Thursday, March 29, 2012

Parrots, Pythons and Pet Shops: Perils of the Wildlife Trade

By Edith McClintock

Burmese python in Everglades (native of Southeast Asia).
Photo by Christopher Scott Boykin's camera
My favorite memories from living and working in the Suriname rainforest are of wildlife. A brilliant slash of red signaling a scarlet macaw darting through the jungle canopy. Giant Tegu lizards scattering for cover. Green iguanas fighting for food in our compost pile. Capuchin monkeys leaping and twisting and swinging playfully on the forest floor.

One of my least favorite memories, however, was riding an old, U-Haul type truck from the interior to the coast. It was a crowded local bus, with gaping holes for windows, school bus seats soldered to the floor, and shrieking parrots packed tightly into mesh wire cages just behind my head. The only positive was that once the truck moved, winding its way along the bumpy road towards Paramaribo, the din of scraping metal pieces drowned out the chatter of frightened birds.

Throughout the greater Amazon region, animal trapping is an important livelihood and source of cash for many indigenous people, and it can even be a conservation tool when managed appropriately. However, there is a down side to even the legal trade in wildlife, including over-collection, animal cruelty during transport, the spread of diseases, and destructive impacts to native species and habitats in the import countries.

In Suriname, animals are trapped in a variety of ways. Licensed trappers might gather reptiles by hand, but use a mist net to catch small birds in the lower canopy. For larger birds, like macaws, they might use a tethered, tame macaw to attract wild macaws, and a snare to trap them. Mortality can be around 10-30% before the wildlife is even shipped. Middlemen transport the wildlife by truck, boat or small plane to exporters in Paramaribo, or across the border to Guyana. And the government is also involved, through licensing legal traders, issuing export permits, collecting fees and taxes, and inspections.

Ostalet's chameleon, South Florida
(native of Madagascar).
Photo by Christopher Scott Boykin 
Not all trade is conducted legally of course. Smuggling both within Suriname, the region, and internationally is common, whether it’s the smuggling of legally traded animals beyond quota levels, or the smuggling of banned species. But while the illegal trade in endangered species around the world is a multi-billion dollar industry, the legal trade in wildlife is even bigger.

Today, most parrots travel from Suriname to the Netherlands because the United States, once the largest importer of wild parrots, imposed a near ban in 1992. However, large quantities of reptiles, among other wildlife, are still shipped to the Unites States - the world’s greatest consumer of wildlife products.

Green iguanas, Tegu lizards, or emerald boas collected in the greater Amazon rainforest might land in wooden crates at Miami International Airport, the second busiest airport for wildlife entering the United States. From the airport, where only a small percentage of the arriving crates will even be searched or inspected, the wildlife that survive the journey might end up at your neighborhood pet store. Or for sale through the internet.

Maybe you’ll decide to purchase an exotic pet for yourself or your kids, maybe something like a yellow-footed tortoise, or a poison dart frog. Or maybe not an animal from Suriname at all. Maybe an Argentinean boa constrictor, or worse an African Rock python.*

But the baby python grows too big, the parrot lives too long or screeches too loud, and the green iguana, well, it’s a little creepy to wake with it perched on your stomach - watching. And so you let it go, into the grass or local canal, maybe into a park. Into the Everglades. And in the subtropical climate of South Florida, it doesn’t die. In fact, it thrives with no natural enemies. It grows, and breeds, and spreads.

And today many animals and plants from the Amazon, and around the world, are wild in South Florida. Iguanas and Tegu lizards sun in South Florida gardens, or fall stunned from trees during cold snaps. Parrots are common. Raccoons no longer abduct your cooler when you camp in the Everglades, because the raccoons are gone, along with many native mammals, even a few alligators - eaten by Burmese pythons.

Blue-and-yellow macaws, South Florida
(native of South America and north to Panama).
Photo by Christopher Scott Boykin
I can’t claim innocence in this industry. I started around six or seven, when I freed our “pet” sea-monkeys (in reality brine shrimp) by dumping them into the Tennessee forest before they could grow into real merpeople trapped in a tiny jar, which was how they were pictured on the box. When I was ten, I purposely left the cage door open on the parakeets my family inherited from an aunt who moved to Maine. I didn’t understand ecology and it’s possible I was pet owner zero for the parakeet flocks now plaguing South Florida.

I didn’t stop with birds. When I was twelve, my sister brought a snake - Fluffy - to live in our house. I felt strongly that snakes and humans were not meant to cohabitate. And so I turned over her aquarium in the grass, releasing the snake to the suburban wild. I don’t know what kind of snake it was, so I’ll plead innocent in the South Florida Burmese python population explosion. Although it's doubtful it was native.

Orange-winged parrots, South Florida (native
to South America east of the Andes).
Photo by Christopher Scott Boykin
Native wildlife - usually defined based on their existence in a particular location prior to European colonization - have evolved over thousands of years to become interdependent with the surrounding animals and plants, with each needing the other for survival. When an exotic animal or plant is introduced to an area outside its native range, either purposefully or accidentally, it can take over, crowd out, or kill native species. The result can be diminished or destroyed ecosystems and loss of biodiversity. And since all economies depend on biodiversity, the damage can cost billions of dollars to eradicate, control, and fix.

So what’s the solution?

First, much stricter import laws in the United States (and in most countries, since invasive exotics are a global problem) that stop an exotic species from spreading before it causes enormous damage, not after it’s too late. Second, don’t buy exotic pets (or any invasive plants). But if you choose to ignore the no purchasing rule, at least don’t buy from an importer with a history of smuggling illegal wildlife or cruelty to animals; don’t buy any animal that can cause known damage to a local habitat; and make sure you understand the care and lifecycle of your potential pet before purchasing. Finally, never release your exotic pet into the wild, no matter where you live. I’ve learned that much by now.

* The Obama administration did finally ban the trade in Burmese pythons and three other non-native, large constrictor snakes in February 2012, but left a number of recommended constrictor snakes still allowed for import.

For more, visit my author website and/or personal blog, A Wandering Tale. Even better, order a copy of Monkey Love & Murder on AmazonBarnes & Noble, or the Book Depository (free shipping nearly anywhere in the world).

4 comments:

  1. Very informative and interesting post Edith. The Caribbean is facing a problem with the Pterois volitan or red lionfish invading our reefs, which are a main part of many islands tourist based economy. The particular species was first reported in South Florida in the 1980's and an accidental release from a home aquarium in Biscayne Bay, Florida in 1992 added to the species gene pool. Red lionfish are a threat to humans too.

    Prospective pet owners ought to make an informed decision but I don't hold out much hope. Over the years my family has adopted many dogs, most definitely not exotic pets,whose owners did not understand that puppies do grow up, and dog ownership may involve walks in the parks but is not in fact a walk in the park.

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  2. Good point about nonexotic pet owners too! Parks in South Florida have the same problem with dogs and cats being released. And the cats often become wild and stay and then home owners around the parks come and feed them and make a huge stink when the park tries to remove the cats, which are killing all the wildlife.

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  3. Florida Fish and Wildlife sponsors an amnesty day at Miami's Metro Zoo . Unwanted exotic pets can be surrendered no questions asked. It's a great idea with a win win situation. Protects the environment and protects the poor creatures surrendered. They will be examined and treated if necessary by a vet and will be given to either a qualified forever home ( parrots in particular will be rehabbed first) or a facility such as a zoo.

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