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Is your exotic pet obsession fuelling illegal trade in these creatures?

South Africa is also the world’s largest exporter of captive-bred African grey parrots even though the bird is not native to the country. Picture: wasi1370/Pixabay

South Africa is also the world’s largest exporter of captive-bred African grey parrots even though the bird is not native to the country. Picture: wasi1370/Pixabay

Published Apr 28, 2021


The exotic pet trade is a lucrative business but it needs a closer look at to find out what it is doing to these creatures, writes environmental activist Dominic Naidoo.

Every year, millions of exotic animals are sold as pets destined to spend the rest of their lives behind a glass panel in a world too far from home. Although the term “exotic pet” does not have a defined description, it would normally refer to any pet that is not your typical dog or cat.

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There is massive global demand for exotic pets, and this has led to a lucrative business known as the “exotic pet trade”.

Granted, some of the trade is above-board but a large portion of it is illegal leading to many animals being captured or poached from the wild to fuel this growing demand.

The sale of exotic live animals is a major part of the overall illicit trade on the black market, but that is a story for another day.

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Humans have always had a fascination with the unusual, exotic animals that have been kept as pets for millennia. Roman Emperors and the wealthy would stock private zoos or vivaria with creatures sent back home from conquests in far-flung lands.

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Elephants, lions and tigers were popular symbols of wealth and power displayed at arenas around the empire.

The demand for unique pets has exploded in recent years with e-commerce and video-sharing platforms fuelling the craze.

These have provided people with an easy way to market and advertise these exotic pets. Video sharing platform Tiktok has had videos tagged “#exoticpets” rack up 441.7 million views.

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Even something as harmless and innocent as an animated movie could place certain species in poachers’ crosshairs. Finding Nemo was a classic example of this. The movie follows a clownfish on the Great Barrier Reef frantically searching for his son who was caught to be put into a dental office fish tank. Ironically, the moral of the movie was to leave exotic fish in the ocean where they belong, but it did the opposite.

Picture: naturalogy/Pixabay

According to Hakai Magazine, after the movie’s release, global sales of the clownfish rose by an estimated 40% with around a million being taken from the oceans each year since. The demand was so high and lucrative that clownfish have become locally extinct in the Philippines, parts of Thailand and parts of Sri Lanka.

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Closer to home, the exotic pet trade has decimated wild animal populations all over Africa with the Madagascan radiated tortoise designated as “critically endangered” in 2008 and the African grey parrot having all but disappeared from the rainforests of Ghana with local extinctions in areas of Uganda, the Congo Basin, Rwanda and Tanzania.

Rampant destruction of habitats has led to declining numbers and driving the birds into smaller and smaller ranges making them easier to capture for the pet trade.

In March 2018, it was reported that the European Union was a major destination for illegally exported lizards, snakes and tortoises from Southern Africa, most from South Africa which is also the biggest exporter of live captive-bred lion cubs destined for a life in chains too far from the savannah.

South Africa is also the world’s largest exporter of captive-bred African grey parrots even though the bird is not native to the country. In 2018, 8 out of 10 birds exported were from South Africa.

Iguanas, geckos, chinchillas, African grey parrots and non-venomous snakes were the popular exotic pets in South Africa in 2019 and the desire to own one or the other has only grown in recent years. The indigenous Leopard Tortoises are another popular exotic pet often sold relatively cheaply in pet stores either legally or not.

Picture: benjamingross83/Pixabay

It is illegal to remove any native animal from the wild without the permission of Nature Conservation Authorities but with the severe lack of policing around the exotic pet trade, many incidents go unnoticed.

Keeping exotic pets out of their natural wild habitat is seen as cruel, expensive and sometimes a long-term affair. Many reptiles and parrots live to a ripe old age. The African Grey can live up to 70 years old and needs constant attention, the Leopard tortoise can live up to 100 years old, and so will survive many generations of a human family.

What are your thoughts on owning an exotic pet? As a nature enthusiast, I would hope that humans begin to understand that these exotic animals are not objects to be traded and paraded around. They are living, breathing creatures with lives of their own. It is simple, if aliens had to come to Earth and treat us the way we treat our animals, I would not like that at all. Would you?