Sunday, June 01, 2008

The truth behind the exotic-pet trade

Clifford Warwick:
I've seen a lot of blood, guts, suffering and death in the years I've been investigating the human pressures on wildlife. But, the exotic-pet trade is by far the most senseless, malicious business I've witnessed.

The majority of reptiles destined for the pet-trade are wild-caught, using nooses, nets and dogs. The death rate during capture and transportation to pre-export holding sites is rarely recorded but, injuries include paralysis, claws wrenched from toes by sacking material, bites and scratches. Many are dehydrated, starving, emaciated and diseased.

The survivors are put into poorly regulated cargo holds for shipping that frequently lasts up to 80 hours. CITES found that the average mortality rates during shipping of reptiles was 3.8 per cent. A similar number usually die soon after arrival.

Unable to adapt
And even when the reptiles reach their final destination with the public, their new owners are by no means saviours. With the best intentions in the world, it's impossible to care for captive reptiles properly. Reptiles are particularly bad at adapting to artificial environments and routines; their biology is hard-wired for life in the wild. Abnormal behaviour, such as spending long periods patrolling the cage boundaries or climbing the glass walls of the tank, results.

The trade in exotic pets accounts for a huge drain on natural populations. The trade monitoring network TRAFFIC assessed world trade figures for 70 reptile species. It clocked-up 233,695 and 1,452,963 animals each year. And these figures are still likely to be way short of the mark.

Insufficient policing
International wildlife regulations permit free trade until someone stumbles across an emerging disaster. Where the 'protection' message does get through and trade restrictions are implemented, monitoring is poor and enforcement infrequent.

The only sensible approach to keeping tabs on the wildlife trade is the 'green/reverse list' principle, whereby no wildlife is traded until prospective collection has been independently verified as safe.

A growing business
Informing the public of these issues is dutifully carried out by concerned organisations and individuals. But pet-keeping keeps on rising. Existing laws at local, national and international levels need to be properly enforced. In Britain, one-day wildlife markets, where reptiles are displayed and sold publicly in hired halls, have expanded. But as markets, these shows contravene the Pet Animals Act.

Freight carriers hold an important position and could resolve many ethical and environmental problems by volunteering not to ship wildlife. But the people who could do the most to put an end to this cruel, senseless and destructive trade are those who create the demand - the reptile-keepers.

Having witnessed the suffering and loss up-close, I see a wildlife holocaust in which even the survivors don't find freedom. In time, we'll look back on exotic-pet keeping and condemn it for having ever existed.
Reptile-keepers justify their hobby in a variety of ways. But look a bit closer and you'll find there's more misinformation than truth in their claims.

"Life in captivity is not as stressful as life in the wild."
In nature, the time between a prey animal first perceiving a threat and finally being killed is relatively short. Also, in a natural situation, biological systems can block the prey's psychological stress and physical pain, so even the most gruesome deaths aren't as terrible as they appear. In captivity, this mechanism breaks down as predator/prey interactions are nullified, behavioural opportunities interfered with and natural mindsets altered. Captive animals probably experience physical and psychological suffering much more sharply. Even if, superficially, captives seem 'content', the stress is largely continuous and unnatural, from the moment of capture or birth in captivity to death.

"Few reptiles die in shipping."
Reptiles are ectothermic: they have very specific temperature needs and are therefore more sensitive to change than most mammals and birds. Also, they have an extremely low metabolic rate, which means that though they often survive shipping, the onset of disease is merely delayed.

"Reptiles don't notice their captivity."
What we know of reptiles' perception of their environment shows that they are very aware of it. They are, for example, extremely sensitive to subtle chemical, seismic, tactile and visual changes. Differences between wild and captive conditions are all factors that the animal notices, whether psychologically or biologically. The problem is that humans don't notice how reptiles suffer in captivity.

"Captive reptiles live longer."
Llittle is known about reptiles' longevity in the wild. It is likely that reptiles generally live a lot longer in the wild than in captivity. In terms of quality of life, you only need to flick through a good pathology book, to see what captivity does to reptiles.

"An animal that is feeding, growing and breeding is fine."
Even those that appear to be doing fine are likely to be suffering from unseen disease and trauma.

"Reptiles don't need much space."
Free-living reptiles often wander distances of several hundred metres, even kilometres, every day. Small species and young can be as active as large species and adults, sometimes more so. Even the most spacious cages cannot replicate this.

"Pet-keeping encourages respect for animals."
If this were true, we would have to see that, for the tens of millions of reptiles suffering and dying for the pet trade each year, a stabilising team of productive naturalists emerges. These individuals would then have to prove that they would not have become naturalists had it not been for their pets. Reptile-keeping is disastrous for species conservation and welfare. Furthermore, the premature loss of a 'pet' often involves significant human distress. Many captive reptiles are dumped on rescue groups or released into local habitats and may become a threatening alien incomer.

source:BBC NEWS