The World Has a Chance to Make the Wild Animal Trade More Humane

The body that regulates wildlife trade is taking steps to improve the treatment of animals captured and sold around the globe.

They could sense how bad it was from the stench of decay and putrefying flesh that emanated from the warehouse.

“We found 20,000 more animals than anticipated,” says Clifford Warwick, a reptile biologist and medical scientist based in England. Known for his work on preventing zoonoses—diseases spread from wildlife to humans—Warwick had been called in at the eleventh hour by the Texas Department of State Health Services to join a rescue team of veterinarians, biologists, and experienced animal handlers.

Following a tip-off, Texas state authorities had served the owner of the U.S. Global Exotics (USGE) warehouse in Arlington, Texas, with a warrant and secured the building, taping it off as a crime scene.

The team had 16 hours—until midnight, when the warrant ran out—to perform “battlefield husbandry,” as Warwick puts it. They found thousands upon thousands of animals, from iguanas to sloths, in varying states of ill health. Some already dead, others close to death.

“We had to move them as fast as we could to a structure next to our SPCA in Dallas, where we’d re-created zones from desert to rain forest to accommodate all these different animals,” says James Bias, president of the Texas SPCA. “It was Noah’s ark on steroids.”

At this makeshift rescue facility, Warwick was in charge of infection control, sampling feces for pathogenic bacteria. “There were 16,000 reptiles, 4,000 amphibians, 3,500 mammals, 2,000 invertebrates,” he recalls. “The animals were hungry, dehydrated, injured, and frightened. Some of us were bitten, stung, even sprayed in the face by tarantulas. It was extremely difficult. We worked day and night for over ten days.”

More than 4,000 animals had to be euthanized. “They were beyond reasonable prospects of survival,” Warwick says. “The baby water turtles, which were under my care, were overcrowded, and many were ill with suspected Citrobacter infections and in septic shock.”

In court, USGE, which supplied exotic animals to some of the nation’s major pet retailers, including Petco and Petsmart, argued as its main line of defense that its “turnover” of animals—a more than 70 percent loss every six weeks—was “industry standard.”

The municipal judge divested USGE of the animals, awarding custody to the city of Arlington, which in turn handed them over to the SPCA. Bias says the SPCA kept the animals for several months, “buying up every mealworm and cricket in northern Texas while rehoming them in zoos and sanctuaries.”

USGE went out of business, and although the case happened seven years ago, Bias says it “continues to be held up as an example of egregiously poor welfare for exotic animals in captivity.” He laments that no cruelty charges were ever brought against the owners, probably because of the limitations of Texas criminal cruelty laws.

According to Warwick, “Pet retailers will say it’s just a one-off, but USGE is what I’ve found almost everywhere.” He says he’s aware of 15 such raids in Europe last year, with 11 of the facilities demonstrating conditions that warranted prosecution.

The Live-Animal Trade

Every year millions of animals—African grey parrots, marmosets, meerkats, poison dart frogs, pythons, seahorses, whip scorpions—are plucked from the wild and moved around the world for commercial purposes. Increasing numbers are sold online, where species are often misidentified or described as captive bred, even if their true origin is wild. Most enter the aquarium and exotic-pet trade. Many make unsuitable or dangerous pets and lead short, grim lives in captivity.

This trade, whose value is immense, is regulated by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). CITES oversees trade in some 5,600 animal species, including ones sourced from the wild. Its principal goal is to ensure that the trade in animals (and plants) is “sustainable”—that it doesn’t undermine the viability of species. Export quotas, set by the 182 CITES member countries, or parties, should pose no detriment to the survival of species.

With growing pressure from animal advocates, conservationists, and the public, CITES may now start to do more to protect the welfare of traded animals. As illegal wildlife trade intensifies, reducing losses of wild animals by making legal trade more humane will help preserve threatened biodiversity. Minimizing animal turnover in trade is good for species in the wild—and it’s good business practice for traders.

“We’ve for years been raising welfare in the context of live trade and CITES,” says Will Travers, president of the U.K.-based Born Free Foundation, whose mission is to keep wildlife in the wild. “Only now are we beginning to gain real ground.”

Live-animal trade was the focus of a side event at last month’s 66th meeting of the CITES Standing Committee in Geneva, Switzerland. The event was prefaced by an agreement between CITES and the World Organisation for Animal Health, a 90-year-old intergovernmental group responsible for animal disease control, to “collaborate on animal health and welfare worldwide to safeguard biodiversity and protect animals.” The cooperative framework includes a plan to promote standards of welfare for wild animals during transport and for animals killed for trade in their body parts.

And on his recent visit to Sri Lanka for a ceremonial burning of confiscated illegal elephant ivory, CITES Secretary-General John Scanlon called the convention “the first, and possibly the only, global legal instrument to address animal welfare.” But Scanlon also noted that most animal-welfare issues are addressed through domestic rather than international law, meaning that it’s up to individual countries to ensure that animals are treated humanely by going above and beyond what CITES does or can do.

A notable example of regional action occurred in 2010 when the European Union imposed a ban on member countries importing products made from seals. “Given the inhumane way in which seals are killed, public morals were at stake,” says Neil D’Cruze, of World Animal Protection, a London-based nonprofit that assists communities and governments with animal care and protection.

More robust welfare statutes from CITES down to local levels are needed to help prevent USGE-like catastrophes from happening again. “Fundamentally, we need to view animals as more than property,” D’Cruze says.

The Five Freedoms

The risks associated with trading wildlife are still generally thought of in relation to people—particularly, the spread of zoonotic diseases (fear of avian flu prompted the EU to place a permanent ban on imports of wild birds in 2007) and invasion of our local environments by non-native species.

“But,” Travers asks, “what about the animals themselves?”

When Oxford University’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit reviewed publications relating to wildlife trade for the five years between 2006 and 2011, they found that the word “welfare” almost never appears in the context of trade.

Wildlife trade, says Sandra Baker, the lead researcher of the review, is “rough trade.” That’s because “the capacity for trade to harm the welfare of the animals involved is clear, whether through fear, anxiety, behavioral restriction, physical injury, or deprivation of resources.”

Baker speaks of five freedoms generally used to define welfare: An animal is free from hunger and thirst; from discomfort; from pain, injury, and disease; and from fear and distress; and is free to express natural behavior.

Animals destined to be traded are interfered with from the very point of capture, and before they reach a buyer, they may have endured weeks of mishandling. But CITES export quotas, as well as provisions and checks relating to how a wild animal is “prepared and shipped so as to minimize the risk of injury, damage to health, or cruel treatment,” are set at the point of export—not capture. So if, say, 50 Malagasy chameleons die en route to their port of exit, the loss has no effect on the quota.

“The reality is that few people along the supply chain are proficient in proper handling and care protocols,” says D. J. Schubert, a wildlife biologist with the Washington, D.C.-based Animal Welfare Institute, which seeks better treatment for animals in laboratories, farms, homes, commerce, and the wild. This has direct bearing not only on sustainability—the overarching goal of CITES—but also on traders’ livelihoods.

How long an animal survives after being bought as a pet, and how quickly it needs to be replaced, are likewise unaccounted for in the CITES quotas. And few countries have data granular enough to detect changes in wild populations of traded species, which would allow CITES to adjust quotas accordingly.

Poor Welfare Is Bad for Sustainability

Large losses of animals during trade undermine the sustainability goals of both CITES and other biodiversity-related conventions, such as the Convention on Biological Diversity. The inevitable result, says Schubert, is “increased harvests to replace dead specimens.”

CITES once required parties to keep records of the numbers of deaths of wild animals in transit, but that stipulation was shelved in 2007 because the numbers reported were so low as to be considered negligible.

Parties are still invited, but not obligated, to provide CITES with information about cases of high death rates during shipment. But according to Daniela Freyer, of Pro Wildlife, a German nonprofit that assists animal sanctuaries and raises public awareness about nature conservation, “the highest mortality happens before international transport.”

Indeed, data from studies compiled by Pro Wildlife show that, incredibly, up to 100 percent of birds in Senegal and Indonesia, up to 85 percent of ornamental fish in India and Hawaii, and up to 50 percent of chameleons in Madagascar die after they’re captured and before they’re exported.

As Schubert says, “If more than half the ornamental fish in a shipment perish, the demand remains unmet. This creates a vicious cycle whereby fish continue to be removed from the wild, with potentially adverse impacts on the environment.” Losses of species can threaten the resilience and function of ecosystems through what ecologists call “trophic cascades”—an extinction domino effect.

What to Do About Smuggled Animals

While more can be done to improve the welfare of live animals in legal trade, nothing can be done for illegally traded animals—unless they’re discovered in transit and confiscated.

A study released last month by Rosa Indenbaum, of the U.S.-based conservation organization Defenders of Wildlife, shows that during the past ten years, 324,630 live animals were denied entry into the U.S. alone because they were imported illegally. An additional 5,930 smuggled animals were alive at some point during shipment but died before arrival in U.S. ports.

“When you consider that Interpol estimates that only 10 percent of illegal trade is detected,” Indenbaum says, “the number of live—or intended to be live—animals that people tried to bring into the U.S. over the last ten years increases exponentially.”

Burgeoning numbers of animals seized at airports and ports present huge problems for authorities and rescue centers.

Nguyen Van Thai, the executive director of Save Vietnam’s Wildlife, a national nonprofit based in Cuc Phuong National Park, says his organization has been taking in seized pangolins since 2006. Pangolins are illegally traded for their meat and scales. “We even end up with pregnant pangolins, which means the added burden of caring for babies.”

Keeping the pangolins alive is a constant effort because of their specialized diet. “It’s impossible to collect enough ants and termites to feed large numbers of pangolins,” Thai says. “Many die.”

And when Vietnam’s forest rangers bring confiscated pangolins to the center, Thai adds, the animals can’t be released into the wild, as they must be held to serve as evidence in court cases.

Two horrific confiscation incidents a decade ago spurred the Species Survival Network—a conglomeration of more than a hundred wildlife NGOs—to urge CITES to issue guidelines on how to deal with animals confiscated during trade.

One involved hundreds of sugar gliders—small marsupials endemic to Australia—that were caught in transit at Schiphol airport, in Amsterdam. Not knowing what to do with the animals, Dutch authorities disposed of them, still alive, in an industrial shredder. The other involved a baby chimpanzee and a gorilla intercepted by Egyptian authorities in Cairo. Worried that the apes might carry Ebola, the authorities drowned them in an acid bath.

Consequently, CITES prepared a notification to the parties to help avert destroying animals unnecessarily or in a cruel manner. The need to update this decade-old notification and to resolve the challenges of confiscated animals was a topic of discussion in Geneva last month.

Ideally, says Will Travers, given the sheer diversity and volume of animals in trade, a wide network of reputable experts, rescue centers, and veterinarians would be “on call” and reachable by traders, CITES management authorities, and border control officers.

Also touched on in Geneva was what to do with “backlogs” of live animals if trade in a species is suspended. The Democratic Republic of the Congo, which admitted to systematic violations of its quota for African grey parrots as well as a lack of control over their trafficking, proposed a moratorium on trade in the birds. But 1,600 African greys were already “stockpiled” in a government facility, and CITES decided—in the name of “welfare”—to allow them to be traded.

“Couldn’t they instead have been assessed for release back into the wild?” says Travers.

What More Can CITES Do?

Neil D’Cruze says he hopes that in light of John Scanlon’s recent recognition of public concern about the effects of trade on animals’ welfare, CITES “might start to play a greater role in providing guidance to parties on certain animal-welfare issues.”

One challenge, Schubert says, is that “within CITES, we often get caught into the idea that wildlife trade is airport to airport or captive-breeding center to airport. At the very least it should be ‘capture to crate’—and really it should extend from the period of capture to until after the animal reaches its destination.”

The recent death of a young African elephant in quarantine in China—one of 24 elephants exported from Zimbabwe in July 2015—attests to Schubert’s point.

Pro Wildlife’s Daniela Freyer agrees: “CITES needs to look at the entire trade chain for live animals from capture to buyer, both from an animal-welfare perspective and the impact on conservation.”

Furthermore, Schubert says, CITES parties should subject all animals to inspection. “If a cow—or African rodent or primate—is imported into the U.S., we have extensive regulations dictating that the animals be inspected and deemed healthy. But if you’re talking about a reptile, amphibian, fish, there are no inspection requirements.”

Lack of inspections has national security implications too. Wild animals could be used as bioterrorist weapons to spread infectious diseases such as monkeypox, which can be fatal for humans, or avian paramyxovirus, a disease carried by exotic birds that can spread to poultry.

“We need to establish an international reference point on live-wildlife trade where best practice guidelines are available,” Travers says. “We have protocols that help ensure welfare of farm animals, lab animals, and companion animals, but wild-animal welfare falls outside of this.”

Peter Knights, the CEO of WildAid, a nonprofit based in San Francisco that works to reduce human demand for wildlife and wildlife derivatives, is one of a growing number of wildlife advocates who believe the time has come to stop taking animals from the wild altogether. “All pets should be bred in captivity,” he says. “Education of the public is key.”

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