The darker side of the exotic pet trade is a growing concern. Experts have warned that the widespread use of the Internet has made it easier than ever to “order” or purchase a wild animal without clarification as to where it has come from or how it should be cared for.In Pietermaritzburg, hedgehogs, chinchillas, and slippery non-venomous snakes are some of the exotic pets that families are bringing into their homes.Steve Smit, co-founder of Monkey Helpline, said most wild animals are gregarious, and live in pairs or small groups, and yet in captivity they are often kept as individuals in unsuitable conditions.“Very few people have the inclination or the ability to take proper care of the animal that they’ve got. As a result you have huge numbers of these animals with rescue individuals or organisations often in very poor health,” he said.“The fact is that animals are not commodities. They shouldn’t be kept as pets, exotic animals tend to be fad animals. Once people realise that they are not suitable as pets, they neglect them,” said Smit.He said the animals become morbid and end up dying from depression.“It’s just a money making thing. When people buy animals as pets, it breaks down the inherent value that they have, they are seen only in terms of their monetary value or status value. They are not respected for who they are,” he said.Martie Rossouw, manager of the wildlife unit at the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, said: “Our biggest concern is for the welfare of these animals. Most often these animals are bought on a whim and their owners have no idea how to care for them. Wild animals are highly sensitive to stress.”She said an incorrect diet, handling and husbandry by inexperienced, ignorant owners often led to the animals’ welfare and mental and physical well-being being severely compromised. Rossouw said exotic animals were not easy to keep as they come from parts of the world where their natural environment is very different from South Africa.“Housing for exotic animals should simulate the natural environment as much as possible. Animals suffer when they are kept in conditions that are significantly different from their natural environment,” she said.“Many people buy baby exotic animals without knowing how big they will grow. For instance, a rock python can grow up to five metres, an iguana up to 1,5 metres and a baby terrapin can grow from a tiny 2,5 cm to over 30 cm,” she said, adding that some of the animals were poisonous and can be very aggressive.“Exotic animals can carry dangerous diseases which can be transmitted to man,” she said.The CEO of the Captured Africa Foundation, Drew Abrahamson, said the growing acceptance of people living with exotic and wild animals was symptomatic of the country’s lack of capacity to effectively deal with wild animal populations.“There are more than 8 000 lions in captivity in this country alone. The 270 breeding farms form part of this figure as well as animal sanctuaries and other conservation facilities. There are only a handful of good sanctuaries and they only get issued with permits for a limited number of lions and, unfortunately, they can’t go over that limit.”Keeping wild animals as pets poses a danger to humans.“Wild cats have so many parasites that can make you gravely ill. They are often riddled with worms, so if you take your kids to go and pet cubs, they run a heavy risk of contracting tapeworms that can burrow into your intestines and literally eat you from the inside out.” Smaragda Louw, of animal rights lobby group Ban Animal Trading, said the scale at which wild animals from South Africa were being sold locally and overseas was threatening several endangered and indigenous animals.She said South Africa was the largest exporter of exotic animals such as the African Grey parrot and was known as a source of lion cubs for other African countries, such as Libya.In January, The Witness reported that a man was caught in Pietermaritzburg, allegedly trying to sell one of the world’s most endangered animals, a pangolin.The pangolin, which was found in a backpack, later died at the Johannesburg vet, after severe suffering.Police said the man allegedly intended to sell the 8,9 kg adult pangolin for about R85 000. Pangolins are widely considered to be the most trafficked mammal in the world, and their sale is illegal. In March, Traveller24 reported that the European Union (EU) is a major destination for illegally smuggled live lizards, snakes, and tortoises from southern Africa.Wealthy EU citizens are big collectors of rare reptiles, with one tortoise openly offered for sale at R35 000. The traders, mainly from Germany, Slovenia and Russia, create special online platforms and Facebook groups with the physical hand-over mostly done at European reptile trade shows such as the exhibition that was held in Hamm, Germany.Sandra Altherr, a biologist at Pro Wildlife specialising in small reptiles, told Traveller24 some dealers prefer not to have dedicated stands at the fair, since the fair prohibits the sale of venomous snakes, so they rather exchange the reptiles carried in their backpacks in nearby hotels.Paris police find lion cub in LamborghiniA lion cub was found in a flashy car on the Champs-Elysees in Paris on Monday evening, a police source said, the latest incident of the fluffy-but-fierce animal apparently being kept as a pet.The baby lion was discovered inside a hired Lamborghini during a police search on the busy luxury shopping street, according to the source, confirming earlier media reports. The driver was taken into custody and the cub was being looked after, they said.Last month, a six-week-old lion cub was seized from an apartment in a Paris suburb and the owner sentenced to six months in prison.During that trial, the prosecutor said the discovery was not an isolated case and investigations were already under way into three other baby lions kept on the outskirts of the capital.In a separate incident also in October, a tiny lion cub weighing just a few kilos was found in a car garage in the southern French city of Marseille.That cub, a female believed to be between one and two months old, has been passed on to a specialist NGO which works to shelter wild animals.Thrill of owning exotic petsJoanne Trollip from Doolittle Exotic Pets in Clarendon, said exotic pet owners are always looking for something odd, unusual and slightly dangerous. For them it’s the thrill of being close to an animal that belongs in the wild.Doolittle Exotic Pets stocks snakes, marine fish, rabbits, hamsters, guinea pigs, leopard geckos and tarantula spiders.While there are favourites, Trollip said these are linked to trends.“It goes through periods,” she said.“You’ll have one week where it will be snakes and we’ll sell snakes for the next week or two. And then it will be hamsters. They all are favourites but it just goes through stages.Trollip said they went through a stage where lots of people wanted African pygmy hedgehogs.“The African pygmy hedgehogs don’t make the best pets because they are spiky and hard to handle,” said Trollip.Classifieds site Gumtree had over 20 adverts for the sale of chinchillas on Thursday. Prices ranged from R450 to R5 000.Brett Cooper, owner of Butterflies for Africa, said the chinchillas, from Mexico, need to be kept in a fairly cool environment.“We keep them separate from the rest of the butterfly enclosure because it’s too hot for them there. They’ve become fairly popular, but they are not really suited to the South African climate. They have the thickest fur of any mammal and they are unable to sweat and they can’t get wet.”Cooper said it was dangerous for chinchillas to be exposed to high heat. “They are also nocturnal like the hedgehogs. Hedgehogs and tenrecs are extremely cute but the problem is you can’t buy them as pets because they are extremely spiky. You can’t pick them up and hold them very easily,” he said.Trollip, who co-owns Doolittles Exotic Pets with her husband Jacques, said she has always loved exotic animals. She grew up on a farm in northern KZN, where she hand-raised baby birds, and had rabbits and hamsters.“I’ve always loved taking care of animals, and learning about them is great. I think people who want to own these animals have to be dedicated to them as they require extra care. If you buy a pet, understand the responsibility, and get the right equipment to look after it,” she said. Trollip said milk and corn snakes were ideal for first time snake pet owners.“A lot of people like the ball pythons as well because they are quite easy to handle. There are a lot of snakes on the invasive species list that we are not allowed to sell and we stay away from those,” she said.Depending on the type, the sex, the colouring and age, the corn snakes sell for R200 upwards and the milk snakes between R500 to R800.The two main hamsters are the Russian dwarf hamster and the Syrian hamster, which includes the Teddy Bear hamster.Doolittle Exotic Pets also keep a wide range of freshwater tropical fish, and marine fish, which are imported from the Far East.Safiya Mohamed, owner of Exotic Pets on Victoria Road, said while she now only keeps rodents and birds, she is often bombarded with requests for Iguanas, turtles, exotic frogs and spiders.“The pet trade industry is not as it used to be. The rules are stricter and we are not allowed to keep some of these animals in store. It affected my business drastically and we now only keep birds and hamsters,” she said.Mohamed said the African Grey, selling for R3 000 to R3 500 remained a favourite with bird enthusiasts.“People love African Greys because they consider them to be lifelong companions. They can live for up to 70 years,” she said.“When you have them, it’s like you have a child in your house,” said Mohamed.According to the Lafeber Veterinarians website, much of the Grey’s appeal comes from its talking ability. It is among the best talkers in the parrot family, able to repeat words and phrases after hearing them just once or twice. This bird reaches full talking ability at around a year of age, and most become capable mimics much earlier.Not only will a Grey develop an outstanding vocabulary, research has shown that this species can come to understand what it’s saying.Mohamed said budgies, selling at R75 each, were the preferred option for bird novices because they are easy to breed.Do you need a permit?According to the Endangered Wildlife Trust, exotic animals may only be obtained from reputable, legal outlets and private dealers. Important questions to ask before purchasing your pet include:• Where did the animal come from?• Are copies of the required permits for import into the province and conveying within the province available? • Do you need permits to keep the animal? If answers to these questions are not adequate this should raise alarm bells about the legality of the transactions.Do you need a permit to keep exotic animals as pets? In certain provinces permits are required to keep exotic animals as pets. Conservation issues are regulated mainly by the relevant provinces’ bylaws and ordinances.In Gauteng, North West, Mpumalanga and Limpopo no permit is required for the legal possession or conservation of an exotic animal. However, any import, export or transport of an exotic wild animal in any of the nine provinces requires a permit. Ownership and conservation permits, permits to buy or sell exotic animals, as well as import and export permits are required in the Northern, Eastern and Western Cape, KwaZulu-Natal and the Free State.