The exotic pet trade is currently booming in India with the help of the internet, social media, and the lack of laws governing it. It is a ticking time bomb with potentially catastrophic consequences. The owners of these animals are mostly unaware of how their seemingly harmless purchase of exotic pets is pumping money into the dark world of the illegal wildlife trade. Exotic pets are a threat to animal and human health. Such species might carry pathogens to which native animals or humans lack immunity.
More Indians are now purchasing non-native species, usually foreign wild animals, as pets. The exotic pet trade, promoted by social media channels, is booming in India. Such trade is associated with great risks to native wildlife and human health and is also a major animal welfare concern. The lack of awareness and loopholes in the law are, however, allowing such trade to continue unabated.
In 2019, while exiting a charming boutique hotel in Kolkata, a large, empty birdcage hanging near the exit caught my eye. A hotel employee who noticed my curiosity upon seeing the cage informed me that the owner wishes to fill it someday with a vibrant macaw from South America. I was shocked to hear this. The thought of a bird flying high in the rainforests of its native country, being confined to the cage in Kolkata for the rest of its life, made me shudder. But my concern was not just about a bird being encaged and its rights violated. Here, the issue was more than just one of animal welfare. It was related to the exotic pet trade – a business that could trigger the extinction of a species or one that could expose millions of human lives to a lethal pathogen. The exotic pet trade is currently booming in India with the help of the internet, social media, and the lack of laws governing it. It is a ticking time bomb with potentially catastrophic consequences.
The exotic pet trade involves the trade of non-native species, usually wild animals, for pets. While the demand for such pets is widely prevalent in countries like the United States, several nations in the Middle East, and Europe, it is a more recent trend in India.
Between 2011 and 2020, authorities seized over 70,000 exotic and native species at India’s airports, according to Traffic India. Animals ranging from red-eared slider turtles to sugar gliders to venomous snakes and even lemurs, kangaroos, antelopes, and alligators have now found their place in Indian homes. 32,000 Indians declared their possession of exotic pets after the Indian government offered amnesty to Indians for revealing such information, even if they lacked documentation related to the acquirement of their pet.
Sadly, the owners of these animals are mostly unaware of how their seemingly harmless purchase of exotic pets is pumping money into the dark world of the illegal wildlife trade. They would tremble to think how their fetish for such pets is causing unimaginable agony to the animals, endangering millions of lives, including both human and non-human.
Here are the reasons why the exotic pet trade is such a huge concern:
• The exotic pet trade has both legal and illegal sides, but it is often difficult to distinguish between the two due to the lack of transparent and uniform laws and international transit of animals involved in such cases. The lack of the right information and awareness makes owners susceptible to conviction if they are caught possessing animals that are illegal to keep at home.
• Due to the shady nature of the business, animals to be traded as exotic pets (both wild and captive-bred) are often packed, sealed, and bottled like non-living items and transported in inhumane conditions across continents and countries to avoid detection by authorities. Animal cruelty thus rules high in this business.
• Animals are often caught from the wild in their native habitats for the exotic pet trade. To make up for the loss of animals during transport due to physical and mental trauma, more animals than needed are harvested, reducing the species’ population in the wild. Local extinctions thus become inevitable for wild species in high demand.
• Wild animals usually cannot adjust to human homes as they have specific environmental or social needs that owners might not be able to provide due to a lack of knowledge, willingness, or funds. Thus, these animals suffer a lifetime of pain. And their trauma goes largely unnoticed as they are voiceless.
• Exotic pets can have disastrous consequences on native flora and fauna by becoming invasive. If intentionally or accidentally released exotic pets end up in the wild, some species might multiply fast and compete with native species for food and space, or prey on native species, reducing the populations of the same. Such invasive species can lead to the extinction of native animals or plants.
• Exotic pets are a threat to animal and human health. Such species might carry pathogens to which native animals or humans lack immunity. As such, highly infectious diseases might spread, killing large numbers of native animals or humans.
• The exotic pet trade is part of the larger illegal wildlife trade that also feeds money into other illegal trade systems operating globally.
Despite all the demerits, India’s exotic pet trade is expanding to meet the rising demand for such pets. Viral videos and photos of such pets across social media channels, YouTube, and other online mediums are associating a false sense of glamour with the ownership of such pets. Also, with the rise in purchasing power, more homes across the country can now afford to buy such pets.
Curbing Exotic Pet Trade
However, as exhibited clearly in the points mentioned above, the rise in the exotic pet trade is a hazardous phenomenon with the potential to cause a catastrophe. It must be nipped in the bud to prevent it from spreading further. While the authorities have their own job to perform, we as individuals need to take care of the following points:
• Refrain from purchasing exotic pets.
• Educate others about the vices of the exotic pet trade.
• If we know or come across an exotic pet owner, we must inform them about the demerits of the trade. We must also tell them why they must never release such pets into the wild and also ensure that they provide their pet with the right living conditions needed for their mental and physical well-being.
• The exotic pet trade in India involves both the import of animals from foreign countries and the smuggling of India’s own wild species across borders to cater to international markets. The latter is entirely illegal under the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972. Hence, we must raise the alarm if we encounter any case of illegal wildlife trade.
• Sign petitions to end the exotic pet trade and encourage our governments and authorities to ban the trade.
The exotic pet trade is completely nurtured by people’s desires to get such pets. Hence, the surest way to curb it would be to let this demand die down. And that can happen only if we spread awareness so that every person who desires such a pet thinks twice.
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About the author
Dr. Oishimaya Sen Nag is a wildlife conservation writer and editor at World Atlas, Canada. She has written several articles on issues related to wildlife conservation and interviewed renowned wildlife conservationists, wildlife biologists, and forest department officials working to protect wildlife across the world.