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Article | Pet Trade

Animals in the Pet Trade

Across the world wild animals are bought and sold. Why do people buy these often-endangered species? What happens at customs? Are they happy in their new homes?

It’s not difficult to come across live animals being offered for sale. Whether you’re a tourist wandering a market in Southeast Asia, or you’re at home scrolling Instagram, prospective pets are easy to find. And the choice isn’t limited to puppies and kittens. Baby lemurs, lizards, snakes, parrots, seahorses, spiders, tortoises, and even tigers are all sold to people as exotic (wild) pets.


  • The legal wildlife trade and the illegal wildlife trade (IWT) can be tricky to separate. Animals in the pet trade come from both.

  • The IWT is one of the biggest threats affecting some of the world's most endangered and threatened species.

  • At least one hundred million animals and plants are trafficked each year. Many of these animals are destined for trade.

  • As well as causing catastrophic population declines, the IWT can endanger human lives and livelihoods.

  • Pets have also been released by their owners and established themselves as invasive alien species.

Lygodactylus williamsi - Electric blue gecko

Illegal wildlife trade is Big Business

Despite being described as captive-bred, or coming with official-looking documents, the reality is that many wild animals offered for sale are collected from the wild. Globally, the illegal wildlife trade is estimated to be worth billions a year and is thought to involve at least 100 million animals and plants. It’s the fourth most lucrative illegal industry after drugs, human trafficking, and arms; and the exotic pet trade is a big part of it. 

Many animals sold as pets are taken from wild populations whose numbers are plummeting. Some are listed on Appendix I of CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora). CITES is the global treaty regulating the import and export of at-risk species. It aims to ensure that trade in them is sustainable and traceable. Being listed on Appendix I, as the Evolutionarily Distinct and Globally Endangered (EDGE) Electric Blue Gecko is, means that international trade in them is illegal. 

But fewer than 10% of known plants and animals and 1% of fish are listed. Many that aren’t are also endangered or their numbers are unknown, sometimes because they were only recently discovered.

Wildlife crime and the exotic pet trade

According to WWF, wildlife crime is the second biggest threat to the world’s most endangered species after habitat loss. Alongside humans’ appetite for animals as luxury food, jewellery and clothing, and their body parts for traditional medicine, the desire for exotic animals as pets fuels it. And depending on the country and species involved, 9% to 77% of ‘legal’ wildlife trade is likely to be mixed up in it.

In the US, where laws vary from state to state as to what animals can be kept, it’s thought that 15,000 monkeys, lemurs and marmosets are kept as pets. A significant proportion will be the victims of poaching, mislabelled or without documents so their owners are unaware of it. According to BornFreeUSA, in Texas there are more tigers in captivity than there are globally in the wild! 

The RSPCA estimates that 1.8 million reptiles and amphibians, 1.3 million birds and 4,000 to 5,000 primates are kept in the UK. An estimated 100+ million fish, from 47 different countries, are also held in aquariums and ponds. An Animal Welfare bill that makes it harder for people to own monkeys and other primates is in the works.

Banggai Cardinal - Often captive bred but also wild caught

Why do people buy wild animals as pets?

There’s the unquenchable desire for novelty, particularly when new species are discovered. High prices of tens of thousands of dollars or euros ramp up their allure. Some people see themselves as animal lovers/ collectors/ investors. Or their wild pet is a way to earn income: songbird owners in Indonesia enter their warblers in singing competitions in the hopes of winning hefty prizes. There’s the need to be perceived as ‘cool’, to own a living creature considered ‘rare’ or ‘unusual’. For the super-rich in Saudi Arabia and UAE, nailing another status symbol, like a cheetah, to show off their wealth, is important. 

TV shows and movies with exotic animal characters may have an influence. For instance, following the release of Finding Nemo in 2003, there was an estimated 40% increase in the demand for clownfish in the marine aquarium trade. Or the perception that the caged creature with soulful eyes is ‘cute’ – and docile – can be enough for someone to want it for their child. 

Social media and wildlife trafficking

The widespread use of e-commerce platforms and social media makes buying and selling these wild species less costly or traceable. Pictures or videos of animals dressed up, or tigers on leads in human environments, can make keeping them seem normal. Selling this way also allows traffickers to avoid taxes and border controls as they use courier and postal services to mail prospective pets. 

Others use underground routes and cruelly ingenious ways – like stuffing birds in socks and taping their beaks shut – to smuggle them across borders. Because the activity is illegal, there are no inspections, veterinary screenings, or quarantine. It goes without saying that hygiene standards are practically non-existent.

Estimated mortality rates from illegally traded wildlife can be staggeringly high. Roughly 60%, and sometimes up to 90%, of poached African grey parrots – the most popular pet birds in the world – are thought to die before they reach their destinations. To compensate, poachers grab more of these smart and endangered human mimics than they need.

African Grey Parrot Flying in a pair
African grey parrots – the most popular pet birds in the world

Customs and low-priority wildlife crime

There are no figures for the number of wild animals who die before they leave their country of origin. And while some of these have laws protecting native species, they’re often not enforced. Those with extraordinary biodiversity, like Columbia or Vietnam, often lack the ability to keep tabs on what is going on. And when traffickers are caught, sentences are often lenient. 

The US is one of the biggest importers of wild animals as pets. Each year, more than 200 million live animals arrive at its ports and thousands more illegal shipments are intercepted. The EU is another of the largest markets for wildlife and one of the biggest consumers of illegal wildlife, particularly reptiles. 

Between 2000 and 2014, the US is believed to have imported 3.24 billion live animals, half from the wild. Most were destined for the pet trade. But understaffing, low conviction rates and historically lenient sentences for traders whose cargoes of prospective pets arrive starving and diseased, means that morale among inspectors isn’t always high.

Captive, cared-for and happy? 

Those that do survive the journey must adapt to their new home. Their owners – who may be unaware their new ‘pet’ is a threatened species – may not be able to read its distress, nor understand its needs. Worse, they may believe others who tell them the individual is happy, when it isn’t. 

It’s said that as many as 75% of reptiles die during their first year of captivity. There are stories of Big Cats forced to live in backyards and basements, of solitary and distressed primates. Sadly, too many wild pets are caged in areas thousands of times smaller than the natural spaces they’re used to and fed inappropriate diets. 

Some of these will be seasonal eaters and the commercially available pet food they may be given is unlikely to fulfil their needs. Many develop obesity, tooth decay and vitamin deficiencies, alongside behaviour disorders. Feather plucking, self-mutilation, repetitive behaviours, and aggression are common.

4,000 to 5,000 primates are kept in the UK

How you can help

Check out the following organisations to learn more about actions you can take.

RSPCA – UK-focused animal welfare charity that rescues and rehabilitates animals. 

Social Media Animal Cruelty Coalition – formed by the Asia for Animals Coalition, SMACC works to understand and end animal cruelty content on social media.

TRAFFIC – founded by the IUCN and WWF, TRAFFIC has a network of on the ground experts whose aim is to reduce trade in illegal wildlife and support legal trade.

US Fish & Wildlife Service – the only federal agency in the US protecting fish, wildlife, and plants.

World Animal Protection – international non-profit that wants to create a better world for animals by ending animal cruelty and suffering.

WWF – World Wide Fund for Nature is a global conservation organisation working to protect communities, wildlife and the places they live.

Play as a species who's plight is the pet trade

Electric Blue: Gecko Dash