Domestic trade in live animals and the products made from them threatens many species with extinction. In a classic pattern, wildlife (and plants) are captured or extracted from their natural environments until they become rare. This rarity adds to their value, and in many cases, such as exotic cage birds, live reptiles, and amphibians, the rarer they become, the more they are sought after, increasing their value.
Much of this trade is for luxury products or to supply collectors who have a desire to own rare birds, frogs, lizards, turtles or snakes, with no regard as to the effect on wild populations. For others, such as snakes and lizards killed for their skins to be made into exotic leather products, one species is exploited until it becomes commercially extinct, and then non-endangered species are exploited until these, too, become endangered.
Domestic wildlife trade in the US is practiced for the exotic pet trade, to supply laboratories and schools with frogs and other animals for research, for fur, and for food and traditional medicine.
The Pet Trade
Few customers in pet stores—seeing parrots, reptiles, spiders and newts—realize that these animals are the survivors of a trade that kills many millions of animals per year. In the homes of pet owners, many wild-caught birds, especially large parrots, fail to adjust to captivity and die from a variety of illnesses, from salmonella contracted in quarantine stations to lethal wasting diseases. Conversely, captured animals may live too long for their newly confined status. Many animals, such as macaws, cockatoos and some reptiles—if they survive the initial shock of capture and confinement—can live to an advanced age and may easily outlive their caretakers.
The keeping of snakes and reptiles as pets is a growing trend in the US and elsewhere, involving the removal of thousands of these animals from the wild. Difficult-to-control illegal trade, in particular, endangers many species. Snakes and other reptiles may be illegally captured in states protecting them, then transported to other states that allow sale of the reptiles. Poached rare reptiles may also be misrepresented as having been bred in captivity to avoid prosecutions via the Lacey Act—a federal law to combat illegal trafficking in wild plants and animals. Many of these illegal reptiles are sold via the Internet, where a huge market for reptile pets has developed.
Similarly, there has been an alarming rise in the ownership of large exotic pets—tigers, primates and other large non-native mammals; there are more captive tigers in private facilities in the US than in the wild. The ease with which consumers can purchase exotic animals varies from state to state—with some states exercising no controls whatsoever. Although the importation of primates for the pet trade was banned in the US in 1975, intra-state trade is still legal and pet monkeys are still advertised—many of whom are brought into the US illegally by travelers to tropical countries.
Animals who have been imported into this country can wreak havoc on native populations when they escape or are released. Control measures are often inhumane, difficult, or from a practical standpoint, impossible. The population of Burmese python in the Florida everglades is now considered at a level where they cannot be eradicated, meaning that this fragile ecosystem is forever changed due to the actions of a few heedless pet owners.
Market Losses: Trading Bears and Bullfrogs
The domestic and global trade in bear parts is putting increasing pressure on black bears in the US. Across the country, bear carcasses have been found with the gallbladders ripped out, the paws cut off, and the remainder of the slaughtered bear left to rot. An underground, illegal black market trade exists where bears are poached in one state and the gallbladders and paws (and sometimes claws and teeth) are either sold nearby, smuggled to another state and sold fraudulently as parts of a legally killed bear, or covertly exported out of the country for sale internationally. A complex global web supports the bear parts trade: American bear parts are consumed domestically and exported overseas; European, Asian, and other bears are killed in the wild and sold internationally; and farmed bile from Chinese bear farms is smuggled out of China to the US and elsewhere for illegal sale.
The removal of frogs from the wild can devastate frog populations and their ecosystems. Bullfrogs and other frogs are collected from the wild and sold to schools and other institutions for research. Thousands are taken every year, with little attempt to monitor or mitigate the impacts. Hundreds of thousands more are removed from the wild to satisfy the demand for frog legs, again without regard for the effects these removals have on ecosystems. When trade is involved, there is also the additional threat of spreading diseases when non-native frogs are released or escape. Amphibians worldwide are already experiencing one of the biggest die-offs in history, due to the devastating effects of the amphibian chytrid fungus (Batrachochytrium dendribatidis). It is one of the main reasons why more than one-third of the nearly 6,000 known amphibian species worldwide are threatened with extinction.