Internet fuels booming market for rare species

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The Independent Online

South Africa's international trade in rare animals is booming, with creatures found locally or in exotic locations such as Madagascar now available to order on the internet. The commerce is causing fears that endangered species could be lost in poor African countries.

South Africa's international trade in rare animals is booming, with creatures found locally or in exotic locations such as Madagascar now available to order on the internet. The commerce is causing fears that endangered species could be lost in poor African countries.

Trading in mammals, birds and reptiles from species-rich Africa has grown rapidly since the early 1990s. The industry's estimated worth is now more than R1 billion (£100m) a year.

Last year 127,000 animals were exported from just four of the country's nine provinces, and 6,000 export permits were issued. Purchasers were mainly zoos and pet owners in Japan, the US and Europe.

Mostly the trade is legal, with import and export permits required. But there is growing concern about "rotten apples" in the trade, says Trish Hanekom, head of Gauteng province's department of agriculture, conservation, environment and land affairs. Conservationists fear that African countries in desperate need of export earnings may not be ensuring that their wildlife is being harvested in a sustainable way.

Madagascar is a case in point. The south-east African island is a conservation priority because of the high diversity of species that exist only there, and the alarmingly high rates of habitat loss due to population growth and the need of its poverty-stricken people for food, including wild game.

Scientists believe that since humans arrived on the island from Indonesia about 2,000 years ago, they have contributed to the extinction of most of its large animals, including the massive elephant bird, a pygmy hippopotamus, and at least 14 lemur species. Now its rare creatures are being sought overseas, often to be kept as pets.

Visitors to the website of Cairncross Ecological Supplies, an animal trading company in South Africa's Mpumalanga province, can order a range of creatures, some of them barely known to science. One is the lesser hedgehog tenrec, a pale grey creature some six inches long. Another, from the Sahara desert, is the fennec fox, one of the world's tiniest foxes.

"There has been a lot of interest in the website, but mostly I use it to show foreigners pictures of the animals," said Cary Cairncross. "I don't see this as exploitative, since we stick to quotas." Madagascar has confirmed an increase in wildlife sales to South Africa, and voiced concern about growing trade damaging the island's extraordinary ecology.

"Illegal trading is still there," says Leon Lötter, head of law enforcement for South Africa's Gauteng department, through which much of the trade passes. "Last year 1,300 animals were confiscated in this province, and we arrested some 20 people for ivory and rhino horn smuggling."

South Africa has a strict policy of sustainable wildlife resources, says Ms Hanekom. "The industry is huge and growing, and we don't want to stifle it. Most of the people involved are professional, love wildlife and are into conservation."

Other conservationists are less sanguine. There are concerns over high quotas, the impact of imported wildlife that escape - and, not least, the care of the creatures once they reach their destinations.

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