Photo: j_gldsck / Flickr

Trafficked animals that escape their captors’ clutches will often form communities in non-native habitats.

Dr. Luke Gibson of the University of Hong Kong learned this while reading a story about 23 yellow-crested cockatoos that had been seized from traffickers by Chinese border authorities. Each one had been uncomfortably stuffed inside a plastic container and illegally taken from its native Indonesia, where they’re listed as critically endangered. The story confused Gibson; many times, he had seen these birds swooping and soaring about just outside his office window. Was Hong Kong not their home? The story drove Gibson to research further, where he uncovered some intricate finds.

“This is a species which is primarily threatened by wildlife trade,” he explains. “Poachers go out into the forest in its native range in Eastern Indonesia and capture the birds and then ship them off, usually up to Hong Kong or China where there is a strong demand for pet birds. “This is what has fueled the decline of this species, but it’s really interesting because that same cause has also had another effect – some of the people who were keeping the species in Hong Kong accidentally or intentionally released them.”

Many of these birds have since gathered to form what scientists call a secondary population (a group of animals thriving in non-native environments). Originally from Indonesia, the birds now live in the forests of Southern China and receive necessary aid from government officials, who have made it illegal for residents to capture them. Hence, the birds have found solace on soil that isn’t even theirs.

It’s a happy end to an otherwise upsetting story, but there are silent catches to consider. Over 1,000 species have been introduced to non-native habitats over the last 500 years thanks to illegal trading. Ring-necked parakeets for example, hail from regions of Asia, but can be found in almost every Londoner’s backyard.

A feral parakeet living in London. (Photo: Jane Dickson / Flickr)

A feral parakeet living in London. (Photo: Jane Dickson / Flickr)

“We’ve been able to map alien species’ richness for an entire group of organisms for the first time in such detail, that we can locate populations and the historical processes that led to their introduction,” says Dr. Ellie Dyer of the Zoological Society of London. “It has given us valuable insights into the different stages of species invasion. Humans play a key role.”

Foreign animals pose risks to local wildlife. Food and water shortages become common, as resources are forced to sustain higher numbers; mating can occur between native and non-native species leading to hybridization and disease, and newly-introduced animals often die out thanks to their limited gene pools.

And yet wildlife trafficking remains a serious problem. The most widely trafficked mammal in the world is still the pangolin, an armadillo-like creature of South Asia and sub-Sahara Africa. The animal is popular in China for its dark scales, which are often used in traditional medicine and health tonics. Their meat is also considered a rare delicacy, and sells for approximately $350 per kilo. Activists claim that over 200,000 pangolins are trafficked each year, and populations are close to disappearing from the planet for good. Environmental groups have also been slow to enact protection laws, bringing them closer to extinction every day.

Additionally, pangolins do not do well in captivity. Conservation societies often discover pangolins deceased in their enclosures shortly after being rescued for unknown reasons. Most handlers are forced to utilize chemical disinfectants to ensure their safety. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) is now looking to grant its highest level of protection, Appendix I, to all known species of pangolin.

But trafficking does not just occur in the world’s eastern half. Millions of hummingbirds, crocodiles, turtles, snakes and monkeys are trafficked every year in Latin America, accumulating more than $10 billion annually. Some of the most widely sought creatures located within the Amazon Basin are scarlet macaws. Stolen eggs are not likely to produce live specimens, while adults are often too wild to fully domesticate. Thus, the young represent a trafficker’s best chance at making a living. Easy to tame, fledglings typically sell for around $150 each, though many do not survive to be sold at markets.

Most South American countries do possess laws designed to crack down on trafficking. The problem is that resources are often limited, and reduce the total power they bear. In Ecuador for example, only nine law enforcement officials have been assigned to halt trafficking.

“We do not lack laws against the trade,” says International Union for Conservation of Nature director Maria Fernanda Espinosa. “But there is a lack of resources, and that means it is not a conservation priority.”

Regulations outside the Americas have stemmed the biggest repercussions on practices like parrot smuggling. The number of macaws and birds transported to the U.S. has dropped to less than 10,000 from nearly 200,000 in the 1980s, but three decades of illegal trading have taken a harsh toll. Of the 145 parrot-types hailing from Latin America, nearly one-third are facing extinction.

“There are no limits,” states an anonymous zoo director in Brazil. “You can buy whatever you want. Every species is for sale.”

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