading this essay...).
As cute or exciting as they may be, there is a difference between domesticated and tamed. The old adage holds true, that wild animals belong in the wild and that is where they are best observed.
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