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Our Love for Exotic Pets is Emptying the Natural World

Posted by Richard Conniff on September 21, 2017

Fennec fox belongs in the Sahara, not your living room.

by Richard Conniff/Scientific American

Conservation biologist David S. Wilcove was on a birding trip to Sumatra in 2012 when he began to notice that house after house in every village he visited had cages hanging outside, inhabited by the sort of wild birds he had expected to see in the forest. Nationwide, one in five households keeps birds as pets. That got him thinking, “What is this doing to the birds?”

Wilcove, who teaches at Princeton University, made a detour to the Pramuka bird market in Jakarta, Southeast Asia’s largest market for birds and other wildlife, from fruit bats to macaques. “It was this sort of Wal-Mart-size space filled with hundreds of stalls,” he recalls, “each stall of which was filled with hundreds of birds. An awful lot of them were in very poor condition, with signs of disease, feathers frayed, behaving listlessly–or thrashing around in their cages, because a lot of these are wild birds that are not at all suited to living as caged birds.” Some were species that even zoos with highly trained professional staff cannot maintain in captivity; they would die soon after purchase, “the cut flower syndrome,” he remarks. “It was really a shocking site. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Research by Wilcove and his colleagues subsequently linked demand for birds in Indonesia’s pet marketplace to the decline of numerous species in the . Prices in the pet market, they suggested, in a 2015 study in Biological Conservation, can even serve as an alarm system for species declines that might not show up in field studies until years later, if at all. Thus when the average price for a white-rumped shama, a popular species in Indonesian songbird competitions, shot up 1500 percent from 2013  to 2015, it tipped conservationists off for the first time that these birds are vanishing from the wild.

Follow-up field studies in Indonesia by co-author Bert Harris, now at the Rainforest Trust, found no trace of shamas even in national parks and in forests five kilometers from the nearest roads. Buyers were paying especially high prices for distinctive island populations, some of them likely unrecognized species or sub-species. The pet trade, says Wilcove, thus has “the potential to drive species to extinction even when they have suitable habitat, and drive them to extinction without anyone being aware of it.”

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The problem isn’t, however, just about birds. Nor is it limited to Indonesia. Though some developing nations have become notorious for wildlife trafficking, the trade in wild-caught pets is driven at least as much by demand from collectors in the United States and Europe. U.S. home aquariums, for example …

To read the full story, please support print journalism (which supports my work) and pick up a copy of the October issue of Scientific American.

 

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