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Our Love for Exotic Pets is Emptying Forests and Oceans

Posted by Richard Conniff on May 7, 2018

(Photo: FLIGHT Protecting Indonesia’s Birds)

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,

White-rumped shama (Photo: Shanaka Aravinda)

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 recalled recently, “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 remarked.  “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 wild. 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:  When the average price for a white-rumped shama, a popular species in Indonesian songbird competitions, shot up 1500 percent from 2013 to 2015, the shift tipped conservationists off for the first time that these birds were 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 seemingly intact habitats where they should thrive, such as 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, said 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.”

The problem isn’t just about birds.  Nor is it limited to

Greater slow loris at the Minnesota Zoo. (Photo: Joel Sartore)

Indonesia or other developing nations.  The trade in wild-caught pets is driven at least as much by demand from collectors in the United States and Europe. Home aquariums in the U.S., for example, are the final destination for about 11 million fish and other marine creatures plucked from coral reefs every year.  American pet dealers annually import 225 million live animals on average, and brought in more than three billion over the first 14 years of this century.

Despite the widespread belief that our love of pets is one of the finer aspects of human nature, researchers increasingly suggest that it has become a major force in what they call “defaunation,” the great vanishing of wildlife from habitats of all kinds, almost everywhere.  In places, our appetite for pets ranks with habitat loss, black market poaching, and the bushmeat trade as a factor in the growing silence of the natural world.


For decades conservationists emphasized the role of ecosystem destruction in driving biodiversity decline. But the booming trade in wild animals, with more species taken to meet international demand for pets than for any other purpose, has caused increasing alarm. “The idea that habitat loss is the greatest threat to species survival is starting to be questioned, “says Crawford Allan of the wildlife trade-monitoring network TRAFFIC, a collaboration between the WWF and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). “There are certain species that have plenty of habitat; however, they are being sucked up from the wild at alarming rates.”

Consumer demand for rare species has made the pet trade a source of special concern among conservationists. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species already includes many species pushed to the brink by trapping for the pet trade, among them birds (the Bali myna and South America’s Spix’s macaw), a primate (Southeast Asia’s greater slow loris), ornamental fishes (Asia’s red line torpedo barb), and reptiles (Madagascar’s radiated tortoise and ploughshare tortoise).  And these are just the well-studied species, according to Wilcove and Harris. For the vast majority of vertebrates sold in markets and pet stores, researchers have not even begun to study how the pet trade affects wild populations.

Field studies to answer such questions inevitably progress slowly, but the market for pets can move with devastating and unpredictable speed. In one notorious case from the 1990s, researchers published the first scientific description of the Roti Island snake necked turtle, including the standard details about where it lives–an island in southern Indonesia.  Collectors pounced, and the species is now critically endangered.

Having learned this painful lesson, biologists withheld precise locality information in 2011 when they described the new Matilda’s horned viper from the highlands of southern Tanzania. Dealers nonetheless had the snakes on the market that same year at more than $500 apiece, according to a recent study of the European reptile trade published in Biological Conservation. Collectors did not seem deterred even by the likelihood that their purchases could cause a species to become extinct in the wild. In 2010, for example, a Russian language journal reported the rediscovery of a snake subspecies from northern Vietnam last seen in the 1930s and presumed extinct. One year later, online dealers in Europe were advertising specimens, ostensibly “farmed” in Vietnam, at prices up to $1750 a pair.

Dealers and collectors  justify the pet trade under the guise of conservation, says a reptile trade investigator who asked not to be named. “They say ‘We are maintaining insurance populations.’ Or, ‘The wild habitat is being destroyed so we are protecting these animals.’  In the vast majority of cases, that’s not true.”  Rather, the investigator asserts, the pet trade itself is decimating wild populations.

For instance, the critically endangered ploughshare tortoise, a handsome species with a domed, golden shell, lives only in Baly Bay National Park in northwestern Madagascar. Commercial exploitation has been banned since 1975 under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), and conservationists have worked for decades to rebuild the population in the wild.  But over the past five years a surge in poaching to supply collectors has reduced the ploughshare population at Baly Bay to fewer than 100 adults.  In countries such as Thailand, Indonesia, and China, which tend to honor CITES rules on paper but not in practice, speculators have driven the price for a large ploughshare adult up to $100,000.

Pet shop residents in Beijing

Financial speculation was also the apparent motivation in 2015, when a Chinese businessman paid more than $200,000 for a red-necked pond turtle, a species from southern China now thought to be extinct in the wild. “The more rare species get, the closer to extinction, the more these dealers promote that as a sales thing, and the higher the prices become,” said Rick Hudson, a herpetologist and president of the Texas-based nonprofit Turtle Survival Alliance.

The same players who supply the trade in wild animal parts–from rhinoceros horn to crocodile skin–are also fueling the pet trade. “Many of these people who were doing the traditional medicine trade are now branching out because the high-end pet trade in China has grown immensely, and has caused escalating prices in Europe and the United States,” said Brian Horne, a herpetologist for the Wildlife Conservation Society. Criminal elements have also gotten involved, at times targeting the captive breeding facilities set up by conservationists to rebuild populations of imperiled species.  Thieves broke into one such facility in Thailand and stole six ploughshare and 72 radiated tortoises.They also target collectors. In Hong Kong, for instance, robbers broke into one family’s home twice in three months, the second time scaling drainpipes and bypassing security cameras to steal 23 endangered turtles worth an estimated $116,000.

Catching and prosecuting people who traffic in illegal wildlife is one obvious way to slow the emptying of natural habitats. In 2016 a judge sentenced a Pennsylvania man to two years in prison in a scheme to export North American wood turtles, a threatened species.  According to federal investigators, John Tokosh, then 54, collected 750 of them from a small area south of Pittsburgh, immobilized them with duct tape for shipping, and sold them at $400 apiece to middlemen supplying the pet trade in Hong Kong.  That case also led to jail terms for a postal worker in Louisiana, and collaborators in Chicago, and California.

But such prosecutions are relatively rare. The enormous scale of the pet trade, both into and out of the country, inevitably overwhelms port inspectors working to spot contraband. “We do a lot of these blitzes, we call them, and it’s such an absolute needle in a haystack,” said one U.S. Fish and Wildlife inspector who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak to the press.  “We have all the tools. We’ve gotten more equipment and more people. We have a great intelligence unit.  It just seems like we’re always behind the eight ball.  By the time we figure it out, everything has changed. You can make as much money dealing in illegal wildlife species as you can dealing in arms and heroin and cocaine, but your chances of going to jail or being caught are less.”

Burmese star tortoise

Indian star tortoise










The sheer variety of species being traded also reduces the likelihood of detection.  “There’s nobody out there that knows all the birds,” said Eric Goode, a naturalist with the nonprofit Turtle Conservancy. “Tropical fish, unless you get the world’s top ichthyologist, they don’t know how to identify all those species. In the case of turtles [and tortoises], there are only 340 species on the planet,” but inspectors typically “can’t tell a Burmese star tortoise from an Indian star tortoise, or one soft-shelled turtle from another.” CITES may ban all trade in a critically endangered turtle or parrot, but traffickers “just label it as a more common variety” and go on about their business. In one case, a dealer smuggled an orangutan into the country by trimming its hair, dyeing it brown and mixing it into a legal shipment of other primates.:

Goode and others argued that if the pet trade cares about conservation, suppliers should stop harvesting animals from the wild and focus on breeding them in captivity. “There’s a point when you have to walk the walk,” he said. “Let’s really stop the importation of wildlife, stop the importation of wild birds, stop the Russian tortoises,” a species from Central Asia commonly sold in U.S. pet stores.  “Go to any of these warehouses and see the staggering mortality that occurs every day. Why do you need this constant flow of animals into the United States that are caught in the wild?”

Captive breeding could also be the answer to the bird trade in Indonesia, where many households already keep captive-bred lovebirds, said Princeton’s David Wilcove.  A program aimed at increasing availability of inexpensive budgerigars, canaries, and other pet-friendly birds might help persuade people that they don’t “need to own a shama, or to buy some of these wild-caught birds that are not suited to living in a cage.”  As a child, he added, he used a recording by “the Pavarotti of the canary world” to train his pet canary to sing. “There’s no reason canaries couldn’t become fierce competitors” in Indonesian singing competitions, he added.

But captive breeding can also be harder than it might seem. In 2014, EcoHealth Alliance, a New York-based nonprofit, established its EcoHealthy Pets website, modeled on the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch, to alert consumers to the best and worst choices in exotic pets.  The list emphasizes captive breeding as a way to reduce both health risks and pressure on the natural world.  But lack of financial support has so far limited the list to just 52 species, not nearly enough to satisfy even many beginning hobbyists.

Pet shop residents in Beijing (Photo: Richard Conniff)

The pet industry has remained ambivalent about a broad commitment to captive breeding, in part because no one has figured out how to breed many animal groups that are popular as pets.  And when they do figure it out, they may find that raising an animal to maturity is far more expensive than simply catching it from the wild.  When breeders in the lucrative saltwater aquarium fish trade learned how to rear colorful mandarinfish, for instance, “the mass market didn’t want to pay $40 for a captive-bred fish they could get for $12 from wild-caught sources,” Scott Fellman, an aquarium trade retailer, complained in an online forum. “Shame on us, as a hobby, for not doing more to support efforts like this,” he added.

Further complicating matters, many self-styled captive breeding facilities actually replenish their stock from the wild and may thus serve merely to launder the wholesale removal of wildlife from habitats. For instance, the number of “captive bred” Papuan hornbills being exported “far exceeds what breeding facilities can hold or yield, given the species’ slow reproductive rate,” conservation geneticist Laura Tensen of the University of Johannesburg reported, in a survey of wildlife farming published in 2016 in the journal Global Ecology and Conservation. Likewise, many frog and chameleon species appear to be economically unsuited to breeding programs because of low reproductive success in captivity, and yet, Tensen noted, “they are being traded as pets in their thousands under the guise of captive breeding.”

Even if traders could figure out how to breed all the species people want as pets in captivity, not all conservationists thing they should. When Australian herpetologists Daniel Natusch and Jessica Lyons made a detailed investigation of the trade in green pythons from Indonesia, all supposedly from captive-bred stock, they found that many facilities did not actually know how to breed reptiles successfully. Some did not even have premises on which to attempt breeding.  The researchers estimated that 80 percent of these snakes exported to the pet trade are in fact caught in the wild. But the wild-caught trade in green pythons appeared to be sustainable because of the abundance of these snakes in the wild.

`In such cases, Natusch said, the wild-caught trade may be better for conservation than captive-breeding. “You can incentivize people to protect the habitat. If you can harvest these animals sustainably, you can have an income from the forest, and you don’t have to cut down the forest.”

Natusch, who works as a consultant to the IUCN, acknowledged that exporters can do horrible things for the trade–for instance, cramming snakes into suitcases and soda bottles to smuggle them through customs. He also agrees that taking snakes from endemic populations restricted to islands or outcrops can pose a threat to their survival. But the trouble with captive breeding, he said, is that “once you take those animals from the wild, you have completely disassociated” the trade from any reason to care about the natural habitat. In contrast, he said, an entirely illegal trade in green pythons from Indonesia’s Raja Ampat archipelago has motivated islanders to keep their forests intact. (A rare color morph with yellow markings makes the snake trade there particularly lucrative.)

People who collect rare species are often “convinced they are doing wonderful things for animals” by taking them out of the wild and sheltering them from hunger, predation, and other natural threats, said University of Oxford conservation biologist Tom P. Moorhouse, lead author of a 2016 study of consumer attitudes toward exotic pets.  Buyers also typically assume “their ethical duties have taken care of by the time an animal reaches the market.  We need a campaign to convince people this isn’t the case, and that their choices have a massive effect.  If there were no demand, no market for wild caught exotics, there’d be no point paying someone to capture animals from the wild.”

The pet industry has yet to come to terms with the issue of how the trade is affecting animal populations in the wild. But the trade does care about conservation, said Mike Bober, president of the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council. “We think there’s a place for wild-caught and captive-bred in most of these communities– the important thing being the methods used for collection,” he said. “When the animals are collected sustainably, especially when they are collected by indigenous people who depend on that for their livelihood, we are proud of that. When they are collected badly, it’s a direct problem for our industry. We rely on healthy ecosystems for healthy animals, and without healthy pets, there’s no healthy pet trade.”

But healthy ecosystems are vanishingly rare in the human-dominated era, and no adequate standards of sustainable collecting exist.  Sooner or later, pet lovers and the trade may need to face up to that reality and devise better ways of sourcing animals in a world where forests, oceans, and other habitats are running empty.


Richard Conniff is the author of “The Species Seekers: Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth,” and other books.

8 Responses to “Our Love for Exotic Pets is Emptying Forests and Oceans”

  1. Nice article

  2. It is a shame. We are here to care for others not jail them for our own pleasure.

  3. Reblogged this on Freedom Wanderer.

  4. ContemporaryConservationist said

    Great writeup. I grew up in the pet trade. My family owned pet stores for many years and as time we went on we realized what a sketchy and terrible business it had become. As much as we love caring and keeping animals the reality is that hundreds and thousands of animals are taken from the wild and plcaed in the hands of inexperienced people who have the gall to call themselves conservationists. Ive had wholesalers try to sell me drugs with my snakes on more than one occasion, and had vendors outright lie about what they were selling to get past the fish and wildlife service. Im going to include this in my next weeks things I love, because it perfectly encapsulates the things ive grown to despise the pet trade and what it has become.

    • I loved our local pet store as a kid, but didn’t understand what the business involved. People should get together and pressure the big businesses to start doing it the right way.

  5. Reblogged this on Wolf's Birding and Bonsai Blog.

  6. grün schnabel utopie said

    Wow, nicely written but heart breaking to read! I am hopeful that people will realise how unnecessary it is to keep pets. We make sentiment beings dependent on us and keep them captive, for our mere pleasure. Actually consuming any animals or their products, using them for entertainment, etc. is questionable because it is completely unnecessary and we could well live without it!

  7. Thank you for sharing a very informative post. I work in an exotic animal veterinarian near me as a volunteer and to have a right knowledge of to take care of the exotic animals, I want to be an exotic vet someday, help other people to be aware that we need to preserve our animals especially the exotic species.

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