By Susan Lieberman and Elizabeth Bennett
March 3 is World Wildlife Day and the theme this year is: “The future of wildlife is in our hands.” One often-overlooked aspect of this is the current crisis of the global illegal trade in wildlife for use as pets. From Peruvian titi monkeys to Central Africa’s African grey parrots to Madagascar’s plowshare tortoises, the illegal global pet trade threatens countless species, sending many hurtling toward extinction.
The illegal and unsustainable emptying out of our forests, skies, and rivers to provide a steady stream of exotic pets is a fact often not widely understood by global consumers. That must change. Just last week, enforcement officers in Jakarta, Indonesia seized some 4,500 turtles destined for the pet trade in China, including 900 critically endangered snake-necked turtles.
In the 30 years between 1975-2005, 1.3 million African grey parrots were removed from the continent for the international pet trade and the species is now threatened. Central and West African forests likely lost double that number due to unreported illegal trade and high mortality in capture and transport. Where these birds were once abundant, there is a growing silence.
In Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico, and Belize, the scarlet macaw has been reduced to isolated populations of fewer than 1,000 individuals due to illegal trade of this beautiful endangered bird.
All too often, these birds and other species suffer terribly in the process, with reports of animals smuggled in thermoses, nylon stockings, and toilet paper tubes. A Smithsonian reporter at an Ecuador market was once offered a parakeet along with advice for how to get it on an airplane: “Give it vodka and put it in your pocket. It will be quiet.”
In some cases, the trade is driven by domestic demand in countries with some of the most spectacular biodiversity.
In Indonesia, many people keep caged wild-caught songbirds and bird-singing competitions are popular. Tens of thousands of birds of about 200 species can be found for sale in markets in Jakarta in a single day and some 28 local species of songbirds are threatened with extinction in the wild due to this trade.
It is not uncommon for species whose international trade is prohibited or regulated through the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) to be misrepresented by wildlife traders as being captive bred, giving the false impression that there is no negative impact on wild populations.
The result is that more animals are trapped and removed from their natural habitats, rendering them rarer and rarer while often sending their commercial value soaring. Our colleague Brian Horne, WCS Coordinator of Turtle Conservation, reports that certain species of Asian box turtles are now selling for as much as US$40,000 per hatchling.
Rare wood turtles from Central and South America are likewise being smuggled into Hong Kong, where they are selling for US$1,000. The very high mortality rates of many animals, especially wild-caught birds and mammals, means that for every one that arrives in a home, up to ten have been taken from the wild and died along the way.
Personal aquaria have also contributed to the pet trade crisis. Some 150 species of stony coral are traded globally – many of which find their way into home aquariums (more than 700,000 households in the United States alone keep marine aquaria). Removal of corals from the wild has contributed to the destruction of reef ecosystems and the fishing livelihoods of communities that rely on them.
If we are to curb this pernicious trade, it is critical that we clamp down on both the trafficking of wildlife for the pet trade through stricter enforcement, along with the demand for exotic pets that has helped to create such a profitable market for hundreds of threatened species.
What can you do? First, if you’re in the U.S. you can encourage your elected representatives to support legislation seeking to stymie the illegal wildlife trade, such as the End Wildlife Trafficking Act. You can also express support for the work of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), and the Obama Administration’s Presidential Task Force on Wildlife Trafficking.
You can also ask pet stores where they source their animals, especially if you are interested in purchasing exotic birds, snakes, lizards, or turtles. Let them know that you care if they came from the wild rather than being born in captivity. If they don’t know, do your own research.
The more questions you ask, the more empowered you are likely to feel in helping to curb the illegal trade in wildlife. This effort is bigger than one individual. If we all do our part, we can help to stabilize shrinking animal populations and even reverse their decline. This World Wildlife Day, remember that for so many wildlife species, the future really is in a very true sense in our hands.
Dr. Susan Lieberman and Dr. Elizabeth Bennett are Vice President for International Policy and Vice President for Species Conservation respectively at WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society).