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Strange habitat: Thailand’s thriving exotic pet trade

Dobby scurries frantically around a tiny dorm room at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University, snorting and dousing the air with a pungent smell. For the past ten minutes, Sujitta Thanomsingha, a twenty-two-year-old communication student, has been trying to get her hands on her pet ferret.

As Sujitta darts across her tiny dorm room, she spots Dobby’s pink nose peeking from under the bed, and this time, she is determined to catch him. Finally, and after much resistance, he gives in to Sujitta’s grasp and allows her to secure a collar around his furry yellow neck.

“Dobby has a lot of energy,” Sujitta giggles. “I should take him for a walk in the park.”

She lowers Dobby into a tote bag and proceeds to leave the building. The other students inside the elevator seem wholly unperturbed by the sight of her casually carrying a live ferret. According to Sujitta, this is because exotic pets are not uncommon in her dorm.

“I have a friend who has a snake, and another friend who has a spider,” she explains, crediting TikTok videos and social media for the rise in popularity of exotic animals among her demographic.

Sujitta bought Dobby on Facebook just a few months ago. “Actually, I wanted another color,” she laments, “but at that time they didn’t have it”.

Data suggests that exotic pets (generally defined as pets that belong to non-domesticated species) are popular in Thailand, with 12 percent of people owning or knowing somebody who owns one, according to a 2021 WWF survey.

According to Suttilux Jukjik, Chairwoman of the Thailand Exotic Pet Owners Association, the organisation currently boasts 32,000 official members, and over the past three years, its Facebook followers have increased by over one-third.

Students are not the only ones contributing to these numbers. Varunyu Suriyachan, a 37-year-old photographer and father of two, has gradually accrued over 30 reptiles over the past two years. His collection includes sulcata tortoises, geckos, iguanas, chameleons, and bearded dragons.

“I think since Covid started people are buying more and more exotic pets,” he says, watching as his pet chameleon, which is perched on his hand, develops green and orange blotches all over his scaly skin.

“People have to stay at home and they want pets to spend time with. […] Many are choosing exotic animals,” he says. “I’ve noticed that in the Facebook groups for exotic pet owners, the number of members keeps growing every day.”

Though his first pets were bought in Chatuchak, Thailand’s largest market and a hub for trade in illegal wildlife, his more recent pets were bought via Facebook, like Sujitta’s.

Thailand’s position over the years as a centre for the global wildlife trade, in which the demand for exotic pets plays a significant role, has been well documented. Data suggests that this industry, which is worth billions of dollars and comprises a highly lucrative illegal underbelly, is now quickly shifting to the online space.

In 2016, NGO TRAFFIC surveyed Thai Facebook groups for buying and selling exotic animals and found 12 groups selling over 200 species, some of them critically endangered and illegal to trade according to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). Most of these animals were juveniles sold to be used as pets.

By 2018, membership of these groups had almost doubled to over 200,000, and today, a quick scan of the platform shows that such groups continue to be highly active, with regular posts advertising the illegal sale of protected species such as otters, lions, and slow lorises.

At the forefront of the exotic pet market in Thailand are breeders such as 41-year-old Piyasit Patanapram, who owns a farm in the outskirts of Bangkok: a menagerie of 1,000 animals and over twenty species that he has imported from all over the world, including civets, squirrel monkeys, bush babies, and an African dwarf crocodile.

“I bought it ten years ago before it was on the CITES-protected list,” he says, staring at the crocodile’s toothy smile through the tank’s glass wall. He drops a fish into the tank before quickly stepping back.

“I used to work in marketing and kept exotic pets as a hobby. I realised I could make a lot of money breeding them and selling them,” says Piyasit.

Soon he started traveling to Africa, South America, and the Middle East to bring back species in high demand – some he bought from zoos, others directly from local individuals or governments. For example, he says his fennec foxes were sourced directly from an Egyptian village. “The local people were killing them, so the government made a quota to sell fifty foxes,” he explains.

Piyasit insists all his business dealings are legal, yet according to the CITES website, Egypt banned the export of fennec foxes in 1992. If nothing else, this is an example of the complexity of wildlife and exotic pet trade legislation – multiple overlapping local and international regulatory systems paving the way for ambiguities and loopholes.

Speaking about the way forward for Thailand, Director for Southeast Asia at TRAFFIC Kanitha Krishnasamy identifies the country’s recent addition of over 1000 CITES-listed species to the revised wildlife trafficking law as a positive step.

Yet she warns that “while the government continues to make frequent seizures and arrests [of wildlife traffickers], it is vital that this is followed through with strong prosecution to show that this crime is serious and there will be repercussions”.

Nisarak Kraingkrai, a 34-year-old veterinarian who owns one of Thailand’s few exotic pet hospitals, speaks about a tendency for certain groups to specifically seek out the rarest, most protected species – this aligns with the WWF survey’s findings that among Thai people who own exotic pets, 51 percent mention the rarity of the animal as the main driver of their purchase.

“If a wild animal is very hard to find in the forest, some people, especially rich people, will want to own it – a red panda for example. This should not be allowed”, says Nisarak, referencing the listing of red pandas in the CITES I appendix, which means that they are illegal to trade.

“Rich people often call me to treat the animals in their house, and 80 percent [of the animals] are illegal.”

Nisarak also tells stories of clients bringing animals that cannot survive in typical home environments, such as otters suffering from severe pneumonitis after living in air-conditioned rooms. Yet he believes that many species of exotic pets can have healthy, fulfilling lives if the owners are well-informed and willing to make the necessary sacrifices.

“I predict meerkats will be the next popular pets, just like cats and dogs,” he says cheerfully while scratching the head of his pet meerkat. “They are easy to take care of, intelligent, and not aggressive”.

Back at the Chulalongkorn University campus, Sujitta is walking her ferret, Dobby. When asked if she plans on getting any other pets, she says that her parents will not allow her to right now.

“But maybe later,” she smiles. “I went to Chatuchak pet market, and meerkats are cute”.

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