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Africa, Americas, Planet, Natural Capital & The Environment

Exotic pet trade responsible for hundreds of invasive species around the globe

Mongabay | Jun 20, 2019

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This article was originally published by Mongabay and is republished with permission.

  • According to a new study, published in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment last week, Burmese pythons in Florida are just one example of the hundreds of non-native and invasive species that are harming native species and ecosystems around the world thanks to the multibillion-dollar exotic pet trade.
  • “The volume of vertebrate animals that are traded worldwide is shocking, even to relatively seasoned invasion biologists,” the study’s lead author, Julie L. Lockwood, a professor at Rutgers University–New Brunswick in the United States, said in a statement. “The market in exotic pets has grown considerably since the 1970s, and so I don’t think most of us fully grasped how expansive the trade has become.”
  • Lockwood and colleagues note in the study that research has shown that, of the 140 non‐native reptiles and amphibians known to have been introduced in Florida so far, close to 85 percent arrived via the pet trade.

Last April, a male Burmese python led researchers at the Big Cypress National Preserve in the Florida Everglades straight to a 17-foot female that was carrying 73 developing eggs.

The researchers had outfitted the male python with a radio transmitter, then let nature take its course. The male, of course, was on the hunt for breeding female pythons — and so were the researchers. Burmese pythons, as their name suggests, are native to South Asia and are an invasive species in Florida. The constricting snakes can cause serious harm to the local ecosystem and have a devastating impact on biodiversity. The 17-foot female found in April was euthanized and its eggs destroyed.

That may sound like harsh treatment, but a 2012 study found that the Burmese python population in Florida has exploded since 2000 and occupied an ever-growing geographic range. That has had serious impacts for local biodiversity: “Before 2000, mammals were encountered frequently during nocturnal road surveys within [Everglades National Park]. In contrast, road surveys totaling 56,971 [kilometers] from 2003–2011 documented a 99.3% decrease in the frequency of raccoon observations, decreases of 98.9% and 87.5% for opossum and bobcat observations, respectively, and failed to detect rabbits.” The authors of the study add that the results of the road surveys also showed mammal species are more abundant in areas that Burmese pythons have not yet reached.

This Burmese python was captured in Everglades National Park in Florida, where the invasive snakes have established a large breeding population. Photo Credit: Susan Jewell/USFWS.

The snakes were originally brought to the US via the pet trade, then released into the wild — probably once the owners realized that their new pet could grow to as much as 23 feet long. According to a new study, published in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment last week, Burmese pythons in Florida are just one example of the hundreds of non-native and invasive species that are harming native species and ecosystems around the world thanks to the multibillion-dollar exotic pet trade. And the researchers behind that study say the number of invasive species will most likely continue to rise.

“The volume of vertebrate animals that are traded worldwide is shocking, even to relatively seasoned invasion biologists,” the study’s lead author, Julie L. Lockwood, a professor at Rutgers University–New Brunswick in the United States, said in a statement. “The market in exotic pets has grown considerably since the 1970s, and so I don’t think most of us fully grasped how expansive the trade has become. It is very clear that the species imported into the U.S. at the highest volume (number of individuals), for example, are most likely to have non-native or invasive populations here.”

Non-native species can be accidentally introduced to new geographic regions when animals hop a ride on ships and airplanes transporting commodities and people. But Lockwood and team found that tens of millions of animals comprising thousands of different vertebrate species are intentionally shipped internationally and domestically every year to meet the growing demand for exotic pets (those without a long history of domestication, unlike dogs, cats, and horses). That has “led to the establishment of several hundred non‐native and invasive vertebrate animal species globally,” the researchers write.

Lockwood and colleagues note in the study that research has shown that, of the 140 non‐native reptiles and amphibians known to have been introduced in Florida so far, close to 85 percent arrived via the pet trade. Meanwhile, 70 percent of invasive mammal species introduced in Brazil over the past three decades were also the result of the pet trade, and escaped exotic pets have been found to be the primary source of new non‐native species of amphibians, reptiles, mammals, and birds established in the EU.

Exotic pets are those that are kept for non‐utilitarian reasons and have a relatively short history of domestication; examples are as diverse as the (a) central bearded dragon (Pogona vitticeps) and (b) powder blue surgeonfish (Acanthurus leucosternon). Dragons are sourced from captive breeding facilities and surgeonfish from the wild, and although neither species is considered threatened with extinction, it is illegal to export dragons from their native Australian range. Photo Credit: Lockwood et al. (2019) doi:10.1002/fee.2059

In particular, a better understanding of the socioeconomic forces driving the massive growth in the exotic pet trade is crucial, as is learning more about what causes owners to release their pets into the wild, which vary based on whether the pets were purchased legally or illegally and the cultural pet-keeping traditions of specific regions, per the study.In order to develop effective policies that will stop pets from invading and harming ecosystems to which they are not native, the researchers say there are gaps in our understanding of the exotic pet trade that must be filled. “The challenge is complex, given that a thorough understanding will necessarily include social perceptions, market forces, and ecology,” Lockwood and her co-authors write. “Due to the industry’s socioenvironmental scope, concerted interdisciplinary efforts are required to understand these aspects of the exotic pet trade in order to devise and implement strategies that mitigate its potential harmful impacts.”

“Consumers should be very careful what species they choose to keep as a pet, making sure that they choose one they can care for throughout the pet’s life,” Lockwood said. “They should buy from a reputable seller who sustainably sources their animals and follows industry best practices for the care of their animals. If an owner can no longer care for a pet, they should talk to a local pet shop owner, their veterinarian or even state wildlife biologists and ask for options for how to relinquish ownership in a responsible manner.”

Keeping vertebrate species as pets has increased greatly in popularity over the past several decades worldwide. Today’s markets for exotic pets include direct sales through traditional outlets (e.g. pet stores) but also through sales of animals directly to consumers via online forums and pet fairs (“expos”) as shown here. Some fraction of these purchased animals will escape confinement or be deliberately released and consequently have the opportunity to establish as non‐native species. Photo Credit: Lockwood et al. (2019). doi:10.1002/fee.2059

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