A long, yellow-gray snake lay motionless in a glass box. On one side, in a separate container, a hairy, black spider about the size of a chicken egg stalked its lair. On the other, a lizard fidgeted in a sand box.
It was the kind of display ordinarily found at a zoo.
|A woman kisses a lizard as people gather together to share experiences about cultivating cold-blooded reptiles at Jilin in Jilin province. DING DONG / FOR CHINA DAILY
Yet the unusual menagerie was not in a zoo but in a nondescript Beijing store — and all of these exotic creatures were for sale.
On a weekend afternoon, roughly a dozen people crammed into a small, square room in a secluded corner of Guanyuan Pet Market in the capital’s Haidian district. Some were there out of curiosity, others to buy.
“The store owner just told me the lizards are 3,000 yuan ($480) each,” said Li Zhi, a middle school student who had been browsing with a friend. “It’s too expensive. My spider only cost 170 yuan.”
He said he bought the spider — a species called Chilean rose — from an Internet trader. It lives in a glass cage in his living room.
“It’s about 10 cm in diameter now” Li said. “I like spiders. They look cute, they don’t bite unless cornered, and even if I am bitten, it doesn’t matter because they are not poisonous. Having a spider is no big deal.”
Several other stores in the two-floor, underground market also had lizards, scorpions and spiders on display.
Yet, wildlife protection experts have warned that buying an exotic animal without knowledge of how to care for it can be extremely dangerous, not to mention illegal.
“Many wild animals are aggressive by nature and do not make suitable pets,” said Zhang Jinshuo, a zoologist with the Chinese Academy of Sciences. “Even tamed wild animals are likely to attack. They also spread disease.
“And, if they are abandoned or they escape, they pose potential danger to the public,” he added.
The media has been awash with stories about exotic animals on the loose in Chinese cities this year.
Over the summer, a crocodile was spotted in a Beijing public pool and a giant salamander was discovered in another residential complex, while in Nanjing, capital of Jiangsu province, a woman alerted authorities after her Burmese python escaped.
There have been countless tales of snakes and spiders appearing in streets and on subway trains in large cities, such as Shanghai and Guangzhou.
“Many wild animals are dangerous,” said a handler at the Beijing Wildlife Protection and Nature Reserve Management Station, who gave his name as Yang. “A snake may look quiet and gentle in a box at a pet market, but that’s because the box is not very hot. When the temperature rises the snake will become very active.
“Even trained handlers like us are sometimes bitten by these animals.”
He said his station is constantly receiving calls about abandoned exotic pets, which they must then find and collect.
“We’ve taken in at least eight monkeys alone this year,” Yang said. “Most were actually sent to us by residents who realized they couldn’t handle them. This puts even more pressure on us because keeping pets isn’t what we are here to do.”
Wild animals require special, controlled environments to survive. For example, he said, snakes need to be kept in tanks set to the right temperature and humidity.
A beastly trade
According to Zhang at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, such animals should not be available to shoppers in the first place because the breeding of many exotic animals is outlawed by regulations.
“No individual can breed or sell protected wildlife without permission from the government,” Zhang said, quoting the regulations. “That includes the crocodiles and some turtles commonly seen at pet markets.”
Li Li, who heads the Panther Protection Station for Wild Animals, a nonprofit group in Beijing, said permits are usually only issued to wildlife protection or research institutes, or large, animal reproduction centers. It is “virtually impossible” for an individual to get one, he said.
But as the pet industry continues to boom — Chinese people are expected to spend 7.84 billion yuan on pet care this year, according to market research by Euromonitor — traders are circumventing the law to cater to the demand for exotic species.
As is often the case, the Internet is the main channel for such dodgy dealings.
Traders often target online forums for owners of exotic pets to advertise and sell their animals, including raccoons, slow lorises, foxes, chameleons, poisonous snakes and rare turtles.
A vendor in Beijing’s suburban Daxing district, who gave his name as Wang, was offering crocodiles for sale on a forum hosted by Baidu, a major Chinese search engine. He said the creatures were from a small farm owned by a friend.
A 60-cm-long crocodile costs 900 yuan, he said. “Many people have bought them to slaughter and eat, or just keep as pets.”
He was also offering a type of crocodile native to Malaysia, which is smaller but much more expensive, costing 6,000 yuan each. “It was smuggled (over the border) and there are only a dozen crocodiles of this type in China,” he said.
When asked how safe it was to keep the reptile as a pet, he recommended owners by a 1-meter-high tank and “always throw the food in quickly” as the crocodile can jump very high and will bite fingers.
The manager of an online store run from Beijing, who declined to give his name and would only communicate online through instant messenger, had a rare, large white cobra, which was pictured in a steel cage. He said he had caught it in the wild.
At a pet market near Panjiayuan, in Beijing’s Chaoyang district, a vendor said his lizards are from Northwest China’s Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region, which borders several Central Asia countries. However, he would not disclose the exact source.
Yang at the Beijing Wildlife Protection and Nature Reserve Management Station said he suspects some of the pets they receive from residents were illegally traded.
“Wild animals are more dangerous to keep and are more likely to hurt people and transmit disease,” he said. “We advise residents to report such cases to the police.”
A staff member on the law enforcement and monitoring team at the capital’s landscape and forestry department said the authority is investigating several traders suspected of selling protected animals.
“We are still collecting information,” said the staff member, who declined to give his name. “We’ve received many reports from residents recently, but it’s difficult, as most suspects reveal little information about themselves except their instant messenger number.”
He added that his team conducts regular patrols at pet markets and will punish vendors who are found selling protected wild animals without a permit.
However, experts say ultimately consumers should be educated to avoid breaking the law.
“The government should increase publicity to make people aware that many wild animals are actually not allowed to be traded,” said Wang Yue, spokeswoman for the Beijing Dog Breeders Association.