Sunday, February 21, 2010
Monkeys, butterflies, turtles… how the pet trade's greed is emptying south-east Asia's forests
Whole species disappear from the wild as millions of animals are illegally exported round the world in a business with profit margins that rival the drugs trade
Countries across south-east Asia are being systematically drained of wildlife to meet a booming demand for exotic pets in Europe and Japan and traditional medicine in China – posing a greater threat to many species than habitat loss or global warming.
More than 35 million animals were legally exported from the region over the past decade, official figures show, and hundreds of millions more could have been taken illegally. Almost half of those traded were seahorses and more than 17 million were reptiles. About 1 million birds and 400,000 mammals were traded, along with 18 million pieces of coral. The situation is so serious that experts have invented a new term – empty forest syndrome – to describe the gaping holes in biodiversity left behind.
Seahorses, butterflies, turtles, lizards, snakes, macaques, birds and corals are among the most common species exported from countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam. Much of the business is controlled by criminal gangs, and many of the animals end up in Europe as pets. The rarer the species, the greater the demand and the higher the price. Collectors will happily pay several thousand pounds for a single live turtle.
Research offers the first glimpse of the size of this widespread trade. While most people are aware of illegal sales of rhino horn and ivory, he says it is the scale of the movement of lesser-known species that is most disturbing.
53,000 records of imports and exports from countries under Cites, the international convention that regulates the sale of wildlife. Most common species are not listed under Cites, so do not appear in the records. Trade in the most endangered, such as rhino and tiger, is banned. Species considered vulnerable enough that trade is allowed, but controlled.
Cites records between 1998 and 2007 showed that of more than 35 million animals exported during that period, some 30 million were taken from the wild. The EU and Japan were among the most significant importers. For some mammal species, the proportion sourced from the wild dropped significantly over the decade, and traders were forced to rely increasingly on captive-bred animals. Official trade in birds virtually disappeared by 2007, probably because of bird flu restrictions. The bulk of seahorses traded were in the form of dried specimens for Chinese medicine. China is the biggest challenge, because they can use everything and they will use everything.
Trade in the Asian pangolin, a scaly anteater, illustrates the problem. Officially, countries do not allow their commercial sale and agreed a zero quota under Cites in 2000, though regular seizures show widespread trade, for medicine and meat. The countries closest to China get emptied [of pangolin] first. Vietnam and Laos have been drained. Myanmar has been drained and they are working south, so now Indonesia is being emptied of pangolins. Prices are very high and in the next few years we will see pangolins being sucked out of Africa to supply the demand.
Every¬one who has been to Indonesia or Malaysia will know them because they are the ones that sit in your hotel room. You have them everywhere." Although not listed by Cites, Indonesia has set a limit of 45,000 of the lizards exported each year as pets. Such geckos can be typically bought in rural villages for a few cents each, and sold for $10 – a profit margin that rivals the drugs trade. The situation is acute in south-east Asia, but the trade, both legal and illegal, is global, often using the internet and courier delivery. For $4,000, an illegal trader based in Indonesia will send a three- year-old ploughshare tortoise from Madagascar, one of the most endangered animals in the world.
THE WILDLIFE MARKET
130,000 butterflies, mostly from Malaysia to US, EU and Canada (such as the Birdwing)
16 million seahorses, mostly from Thailand to Hong Kong, Taiwan and China
73,000 exotic fish, mostly from Malaysia and Indonesia to Hong Kong (such as the Napoleon Wrasse)
17 million reptiles, mostly from Indonesia and Malaysia, to Singapore, EU and Japan; includes 1.3 million softshell turtles, 1.8 million cobras, 8.1 million monitor lizards, 400,000 crocodiles
400,000 mammals, mostly from China and Malaysia to the EU and Singapore; includes 270,000 macaques, 91,000 leopard cats
1 million birds, mainly from China, Vietnam and Malaysia, to the EU,
Japan and Malaysia (such as leiothrix babblers)
18 million pieces of coral and 2,000 tonnes of live coral, mainly from Indonesia to the US and EU . The Observer [UK] * CITES TRADE DATA 1998-2007, INCLUDING THOSE WILD AND CAPTIVE-BRED