Huang Jia Chen started off with lizards and turtles in junior high. Then in high school he got his first snake.
“First it was just a hobby,” he says. “Then I started to keep more and more. When there were lots, I started to breed them.”
It wasn’t long before he was selling them. Now he has an entire room in his Beijing apartment filled from floor to ceiling with glass terrariums holding snakes. “Reptiles are very fashionable as pets,” he says.
From venomous snakes, ultra-rare tortoises, and baby saltwater crocs that will eventually grow to 15 feet long to monkeys, raptors, and even sharks, exotic pets are popular in China, especially among those in their 20s and 30s.
“It’s more than just a fad here in China,” says Sean Gallagher, a Beijing-based filmmaker who produced a short documentary on the phenomenon for National Geographic (see above). Young people want something new and different. “They want to stand out and show off to their friends,” he says.
The boom in exotic pet ownership has conservationists and animal advocates scrambling to deliver an important message: These wild animals belong in the wild. Keeping them in homes compromises their well-being and could be bad for their owners too. Exotic pets can spread salmonella, herpes, tuberculosis, SARS, bird flu, and more. (Read more: The world has a chance to make the live animal trade more humane.)
And conservationists worry about what exotic pet ownership means for animals in the wild. Some exotic pets, such as the reptiles Chen sells, are bred in captivity. But for some wild-caught animals, the pet trade poses a clear threat to their continued existence. In 2013, for example, Thai authorities arrested a man trying to smuggle 54 ploughshare tortoises from Madagascar—an estimated 10 percent of all ploughshare tortoises remaining in the wild.
“The problem with exotic pets is that approximately half of the trade—worth tens of billions of dollars per year—is illegal,” says Tom Moorhouse, a zoologist at Oxford University who studies the exotic pet trade. “There is very little way that consumers can know whether the pet they are buying has been captured from the wild, then transported around the world, typically in hideous conditions.”
International law says that certain wild-caught, critically endangered species can only be exported from their home countries and imported to another country for non-commercial purposes, like scientific research. So how are these critically endangered animals winding up as pets?
China has some laws protecting certain species from becoming exotic pets, but traders seem to have no problem circumventing them.
“The online and social media sales of all kinds of wildlife animal species have long been a 'safe haven' of illicit activities that the Chinese law enforcement is yet to take actions,” says Peter Li, a professor at University of Houston-Downtown and China policy specialist at Humane Society International.
While Asia dominates the international trade in live animals, according to a 2013 Oxford University study in BioScience, global demand for exotic pets is growing. In the Persian Gulf, big cats have become the latest must-have accessory for the super-rich. In the U.S., it’s believed there are more wild animals in homes and roadside attractions than in zoos. (Read more: Wild Obsession: the perilous attraction of owning wild pets.) And Europeans are importing reptiles in greater quantities than anyone else, according to the BioScience study, though they outlawed the imports of wild-caught birds in 2005.
The scale of the exotic pet trade, both in China and globally, is difficult to estimate. International reporting of legal imports and exports of live animals is seriously flawed, and Interpol estimates only about 10 percent of illegal trade is ever detected. Still, conservative estimates place the figure of live, wild-caught animals traded across borders as in the millions.
“I don’t think people understand the severity,” Gallagher says. “Even if only one in 100 have an exotic pet, that’s still a very large number of animals.”
Moorhouse cautions anyone considering buying an exotic pet. “Consumers risk buying a pet that is illegal to own, that may be carrying a contagious disease from across the globe that their family has no immunity to, or which may simply die quickly in its new home,” he says. “Really not worth it!”
Sean Gallagher is a Beijing-based British photographer and filmmaker whose work focuses on highlighting critical environmental issues in Asia. He is a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and is also a contributing photographer to National Geographic Creative. This project was produced in collaboration with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.