PETALING JAYA: In light of the increasing popularity in keeping exotic wildlife as pets, owners should be wary of both the physical and legal harm that come from having these animals, say conservationists and experts.
The communications manager for wildlife trade watchdog Traffic, Elizabeth John, said those intending to keep exotic animals as pets should be well aware of the legal risks should they purchase one prohibited under the law.
“Potential pet owners must check what the laws allow or prohibit. The excuse of ‘I didn’t know’ does not hold up as an excuse in the court,” she said, adding that exotic animals were not encouraged to be kept as pets mainly because they were wildlife.
“Most require a specialised diet, housing and care while others may be venomous or aggressive. There are also others that have long life and may outlive their owners, with others growing large and could pose a physical harm to owners,” she said in an interview.
Elizabeth said there had been cases of buyers buying non-native species such as turtles or tortoises only to release these into the wild once they got bored of their pets.
“Given that these animals are non-natives, they will cause an imbalance in the ecosystem,” she added.
She said while some exotic animals were captive bred in legal and sustainable facilities, others were poached from the wild and passed off as captive bred to circumvent wildlife protection laws.
“Many animals, especially native species taken from the wild for the pet trade, are very young, resulting in high mortality rates. These are often species already seriously threatened by poaching and illegal trade.
“They do not need the extra pressure from the demand that non-traditional pet options creates,” she said, adding that the past decade had seen a rise in popularity for keeping protected species as pets.
“For this, the internet and social media play a role, especially in the increasing popularity among Malaysians,” she said, adding that the country’s laws allowed for the keeping of certain wildlife as pets as long as they were legally acquired and licensed.
Elizabeth said although it was hard to quantify how widespread the issue was, online trading hinted at a significant illegal trade in exotic pets, citing a Traffic study in 2016 which monitored 14 groups on a social media platform.
“The study found that there were 68,000 active members and 106 unique sellers trading in live wild animals for pets on the platform, with almost half of the species recorded being totally protected from hunting or trading, and illegal to sell under the Wildlife Conservation Act,” she said.
Universiti Malaya’s Biological Sciences Institute senior lecturer Assoc Prof Dr Hasmahzaiti Omar said some of those who kept wildlife as pets claimed to do so out of their love for animals.
“But love doesn’t mean you keep them at home or in cages with an unsuitable living environment or restricted movements. This will lead to the animal experiencing loneliness, stress and death,” she said.
Exotic animals, she added, could also pose a health risk to humans, with some being carriers for zoonotic diseases such as monkeypox, salmonellosis and herpes B.
“Another risk will be the danger of the animal escaping from captivity where it can be harmed by humans or vice versa,” said Hasmahzaiti, adding that those released back into the wild could also become an invasive species.
Ecology and biodiversity student Kim Catalina said besides the monthly expenses in maintenance, those keeping exotic animals should also ensure that their shelter, diet and health were taken care of.
“If kept in a cage, make sure it’s big enough to allow them space to rest and roam around while their diet has to be fulfilled.
“Ensuring the animal’s health is equally important as not all veterinarians can treat exotic animals and if they are available, costs can be pricey,” she said, adding that keeping exotic pets was cruel as they belonged in the wild.
Currently, exotic pets can only be bought at shops licensed by the Wildlife and National Parks Department (Perhilitan).
Only selected protected species are allowed to be sold in the country, with owners having to produce their receipt of purchase at the nearest Perhilitan office to obtain the licence to keep the animal.
For Peninsular Malaysia, protected species are listed under the First and Second Schedule of the Wildlife Conservation Act.
A permit from the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites) is also needed to import or export such protected wildlife.
Perhilitan said licences were required for keeping animals under the First Schedule of the Wildlife Conservation Act while those under the Second Schedule needed special permits.
“Aspiring owners can apply for these licences at Perhilitan offices while those selling the animals will also need the licence,” it said, adding that these had to be renewed annually.
It said the practice of keeping, selling and smuggling exotic animals and pets were rampant in Malaysia, with the Indian star tortoise and various parrots species among those commonly smuggled in.
Besides working with the police and the Customs Department, Perhilitan said routine checks would be carried out at the premises of licensed exotic animal keepers and sellers. Animals kept illegally would be confiscated and placed at the National Wildlife Rescue Centre, it said, urging those with information on illegal exotic pets to call 1-800-88-5151.