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from The New York Times


Lure of the Exotic Stirs Trouble in the Animal Kingdom


February 12, 2002

MIAMI — On Jan. 16, police officers entered the apartment of Ronald J. Huff, 42, of Newark, Del., and found seven Nile monit or lizards feeding on his corpse. An autopsy proved inconclusive as to wh ether the monitors, ranging up to six feet long, had killed their owner. But the grisly scene provided a glimpse into the growing international tr ade in exotic pets.

About the time Mr. Huff died, inspectors from the Miami office of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service impounde d a shipment of 2,000 reptiles and invertebrates, 600 of them scorpions, from Benin in West Africa. The validity of the export permits was in ques tion.

That was but one of more than 8,000 animal shipments that a rrived here legally over the last year, with untold additional animals sl ipping by unnoticed.

"Anything you want you can get in the exotic pet trade," said the resident agent in charge of the office, Jorge Pic&# 0243;n.

A cursory review of the Internet shows a Noah's Ark of a nimals for sale, including baboons, macaques, chimpanzees, red-handed tam arins, rhesus monkeys, tigers, Amur leopards, lions, jaguars, ocelots, se rvals, caracals, wolves, black bears, three- toed sloths, wallabies, foxe s, raccoons, skunks, snakes, tarantulas, scorpions, turtles, lizards of a ll sizes, birds and reef fish.

Even if bred in captivity, these w ild animals are generally called "exotic pets" because they have not been intensively and selectively bred for life with humans, as have domestic pets like dogs, cats, hamsters and guinea pigs. In fact, many collectors say they are attracted to exotic pets because the animals are wild and un usual, unspoiled by domestication.

Miami, Los Angeles and New Yor k lie at the center of that trade in the United States, the largest impor ter, exporter and re-exporter of exotic animals in world.

Pet re ptiles alone account for around 2.5 million imports a year, said Simon Ha bel, director of the North American branch of Traffic, an international o rganization established by the World Wildlife Fund and World Conservation Union to monitor the trade in plants and animals, meats, hides and other animal products.

Traffic estimates the entire trade at tens of b illions of dollars a year. Interpol sets the illegal trade at $12 billion a year, second only to drugs. The often substantial trade within countri es is largely unmeasured.

But the dollar figures do not reflect t he ecological, social and health costs, wildlife experts said. Those incl ude driving species toward extinction, disrupting ecosystems by removing crucial native species and introducing exotics and importing animals with pathogens that can afflict livestock, wildlife and humans.

Many animals die during capture and shipment. Experts calculate that the morta lity rate can reach 60 to 70 percent for some birds and reptiles and 80 t o 90 percent for reef fish.

Demand fuels the trade. A survey in 2 000 by the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association found 18.6 mil lion birds in 6.9 million American households and 9 million reptiles in 3 2E9 million homes. Uncounted thousands of wild mammals, including tigers , lions, wolves and primates, are in private hands.

Japan and the European Union are also major importers of exotic pets, Mr. Habel said.< /P>

Defenders of the trade in exotic pets note that most of these ani mals are bred in captivity and are plentiful in number. Virtually all bir ds legally sold in the United States are now captive-bred, and many ecolo gists say such programs, when well run, protect species in the wild.

Much of the trade is perfectly legal, operating under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, or Cites, which is involved in 150 countries and provides mechanisms to regu late the trade in endangered and threatened species.

Additional p rotections in the United States come from the Endangered Species Act and the Lacey Act, which lets officials enforce the conservation laws of othe r countries. The Wild Bird Conservation Act bans importing wild birds exc ept under narrow circumstances. Other state, local and federal laws are i ntended to regulate the ownership, breeding and transportation of exotic pets.

The pet industry, which supports captive breeding programs, is wary of further regulation. Michael Maddox, chief staff lawyer for th e Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council, said no reliable surveys proved th at the pet trade was contributing significantly to the decline of any wil d species. "One of our big concerns is to make sure we have a good handle on the problem and reliable numbers before we would endorse any kind of regulation," he said.

But wildlife experts said that many studies showed the trade remained dangerous for many species.

Habitat lo ss remains the single largest threat to species worldwide. But for some a nimals, collection is just as great a danger, experts said. Some wildlife biologists suggest that animals become more desirable to collectors as t hey become rarer and more expensive.

Parrots, turtles, tortoises and some lizards are especially hard hit, many experts said. In an extens ive study of the bird trade, Dr. Steven R. Beissinger, a professor of con servation biology at the University of California at Berkeley, recently r eported that the trade in exotic pets affected 50 imperiled parrot specie s, 32 of them traded legally.

The spix macaw from Brazil is now b elieved extinct in the wild. Hyacinth and blue macaws and red- crowned Am azons are among other birds considered at great risk from the pet trade.< /P>

Dr. Beissinger said the Wild Bird Conservation Act of 1992 had re duced parrot imports to the United States from "more than 100,000 to hund reds" and had sharply cut poaching of Caribbean and Latin American birds. Still, he said, some species continue to be poached at unsustainable lev els for other markets.

The greatest threat to turtles arises from the food and traditional medicine trades, primarily with China, and invo lves millions of turtles that represent 90 species from Asia, said John B ehler, curator of herpetology for the Wildlife Conservation Society.

Though it claims fewer turtles than the food market, the pet trade has devastated a number of species, turtle experts said, including all four tortoise species from Madagascar, the pancake tortoise of Kenya and Tanzania, and the Egyptian tortoise.

The removal of animals can reverberate throughout an ecosystem, ecologists said, and collecting itself often destroys habitat. Dr. Andrew Bruckner, a coral reef ecologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service, said 60 percent of the world's coral reefs were in jeopardy, largely from pollution and overexploitation for food fish.

"But in some areas," Dr. Bruckner said, "the harvest of fish, live rock and coral for reef aquaria are also contributing to their decline."

Not all collected species are at risk. Dr. Beissinger found that 70 percent of the 4.8 million birds, representing 519 species traded worldwide from 1991 to 1996, were non threatened finches. Green iguanas, most of them raised on ranches, represented 33 percent of reptiles imported into the United States in 1997, according to a report last year by Joseph Franke and Dr. Teresa M. Telecky for the Humane Society of the United States. The researchers also found that 8.7 million farmed North American red-eared slider turtles accounted for 93.2 percent of American reptile exports in 1997.

Still, wildlife experts said, those captive-bred animals are, by their nature, wild, and owning them carries risks.

The few statistics compiled on injuries and fatalities from exotic pets indicate a potentially sizable problem. Dr. Philip Nyhus, an assistant professor of ecology at Franklin and Marshall College, has counted 5 people killed by tigers and 29 seriously hurt since 1998.

Dr. Telecky counted an average of 20 fatalities and 90,000 illnesses a year from reptiles, sometimes from bites or constriction by snakes, but usually from salmonella, which is endemic in the gut of reptiles and can be spread when people touch the animals or places they have been. By comparison, fatal attacks on humans among the nation's 55 million dogs average 12 a year.

Health officials advise pregnant women, children younger than 5, older people and people with weakened immune systems to avoid direct and indirect contact with reptiles.

Exotic animals often carry parasites and pathogens that can devastate livestock, native wildlife and humans, and many scientists contend that government surveillance and quarantine procedures for most imports are inadequate.

In March 2000, the United States Department of Agriculture did ban imports of three African tortoise species — the leopard, Bell's hingeback and African spur — after a tick species for which they served as host was found to carry heartwater disease, a bacterial ailment unknown in America but dangerous to livestock.

Hundreds of fish, reptiles, amphibians, mammals and birds kept as exotic pets have "gone native" in the countries where they were taken, often establishing breeding populations to the detriment of native species and ecosystems, many experts said. The red-eared slider turtle is banned in the European Union and South Africa as an invasive species.

Many conservationists argue for reform of the trade in exotic animals to provide greater protections and establish well-regulated programs for "sustainable harvests," in the hope that people will protect habitats while earning money.

"So many animals are in the trade and so many are lost," said Mr. Picón of the Fish and Wildlife Service, "that people don't realize when they buy an exotic pet they are taking the rain forest and putting it in a coffin.

Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company

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