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Roofed turtles, iguanas, ball pythons as pets is bringing Indians false sense of glamour

By isolating exotic animals in an artificial environment, away from members of their own species, pet keepers are causing an unimaginable amount of mental trauma

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A few days ago, I was shell-shocked when I glanced at two odd-looking turtles that had just come into our wildlife rehabilitation centre in Pune. No pun intended, our veterinarian who was conducting a preliminary examination on them told me that these turtles had never been exposed to water for over 15 years.

The young woman who had brought them to the centre said she had bought these ‘legal to keep red-eared slider turtles’ from a local pet shop but couldn’t look after them anymore. While I am thankful that she did not just abandon them in any natural waterbody, I realised that these turtles should never have been held captive in the first place.

These turtles were not ‘legal to keep red-eared sliders’. The woman had unknowingly been sold one Indian roofed turtle (Pangshura tecta) and one Indian tent turtle (Pangshura tentoria), both protected Indian species under the Wild Life Protection Act, 1972. Secondly, she should not have bought and kept pet turtles without any basic knowledge about their care.

“Both the turtles were in such poor condition that they were barely able to walk and completely unable to swim. Malnutrition, improper care, and lack of access to sunlight and water for movement or exercise have horrendously deformed the Indian roofed turtle shell. Meanwhile, the tent turtle has severely stunted growth and looks the size of a one-year-old turtle when its actual age is probably far more. It has overgrown nails with deformed limbs,” says Dr Nikita Mehta, wildlife veterinarian, RESQ, Pune. It is important to acknowledge that these animals are victims of India’s rampant illegal wildlife trade and unregulated legal ownership of exotic pets in India.

Turtles abandoned by pet owner in poor physical health condition after keeping them in captivity for over a decade | Neha Panchamia

Also read: He is Bihar’s ‘Snake Man’ and he won’t stop till he rescues the very last one

Demand breeds supply for the glamour quotient

In India, the types of exotic wild pets range from reptiles like ball pythons, corn snakes, iguanas, and turtles to colourful exotic birds like macaws and budgerigars. Several of them are legal to trade in India, but critically endangered in their native habitats. Other commonly traded pets are primates and other small mammals like sugar gliders, hedgehogs, lemurs, and pygmy marmosets (finger monkeys). Exotic wild animals are increasingly becoming the trending choice of pet among the youth who find it glamorous to make a statement by owning them.

Exotic pets being housed and bred in poor conditions including nocturnal species like hedgehogs and sugar gliders displayed in inappropriate housing conditions | Neha Panchamia

Also read: Wild exotic pets aren’t glamorous. Begin by amending Wildlife Act

Social media, an accomplice in the exotic pet trade

I recently came across an online post about a social media influencer who was seen skating with his ball python on a popular and busy promenade in Mumbai. His social media channels revealed the exotic wildlife he legally owns and his escapades, which can be classified as animal abuse. Research shows that 15 percent of surveyed exotic pet owners found inspiration for their purchase from YouTube videos. It’s possible that this influencer’s videos were also luring individuals into procuring these animals to experience a false sense of glamour and popularity.

Social media influencers abusing their exotic pets by inappropriate display public places for selfies, likes and channel publicity | Neha Panchamia

Now, the question is, where are the shops and traders getting the animals from to meet the rising demand? Buyers are ready to pay hefty amounts, which pushes illegal smuggling from abroad or breeding the animals in India itself. Several of these are the progeny of the ones who were illegally smuggled in years ago and were held captive.


Welfare and conservation woes

These animals are distributed to different parts of India by rail or road, as domestic regulations for the exotic wildlife trade are either abysmal or non-existing. During the Covid-19 lockdowns, when there was a surge in demand for companion animals, pet shops were allowed to operate. I was once called to the railway station in Pune to inspect a consignment of birds that had arrived from Kolkata. There were over 60-70 exotic birds stuffed in a 2×3 feet cage. Several of them were injured and many looked gravely ill. The pet shop owner told me that thousands of such birds arrive every week but only 20 percent of them survive–the others die due to infections and other sorts of physical and mental trauma within a week or ten days.

Unfortunately, people remain largely undeterred by the mortality of young birds and simply buy new ones. In 2021, the Railway Police Force in Pune apprehended traders in a moving train while they were illegally smuggling over 1,200 iguanas and 300 African sulcata tortoises stuffed inside a small suitcase. There were 150-200 iguanas stuffed tightly inside single fridge bags meant for vegetables, with barely any space left to move. The tortoises were piled on top of each other in plastic boxes.

But the ordeal for these animals does not end once they are transported and sold off as pets. Most people barely have any idea about how to look after these animals properly, which is why we routinely witness the ghastly conditions in which they have been housed. In addition to improper housing conditions, captivity almost always has a negative impact on the animals’ behavioural and physiological well-being.

We often see the impact of captivity on the mental health of primates caught in the wild, which are subjected to further abuse for entertainment and fun. Some animals like monkeys, who are highly social and get attached to their human owners, find it unbearable when they are separated or abandoned later. In the case of large exotic birds like macaws bought for their attractive and vivid colourings or African grey parrots famous for mimicking people and conversing eloquently, they are often found to be in small cages for display, where they can barely spread their wings, let alone take a short flight.

There are many instances of large exotic pet birds becoming quite feisty when frustrated or stressed due to prolonged captivity in small cages or due to excessive handling, who end up biting people. Often, it is behavioural or physiological problems that turn chronic and result in their abandonment by pet owners who often make the mistake of releasing these animals outside. Introducing foreign species into an alien habitat is extremely harmful to the native biodiversity as the exotic animals may turn invasive and proliferate at the expense of indigenous species of fauna and flora. Invasive alien species are one of the leading causes of global extinctions.

Inspections and raids conducted in railways and at stations where thousands of exotic pet get transported across India unregulated | Neha Panchamia

“While most Indian homes don’t have enough space for humans, most wild animals, be it a macaw or a monkey or even a turtle, use more space in the wild to accomplish their daily activities,” says Anish Andheria, president, Wildlife Conservation Trust. Andheria adds that wild animals do not need people to “provide refuge” to them. Seeing it as an act of altruism “is both barbaric and deluded”.

“Many popular wild pets are gregarious in nature and have a complex social structure in their wild habitats. By isolating them in an artificial environment, away from members of their own species, and natural stimuli, pet keepers are causing an unimaginable amount of trauma, leading to irreversible mental conditions,” Andheria says.

Also read: Why exotic snakehead fish is under threat — people want them as aquarium pets, 6x rise in trade

Action is a double-edged sword

In recent times, Assam has been making regular headlines featuring forest department seizures of different wild animals, including several species of primates, wallabies and tortoises being smuggled in appalling conditions across the India-Myanmar border from Southeast Asia. Law enforcement authorities involved in arresting the traders also confiscate or seize the animals, which may end up living in adequate housing conditions as long as they remain case property. Some are euthanised while those that survive the trade sometimes get repatriated. But the majority go on to live the rest of their lives as companion animals, or in laboratories or other captive conditions where it is extremely unlikely that their behavioural and physiological needs are met.

Images of wildlife seizures conducted by Assam Forest Department at the Indo-Myanmar border including several primates and tortoises being commonly trafficked species | Assam Forest Department

Trapped in trade

The missing legal protection to exotic species or lack of trade regulation is a matter of grave concern and “a gaping legal hole in India’s wildlife protection system”, according to Purva Variyar of the Wildlife Conservation Trust, who is co-leading the #TrappedInTrade campaign.

“While amending the law is necessary to combat the illegal wildlife trade, it is equally necessary to create awareness among the masses and sensitise people to the stark truths of the brutal live animal trade. It is time to bring this matter to the forefront of people’s consciousness as ignorance is the crux of the problem,” Variyar says.

Through the #TrappedInTrade campaign, the Wildlife Conservation Trust strives to bring the rapidly growing demand for exotic wild animals witnessed in India into mainstream conversation. The campaign further seeks to highlight the ills of the illegal pet trade, its impact on biodiversity, ecosystems, and people, as well as the urgent need for stronger laws to regulate exotic animal trade in the country.

For a long time, policymakers, scientists, and conservationists have been relatively silent on the issue of animal welfare in the wildlife trade and post-seizure. Despite evidence that wildlife and their habitats suffer greatly from the illegal pet trade, the welfare of individual animals is rarely the focus. It could be because prioritising the protection of the species and their habitats is perceived as a much more winnable battle. However, there is growing recognition now to address animal suffering, abuse and human greed and that animal welfare must become a conservation priority along with law enforcement and policy change.

Neha Panchamia is Founder and President, RESQ Charitable Trust. She tweets @NehaPanchamia. Views are personal.

(Edited by Tarannum Khan)

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