Granting exotic pet owners in India amnesty could aid wildlife conservation, lower human-animal conflict

The move towards voluntary disclosure in India is a positive one, as it will help build an inventory of animals that exist in the country, the status of the trade, and eventually provide guidance towards building a better regulation system.

Neha Sinha December 07, 2020 10:41:05 IST
Granting exotic pet owners in India amnesty could aid wildlife conservation, lower human-animal conflict

Burmese pythons were released in Florida by pet owners who eventually didn’t want such large pets. Wikimedia Commons

In many households in India, you may be greeted by an indignant squawk as you enter. That squawk comes from the ‘mithu’ – a green-feathered, bright-eyed, red-mouthed fast talker: the Rose-ringed parakeet. At the back of another cage may be a genteel, timid white bird with a bright orange cheek spot, reminiscent of the parakeet beak and build: a cockatiel. You may chance upon other variations of the same combination of bright colours, hook-shaped sharp beaks and playful personalities — peach faces, love birds, budgerigars.

The difference is that keeping the indigenous Rose-ringed parakeet is illegal, while you can keep non-natives like cockatiels and lovebirds as pets with proper paperwork. The Supreme Court has recently upheld an Allahabad High Court decision to grant amnesty to pet owners who have exotic pets without the paperwork. For example, those with an imported parrot without papers can declare this without fear of prosecution.

Though most people prefer dogs and cats as pets, there are a substantial number of animals that are kept as exotic pets in India. India has impressive protection for Indian wild species — most wild species are protected under the Schedules of the Wild life (Protection) Act, 1972. Foreign or ‘exotic’ species do not enjoy the same protection. It is significant that these exotic species are not domestic species like cattle or horses. These are wild animals that may have been caught in the wild or are bred in captivity – snakes, iguanas, tortoises, many kinds of birds, among others.

The judgement refers to "exotic live species", which are "animals named under the Appendices I, II and III of the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) of Wild Fauna and Flora". The CITES regulates trade in animals. Technically, these animals could also include wild monkeys, exotic fish from the Amazon, exotic Flamingos, and others.

Granting exotic pet owners in India amnesty could aid wildlife conservation lower humananimal conflict

The Red Munia is an Indian species which is often illegally traded as a pet. Photo courtesy Neha Sinha

Now the ideological question: what does one get out of keeping a tortoise that does not nuzzle you, or an intelligent African Grey Parrot that may have been trapped in the wild, and should not, in essence, be kept in a small cage? Perhaps the answers are outside the realm of logic. People seem to need to keep pets, even if they are difficult, not-so-beautiful, or plain dangerous. Then, the more practical question to ask is, can we truly regulate the trade?

Despite the rules, wild exotic animals are smuggled in – from Bangladesh and Nepal, for instance — and kept as pets with no paperwork. The move towards voluntary disclosure is a positive one, as it will help build an inventory of animals that exist in the country, the status of the trade, and eventually provide guidance towards building a better regulation system.

It’s no longer legal — and more importantly, no longer cool — to keep a Bengal tiger as a pet in India. The basic behavioural difference between domestic and wild animals is how they breed around people. A horse will happily foal around a human family, but a wild zebra will not. Some exotic animals are able to breed more easily than others in cages — budgerigars (originally from Australia) and lovebirds (from Africa) are examples. We should move towards a trade in animals that can be bred safely here, rather than import wild parrot species that are directly poached from forests.

Granting exotic pet owners in India amnesty could aid wildlife conservation lower humananimal conflict

The Rose-ringed parakeet is protected under India law, it cannot be traded or kept as a pet. Photo courtesy Neha Sinha

This is also related to the question of management. Certain exotic pets, such as captive-born lovebirds and budgerigars, are unable to survive if they escape. Cruel though it may sound, this circumvents a larger problem – the spread of invasive species. Many foreign species become serious pests after escaping the pet ecosystem. The Arapaima is a huge primitive fish from the Amazon river in South America. It is nearly the size of an adult person, and is known to leap out of the water and eat monkeys. Thanks to the Kerala floods, this formidable predator has escaped private tanks and is now in rivers of Kerala, where it is likely to have become a serious threat to our own wildlife. This follows many other stories of man-made invasives, like the huge, ravenous Burmese pythons, which are pests in the glades of Florida. They were released there by pet owners who eventually didn’t want such large pets. The pythons are so huge that they have been documented eating alligators.

The final question then is – should we have exotic pets traded at all? The answer, at least for now, is linked to livelihoods. Some sellers who illegally traded in Indian birds – birds like the colourful red Munia (also known as the Strawberry finch because of its red body and spots resembling a strawberry), Tricolour Munia, Hill Mynah and others, have switched to selling exotic birds. If the captive trade in exotic species ends, the impact will be felt on Indian wild species, some of which are threatened. Wild-born animals do not take well to captivity; each live animal masks many dead ones.

The best way forward then is to inventorise all exotics, and for now, to incentivise only those foreign species that have been captive-bred for generations and are not likely to become serious pests in the wild; ones that can be safely bred in India. By providing alternative livelihoods to trappers, and changing our demands, we should eventually phase out all wild animals as pets. Towards this final aim then, providing amnesty to owners of exotic species is one small step.

Neha Sinha is a conservation biologist. She tweets at @nehaa_sinha

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