Mexico’s lax laws allow exotic pet trade to run wild

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Permits are regularly issued to civilians to keep endangered species as pets

From Tuesday’s Globe and Mail
June 19, 2007 at 5:53 AM EDT

MEXICO CITY — When a lion and a Bengal tiger, kept as pets on a factory roof in a working-class suburb of Mexico City, suddenly attacked and killed their keeper last week, it came as a shock to most Mexicans. Yet it shouldn’t have.

“There are a lot of lions in Mexico City, and in cities throughout Mexico,” said Ignacio Loyola, federal prosecutor for Environmental Protection, on breakfast television the next day.

There are, in fact, 70 lions registered as pets with the Natural Resources and Environment Secretariat, or Sermarnat. There are also 60 jaguars, tigers, leopards and pumas, as well as hundreds of other wild specimens.

“There are a lot,” Mr. Loyola acknowledged. “… As a result of what happened in Ixtapalapa, we have received all kinds of complaints [from the public] about animals in hotels, houses, restaurants and mechanics’ workshops. But they all have authorizations that were issued years ago.”

As those complaints suggest, however, many Mexicans are outraged that wild animals may be kept legally by anyone who applies for permission from Semarnat. Not only that, but the often sorry state of the creatures is a symptom of the massive trade in exotic and endangered animals that goes on in Mexico, both legally and illegally.

“What happened was terrible,” said Beatriz Bugeda, Latin America director for the International Fund for Animal Welfare, “but it didn’t surprise me much. It’s just a symptom of a situation that has grown alarmingly over the past years in Mexico, this trade in exotic animals.”

Current Mexican legislation permits the ownership of wild animals, even those in danger of extinction, as long as they have not been taken from the wild, Semarnat’s wildlife director, Martin Vargas Prieto, said.

Ms. Bugeda calls that “a legal loophole that impedes the authorities from supervising the conditions in which these animals are living.”

Big cats and other exotic wildlife are particularly popular among the kingpins of the narcotics trade. In 1993, police found a private collection of 70 such animals when they arrested Joaquin Guzman of the Sinaloa Cartel, all of which ended up in zoos throughout Mexico. They are a status symbol, said Katya Camarero, wildlife director at the Environmental Protection Ministry. “The people who acquire them are people with lots and lots of money, and other illegal practices are often going on there as well.”

Worse, along with the proliferation of legal businesses raising wild animals for sale – from 334 in 1998 to 3,900 today – Mexico’s underground wildlife market is also booming.

While Semarnat grants permission for animals bred from legal enterprises, its wildlife-protection wing confiscates tens of thousands of species illegally taken from their habitat every year. Stationed in airports and at border posts, Semarnat inspectors find the animals – worth millions of dollars on the international market – packed into boxes or hidden in other cargo. They confiscated almost 92,000 live specimens last year, up from almost 87,000 in 2005. But with only 420 inspectors for the entire country, thousands more animals make it through.

Ms. Bugeda refers to the trade as “practically impossible to quantify,” and estimates that for every live animal shipped successfully for sale abroad, 20 die during the journey.

“There is a very large illegal market,” Mr. Prieto admitted. “We carry out a lot of raids, but now what people do is hide the animals.”

At Mexico City’s crowded Sonora market, which has been raided many times, the wildlife is still there, just under wraps, literally.

“You want a macaw?” asked Arturo Gonzalez, reaching for a small cardboard box. Inside, a three-week old green macaw was just beginning to shed its down and grow feathers. When asked about the possibility of a rare scarlet macaw, he said, “How much are the others charging? I can get you one for $2,000. Unless it’s already been sold. I’ll have to check,” he said.

Down another aisle, thronged with stands selling animals and birds ranging from goats to guinea fowl, a man calling himself Apache was moving chickens from one cage to another, but was happy to sell a monkey. Pulling out a photo album, he said, “I can get you a squirrel monkey for $2,200, and a mantled howler for $1,200. You tell me what you want and I will deliver the animal to your home.”

Mantled howler monkeys are on the endangered-species list and, like the tiny macaw, it would have to have been snatched from its habitat.

Ms. Bugeda is hoping that a new bill in Mexico’s Congress will make it harder for people to keep a wild animal in their homes, by enshrining an animal’s right to basic well-being in law.

Mr. Loyola, meanwhile, believes that the killing of the keeper in Ixtapalapa will dissuade Mexicans from adopting wild animals as pets.

“People know what happened with this lion and tiger, which, unfortunately, killed a person. We are trying to send out a signal to the population to abstain from applying for permits.”

Special to The Globe and Mail BNStory/International/?page=rss&id=RTGAM.20070619.wanimals19

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