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Growing preference has given rise to a thriving market for exotic
species along with calls for greater regulation.

Sudip Guria chose a pair of pyrrhura conures—of the parrot family,
but found typically in Central and South America—to be his first
pets. That was in 2010. Since then, he has bought 30 different
kinds of conures at Rs.30,000-70,000 a pair.

“Birds help me unwind,” says Guria, a senior manager at shipping
agency Parekh Marine Agencies Pvt. Ltd. It also helps that conures
are easy to manage, live long and bond easily with their owners.
“We did not want big birds or other pets like dogs or cats as they
are messy, need a lot of space and make a lot of noise,” he says.

A growing number of Indians like Guria are graduating from keeping
cats, dogs and goldfish as pets to owning macaws, cockatoos and a
host of other exotic species bought at hefty price tags.

The growing demand for non-native animals and birds as pets has
given rise to thriving businesses across the country—such as at
Crawford Market in Mumbai, Russell Market in Bangalore and Mulki
Bazaar in Hyderabad.

Abdul Wahab has a plush 2,000 sq ft. showroom named Wet Pets in
the heart of Bangalore on Infantry Road. The third-generation
breeder and trader says he gets 40-50 enquiries every day for
exotic pets, translating into daily sales of 12-20 birds or
animals.

On average, a pair of African grey parrots or talking birds such
as Amazon parrots sell at Rs.30,000 to Rs.4 lakh a pair. That
compares with Rs.500-800 a pair for the more common lovebirds. The
kangaroo-like wallaby, native to Australia and a moniker for its
national rugby team, is priced at Rs.3-4 lakh. The birds are
preferred because they don’t take up much space and are easier to
manage.

The pricey exotic pets are more than mere companions, acting as
status symbols for the owners.

“Everyone has dogs,” says Shiv Visvanathan, sociologist and
professor at OP Jindal Global University, Sonepat. “Keeping exotic
pets is a sign of identification. It will create memories and is
more upmarket.”

Anant Ambani, son of India’s richest man Mukesh Ambani, owns
exotic pets, according to a 2010 report on the website of the
Dhirubhai Ambani International School promoted by his family. So
does Jaidev Thackeray, son of former Shiv Sena party chief Bal
Thackeray, says a November 2005 Hindustan Times report. Babul
Supriyo, a playback singer in Bollywood, keeps African grey
parrots and conures among other birds in his 19th floor apartment
in Lokhandwala, a crowded Mumbai suburb. “In this concrete jungle,
I used to miss the chirping of birds. (Raising birds) keeps me
close to my own self and brings back the memories of childhood,”
says Supriyo, who grew up on the outskirts of Kolkata.

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It is difficult to estimate the size of the market in India for
exotic birds because of a thriving black market, which according
to the Indian Bird Conservation Network (IBCN) involves more than
300 of the country’s estimated 1,200 species.

Ornithologist Abrar Ahmed, in a December 2011 report titled
Illegal Bird Trade in India, estimates the domestic wild bird
trade at Rs.2.5 crore a year. This does not include the value of
exotic birds smuggled into the country and the trade in
domesticated exotic birds that’s not prohibited. It’s not an easy
business, since traders often skirt the edges of the law and face
the ire of environmentalists and animal lovers. Under the Indian
Wildlife (Protection) Act of 1972, it is illegal to capture and
trade in at least 1,200 varieties of indigenous birds. The Act
does not cover non-native birds.

“There is no law regulating/protecting non-native exotic species
of birds and animals in India which are not listed in the Wildlife
Protection Act or CITES,” says Raj Panjwani, senior advocate in
the Supreme Court.

CITES, or the Convention on International Trade in Endangered
Species, is an agreement signed in 1973 by various governments to
ensure that trade in animal or plant species does not threaten
their survival. India is a signatory.

The treaty bans trading in certain species of birds. But
“continuous large consignments of exotic birds are smuggled to
India through Bangladesh, Nepal via Pakistan”, IBCN says in a
report. “These include CITES-listed species such as the sulphur-
crested cockatoo, blue-and-gold macaw, African grey parrot, Amazon
parrot, several species of lories and rosellas.” Certain CITES-
listed foreign exotic species can be legally imported into India
with the permission of both governments, India and the originating
country, says Panjwani. Foreign birds that do not feature on the
list can be imported under the Indian Customs Act, and this trade
is regulated by the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960.

It is also “legal to keep foreign (non-native) animals bred in
India, i.e., those which are offspring of legally imported animals
with proper documentation”, says N.G. Jayasimha, a Hyderabad-based
lawyer and director with Humane Society International, which works
on animal protection issues. He, however, adds that in most cases,
it is difficult to establish a paper trail on the origins of these
pets.

A walk down Crawford market in Mumbai is like visiting a mini zoo
with little money for upkeep. All the animals and birds on sale—
including monkeys, guinea pigs, Amazon Eclectus parrots,
lorikeets, sulphur-crested cockatoos and Malaysian turtles—are
crammed into small cages. This when a pair of Eclectus can fetch
at least Rs.1.5 lakh.

The Bombay high court appointed a birds’ committee in 1997 to find
ways of reducing such trade and rehabilitating the exotic birds
and animals as the business became widespread as did cruelty to
the birds and animals. However, after conducting a couple of raids
in the early days, the committee became inactive as it didn’t have
a facility to rehabilitate the rescued animals or birds.

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“The legal as well as illegal trade has been continuing unabated,
inflicting inhuman cruelty to these birds as the committee has
become dormant,” says Shankuntala Majumdar, convenor of the 1997
committee that was reconstituted in March 2012. This new committee
has also not been successful as other departments haven’t extended
their cooperation, she says.

In any case, rehabilitation efforts are difficult. In Maharashtra,
there is only one wildlife rescue and rehabilitation centre for
the entire state, says Jayasimha. “In Borivali, even these so-
called man-eating leopards are dying in tiny cages. The zoo
doesn’t have the infrastructure and (the) forest department
doesn’t have the manpower bandwidth. What do you do with them?”

The cost of upkeep for exotic birds can run into thousands of
rupees. Macaws, for instance, tend to feed on expensive hazelnuts,
walnuts and macadamia nuts. Raising a pair of macaws can cost
Rs.5,000-7,000 a month, says Rajeev Chirimar, who runs a jute mill
in Kolkata. Guria, the collector of conures, spends Rs.8,000-9,000
a month on raising them. Not every bird owner can afford the cost
or the time to maintain the birds.

“There is a very good demand for these birds”, but more people are
buying on impulse as a status symbol without knowing how to take
care of them, says Debashish Banerjee, a bird enthusiast and
breeder. Exotic birds such as macaws or hand-tamed parrots live
for close to 50 years. They need two-three hours of attention each
day from their owners or else they pluck their own feathers out
due to neglect, says Chirimar.

“People don’t realize that buying a pet requires a lifestyle
change,” he adds.

This, say animal lovers and non-governmental organizations such as
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, leads to abuse,
neglect and people abandoning their exotic pets.

Section 11 of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act makes
confinement of any animal in a cage that does not provide the
animal or bird reasonable opportunity of movement a punishable
offence. But it is difficult to enforce such regulations, say
legal experts.

“Unfortunately, people trying to keep up with the Joneses are
buying these unsuitable animals as status symbols,” says S. Chinny
Krishna, vice-chairman of the Animal Welfare Board of India. It
might be legal to keep dogs “like St Bernards or Siberian Huskies
or Afghan Hounds…, but these are unsuitable in most places in
India” because they can’t cope with the climate. #KhabarLive