Exotic pet trend in Thailand raises concerns over wildlife protection

Boxes of colourful snakes and a steely-eyed Harris' hawk were among the exotic animals on display at the International Pet Variety Exhibition in Thailand in October. - ST PHOTOS: TAN HUI YEE

NONTHABURI: The International Pet Variety Exhibition felt like a catwalk.

At the October iteration of the annual event at Impact convention centre just outside Bangkok, over 112,000 visitors turned up over four days. Some 150 exhibitors were joined by thousands of doting pet owners, some of whom dressed their golden retrievers and huskies in their Sunday best and wheeled them around on specially decorated carts.

Rabbits dozed in prams alongside toddlers while pet owners queued up for professional photographs of their cuddly furkids.

In one corner of the cavernous hall was a group of animals that were not so cuddly, but still popular.

A steely-eyed Harris’s hawk, its head bobbing to the cacophony, otherwise kept still while passers-by took selfies with it. The bird was surrounded by clear boxes full of colourful snakes, civets pacing in metal cages and tarantulas skulking around in Halloween-themed displays.

The “Exotic Pet” section of this event has been going strong since it was introduced in 2011, according to Ms Jittima Jaturapat, a marketing manager at Impact.

This is as Thais take to keeping exotic animals as pets.

“People initially started with snakes and iguanas, but gradually there were more and more products for (the care of) these pets. And there were even hospitals for exotic pets,” she told The Straits Times.

The hobby of keeping exotic pets grew particularly during the Covid-19 pandemic when people were cooped up in their homes. “Those people living in condominiums found them easy to care for. They were not noisy, and do not need shampooing (unlike dogs).”

An axolotl on display at the International Pet Variety Exhibition. - ST PHOTO: TAN HUI YEEAn axolotl on display at the International Pet Variety Exhibition. - ST PHOTO: TAN HUI YEE

Observers fear that the growing interest in exotic pets could worsen the poaching and trafficking of wildlife, especially since concerns about catching zoonotic diseases from wildlife appear to have faded along with the waning of the pandemic.

Exotic pets are a marker of status, said Mr Panudet Kerdmali, president of Seub Nakhasathien Foundation, a wildlife conservation foundation. “More Thais are buying exotic pets because they want to show off their wealth. This happens all over the world.”

According to a 2021 study by conservation organisation World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and the GlobeScan consultancy, the ownership of exotic pets is common, with 12 per cent of people owning or knowing someone who owns an exotic pet. Among the Thais who own exotic pets, 51 per cent cite the rarity of the animal as the main driver of their purchase.

About 50 per cent of people buying exotic pets did their purchase online. “There is limited regulation of this channel, which expands to wider markets and new potential buyers,” WWF Thailand chief executive Natalie Phaholyothin told ST.

The Thailand Exotic Pet Keepers Association, for example, is open to members buying or selling exotic animals on its Facebook group.

“Over the past seven or eight years, more and more people have started to sell exotic pets,” its vice-president Pawat Ajmanwra told ST. “We don’t have a right to restrict what members do, but if they break the law, we cut them off. We have kicked one or two members out.”

Thailand’s wildlife laws prohibit the import and export of protected wildlife without a licence.

Some exotic pet owners see it as just an innocent pastime.

“I used to rear fish before, but they are quite hard to care for and cost me too much,” Ms Pailin Somanust, a 23-year-old software engineer, told The Straits Times, while gently picking up her pet tarantula which was resting on a piece of scrap wood. “My friend suggested that I rear exotic pets and now I have 30 spiders. There are new species all the time!”

Her entire collection, which includes tarantulas of the orange baboon, green bottle and the red-legged variety, cost just 20,000 baht (S$760). Food for them costs just 500 baht a month because she supplements their feed with cockroaches she farms on her own.

While she doesn’t get sentimental enough to name her spiders, she does hand-nurse them with water and worms if they look a bit sickly.

For other owners, there are financial incentives to their hobby.

This is the case with Mr Tanate Nunpinit, the 26-year-old owner of the hawk that was being exhibited during the pet exposition, who also keeps a Siberian eagle and a white-faced owl in the compound of his home in Nonthaburi province. The bird lover took pains to stress to ST that all his pets have been registered with the wildlife authorities.

An iguana on display at the International Pet Variety Exhibition. - ST PHOTO: TAN HUI YEEAn iguana on display at the International Pet Variety Exhibition. - ST PHOTO: TAN HUI YEE

While he spends 6,000 baht a month feeding his birds, he can also earn 60,000 to 1.2 million baht in same period if he is hired by property owners to drive away stray pigeons with his hawk. Hawks hunt and eat pigeons.

Meanwhile, civet breeders are doing a roaring trade, partly because of the interest in keeping them as pets, but also due to cafe owners interested in serving kopi luwak, a beverage made from coffee cherries eaten and defecated by civets.

Mr Suparerk Kosiyaporn, who sells about 1,000 civets every year from his farm in Yala province in southern Thailand, has a constant waiting list for his creatures.

“When I first started about 10 years ago, a baby civet would sell for only 200 baht. Nowadays, they are going for 2,000 to 3,000 baht,” he told ST.

Many of the buyers are from Vietnam, China, Taiwan and India, who place orders via Facebook.

Mr Suparerk stressed that the civets he farms and exports are not endangered.

But experts fear the growth of the exotic pet market would blur the boundaries of legal and illegal trade and give unscrupulous traders cover to hawk their wares.

Thailand, located in the highly biodiverse Mekong region and connected to logistical networks, continues to see an active wildlife trade, said Mr Benedikt Hofmann, deputy regional representative for South-east Asia and the Pacific at the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

“Pangolin scales and animal products remain a major concern and challenge to tackle, with an increasing focus on the exotic animal and pet trade,” he told ST. Pangolins, also called scaly anteaters, are endangered.

The growth of the exotic pet industry “is a really unfortunate trend which might have actually been accelerated by the pandemic”, he said. “There is little to no regulation of exotic pet markets, and people tend to buy animals with little regard to their natural needs and requirements.”

Thailand’s wildlife laws were changed in 2019 to substantially increase the penalties for the import, export, hunting or endangerment of protected wildlife. They also expanded protection to cover non-native animals listed in the United Nations Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites).

“There are complexities within the Thai wildlife and exotic pet trade legislation which have contributed to ambiguities and loopholes,” said Ms Natalie.

Before the legal revisions in 2019, the trade in non-native species was rampant in Thailand as they had no legal protection.

“Now, there are legal frameworks in place, but the true impact on the trade in wild species will depend on the effective enforcement and monitoring by the authorities of importing, breeding and selling animals,” she said.

There are fears the growing exotic pet trade will make wildlife laws more difficult to enforce.

While some organisations try to reintroduce rescued wildlife to their natural surroundings, the damage is often too significant or hard to reverse, said Mr Hofmann.

Together with habitat loss, the trade is slowly but surely hollowing out South-east Asia’s habitats and forests, he added.

“If not addressed, we may soon pass the point of no return with some species,” Mr Hofmann warned. - The Straits Times/ANN

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