Pets are part of human cultures all around the world. We keep animals to admire their beauty or to enjoy their companionship or devotion. The pet trade is big business throughout the world but with its positive aspects, there are distinct negative ones as well. As with any commodity, economics dictates that the rarer an item is, the more valuable it becomes in the market place. Many rare species thus become quite valuable to wealthy collectors, who are willing to pay exorbitant prices to black market dealers for certain species—even though they are protected by international treaties and laws.
Because these illegal pets must be smuggled into the market arenas, concealment almost always requires physical abuse of the animals. This may be in the form of constrictive bindings, overcrowded or confined spaces, exposure to extreme heat, or lack of oxygen due to these restrictions. Such treatment results in the death of many individuals during transit, with mortality that often approaches 80–90%. Therefore, collectors and smugglers must over-collect specimens in order to ensure the delivery of a sufficient quantity to realize a profit. Two groups, monkeys and parrots , have been the recipients of the bulk of this treatment. Due to their popularity as pets, there is a lucrative business in their illegal trade, and because the rarer species bring a higher price, these practices further threaten extinction of certain species.
This problem extends beyond the black market trade in birds and mammals. Other animal groups, as well as the legal pet trade, are also involved. Exotic reptiles, snakes and lizards in particular, are a target group. Legitimate pet dealers get involved in this problem when they, often unknowingly, purchase pets that were illegally caught or smuggled.
The aquarium trade has also faced illegal collecting. Over-collecting and poor handling of specimens during shipment have been problems in the freshwater segment of this business, but recent years have produced rampant abuses in the marine aquarium trade. Advances in technology over the past twenty years have made marine aquaria more accessible to the general public, and the sheer beauty of the brilliant, often neon-like, colors of many of the coral reef fish has fascinated a new breed of aquarists.
The main problems here still include the removal of large numbers of specimens of localized populations of rare or low density species and their illegal trade. Now, new and profound problems exist in the capture of these marine creatures: the total destruction of their habitat and the killing of unwanted, non-commercial species. Although legitimate collecting of marine fish is done with nets, it is estimated that during the 1980s about 80% of specimens for the marine aquarium trade were collected by using poison. Since most of the target species use coral reefs as hiding places, collectors use a squeeze bottle filled with sodium cyanide to force the fish out into the open water. The stunned, gasping fish are thus more easily caught, but the section of coral reef sprayed with poison, and the animals that did not escape, are now dead. Lingering effects of the poison and abusive shipping practices lead to mortality rates of 60–80% for these pets.
Public awareness and some governmental regulations have eased some of the abuses of these animals, but the illegal pet trade is still a profitable business. As long as people are willing to purchase rare species, the illegal pet trade will threaten the very species the collectors hold in high esteem.
[Eugene C. Beckham ]
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