Money and status fuel wild, exotic pet trade

Published Jun 23, 2024


Durban — A growing number of wild or exotic animals are being forced into captivity in South Africa where they are favoured as pets or used as cash cows by those wanting to make big bucks.

From crocodiles to lion cubs and exotic snakes, various wild animals have been found at residences in South Africa and the outcome doesn’t bode well for the animals or their owners.

Wildlife experts have warned that this dangerous practice could be harmful to humans as well as the animals who are compelled to exist outside their natural habitats.

“In our experience, it is either linked to money or status,” said Jacques Peacock from the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (NSPCA).

He said wildlife was generally split into two categories ‒ indigenous and exotic ‒ and there was no law in the country prohibiting someone from keeping non-indigenous animals, which largely fuelled the “cruel exotic pet trade”. However, it was illegal to keep indigenous wildlife in South Africa without the proper permits.

“Due to the lack of enforcement of conservation laws, the problem is becoming increasingly common. The NSPCA’s mandate relates to enforcement of the Animals Protection Act 71 of 1962, but thorough enforcement of laws by all stakeholders is needed to combat these illegal activities,” said Peacock.

He said there were very few facilities or individuals that could “fully mimic” the life an exotic animal would have in its natural environment. Where there was no legitimate conservation purpose for keeping exotics, which included animals such as chinchillas, degus, iguanas, coatis and tigers, the animals should be left to live a natural life in their natural habitat in the country of their origin.

“We have encountered instances of severe animal cruelty, where indigenous and/or exotic wildlife is kept for the purpose of farming and trade. The NSPCA is currently seeking to work with local municipalities to prevent the ongoing importation and abuse of exotic animals across South Africa,” said Peacock.

Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife spokesman Musa Mntambo said the illegal trade and capture of wild animals across the country was common and that ferrets, Pygmy hedgehogs, exotic snakes, spiders and marmosets were some of the animals they encountered.

He said they were usually alerted to this through social media and members of the public. “People are either prosecuted, made aware of the legislative requirement and, in certain cases, the animals are removed,” Mntambo said.

Last month two lion cubs named Simba and Nala were found at a residence in Westville and last year two giraffes were found on a residential property in Assagay. In both instances, the owners did not have the required permits and the Kloof and Highway SPCA had to step in and remove the animals to places of safety. One of the giraffes did not survive the ordeal.

From reedbuck to banded mongoose, tree squirrels, baboons and even a Nile crocodile, they’ve seen it all at Durban’s Centre for Rehabilitation of Wildlife (Crow), one of the country’s oldest wildlife rehabilitation centres.

Crow marketing officer Denika Govender said they were currently rehabilitating a Nile crocodile that was collected from a person who intervened in what was intended to become part of the illegal wildlife trade.

“A poacher illegally harvested the eggs from the wild and took them to Durban to sell. Luckily for this little guy, a conservation-minded member of the public found out and took the eggs away from the poacher and notified Crow. We rushed out to collect the eggs for incubation. Reptile eggs are unlike bird eggs and if turned the embryo detaches and the baby inside will die. Unfortunately, from 22 eggs, this was the case: only three hatched and all were premature,” said Govender.

Only one crocodile is still alive and will be released into a large protected area next year, she said.

She warned that wild animals did not make good pets, and were deprived of enjoying a full life within their social structure, while there were also broader environmental and ethical implications at stake.

“They may seem cute and cuddly as babies, but with many species as they pass through adolescence, they become aggressive and confused, as their natural instincts and behaviours are taken away from them. Some species like a male antelope or warthog may also severely injure the person keeping them with their horns or tusks without even meaning to do so.

“It is extremely cruel for these animals when the person keeping them realises they are not good pets. Often by this stage, they are habituated, have lost their natural behaviours and (are) beyond rehabilitation, which means there is no choice but to euthanise them,” said Govender.

Four Paws, a global animal welfare organisation, said the keeping of big cats as exotic pets or in private residences in South Africa was becoming more prevalent. Director Fiona Miles said South Africa had a significant and largely unregulated commercial, captive big cat industry which made these animals much more accessible to the public than they should be.

“Large sentient predators do not make good pets. Not only will they grow into large, big cats that pose a serious threat to the public, they require large quantities of food and have very specific nutritional requirements. In addition, they need large species-appropriate enclosures and significant enrichment to be able to exhibit natural behaviours and live as natural a life as possible without harm to their welfare.”

Lion cubs Nala and Simba were moved from a residence in Westville in May and taken to their new home at an NSPCA-accredited wildlife facility.

Miles said the captive lion breeding industry had grown unmonitored and unregulated for decades and there were an estimated 10 000 lions in captivity and more than 600 tigers (non-native to South Africa) across the country kept for commercial purposes.

“The prevalence of captive big cats is incredibly high, thus animals are relatively easily accessible to the public. In addition to the licensed keepers, there are some unlicensed unscrupulous ones and animals are traded as live animals or as parts where profit can be made. We believe the legal commercial trade of big cats acts as a conduit for illegal trade,” Miles said.

Leading South African herpetologist Johan Marais of the African Snakebite Institute said there were at least 20 000 people in SA who kept exotic snakes and there was no official record of it because it wasn’t required.

He said while many people were genuine snake lovers, in many instances it was all about “ego and money”. A Cape Town man who bred rare albino West African gaboon vipers sold the babies for R500 000 each. Marais said the challenge with exotic snakes was that often there wasn’t any anti-venom to counter possible snakebites.

“The latest trend with smuggling ‒ and it's happening very much from KZN ‒ is if you breed certain reptiles, you’re allowed to export them. But the smugglers lie about it. They catch wild reptiles, tell the authorities that they breed them and they’re getting permits to export them. So they’re exporting these reptiles, taking them from the wild and often it’s hundreds of thousands of rands worth of reptiles leaving the country.”

He also cautioned against buying snake repellent because it did not work.

“There is absolutely nothing that we know of that repels snakes. That includes the snake repellent you buy at the hardware stores, gas, food, wild garlic, crystals and old oil. There is zero that works at all, (it’s) just smoke and mirrors and you are wasting your money,” Marais said.

The NSPCA has called on the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment (DFFE) to exercise stricter control over the influx of exotic animals into the country “... especially where CITES appendix 1 animals are concerned, unless there is a true, scientific call for such and wherein the welfare of each individual animals, being it a mammal, reptile or insect is assessed prior to an import permit being issued”.

Four Paws said the government had approved the report of the Ministerial Task Team that proposed voluntary exit options and pathways from the captive lion breeding industry. It has urged the government to release an implementation plan with time-bound specific goals.

Independent on Saturday