Exotic pet trade a threat to wild populations?

Pet stores are filled with colorful critters originating from the wilds of other continents. All the cages and terrariums stay well stocked while many prized species decline in their native habitat. Does the global fascination with exotic pet species hasten their extinction?

One way to find out is to compare the list of traded species with a list of species in trouble. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) maintains records of reported legal exports from its 180 member countries. The conservation status of species are listed on the red list curated by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN). Both datasets were analyzed by conservation biologists for a seven-year period of international trade in bird, reptile, and mammal species.

Birds were by far the most abundantly traded taxon. No surprise, parrots and their close relatives made up the bulk of the 56,792 individuals flown and shipped around the world. Almost a quarter of the birds were the first offspring of wild parents or were taken directly from the wild themselves. Reptiles, mainly turtles and tortoises, were second in demand: 6,210 were shipped out, but only 10 percent were taken from the wild. Among mammals, all those legally traded came from captive breeding programs and they were the least commonly traded taxon – there were 1,226 individuals reported during the study period – and consisted almost entirely of primates and carnivores.

The removal of over 13,000 birds from the wild may be disconcerting given that some populations of rare species are down to a few hundred individuals. Yet, despite the high volume of bird sales, the traded species were one and a half times less likely to be red listed than off-market species. Rarity may not be in vogue for bird owners, but short-term and high-volume trading, like three shipments totaling 5,400 Uruguayan monk parakeets imported by Mexico, could deplete wild populations. And surges in the popularity of a single species, such as Blue Macaw sales after the release of the animated film Rio, could tip the balance.

species counts Exotic pet trade a threat to wild populations?

In contrast to birds, the researchers found the demand for reptilian and mammalian pets was related to scarcity in the wild. Traded reptiles were five times more likely and mammals were three times more likely to be red listed than off-market species. The association could be an upswing in popularity of species as their global numbers decline, similar to the fervor of baseball card collectors on the scent of a Mickey Mantle. There could also be a real effect of trade on wild populations. Even though a smaller proportion of reptiles were removed from the wild, several of them, such as the radiated tortoise, have slow generation times insufficient to replace even a few removals. In addition, one animal that survives capture in the wild may represent several fatal failed attempts that go unreported in CITES data. Increases in illegal trading may also parallel legal trading, and those data are harder to track down. In the case of mammals, whom suppliers claim come from cages, wild populations may just be in trouble, period. Habitat loss, wildlife and human conflicts, and hunting for meat or body parts – ivory for example – are the real problem.

The international pet trade appears to carry less responsibility for declines in wild populations than other stressors, at least for birds and mammals. That could change as human population growth increases the demand and strain on desirable animals. Stepping up legislation and enforcement efforts could help. So might new mascot marketing strategies that mimic the waddle of Aflac rather than the sticky toes of Geico. Miles Becker | 31 March 2014

Source: Bush, E.R. et al. 2014. Global trade in exotic pets 2006-2012. Conservation Biology doi: 10.1111/cobi.12240

Photo © Matt Reinbold

Figure data © Bush et al. 2014 and IUCN red list

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