Exotic species get claws into pet market
Higher wages and better living standards mean many Chinese are no longer satisfied with cats and dogs, so they are embracing lizards, snakes, crocodiles and even rare ants.
Pet ownership is not a new phenomenon in China. For example, for thousands of years, rural dwellers kept dogs to guard their homes while they were busy in the fields.
The relationship between pets and their owners was a working partnership until 30 years ago, when standards of living started to rise as a result of the reform and opening-up policy, and people began owning animals for companionship and pleasure.
A distinct change has been noticed in recent years, with a sharp rise in the ownership of exotic pets, especially among members of the younger generation, who are no longer satisfied with traditional animals such as dogs and cats.
As a result, the country is seeing a rapid rise in the number of nontraditional pets, such as birds of prey, rare frogs, snakes, pygmy sharks, lizards, insects of all sizes and colors, and even crocodiles.
According to the annual report on China's pet market published by Goumin, the country's largest pet website, the market value rose from 14 billion yuan in 2010 to 170 billion yuan ($24 billion) last year.
Although the report didn't provide specific statistics about the exotic pet market, it showed that 36 percent of China's 73 million pet owners keep reptiles and rodents.
In 2000, only about 20 shops on Taobao, China's largest online shopping platform, sold exotic pets. Now, a search using the keywords "exotic pets" brings up details of more than 1,000 retailers.
Also, the number of registered members of pxtx, one of China's biggest online forums for lovers of turtles, lizards and snakes, has risen from nearly 1,000 in 2002 to more than 400,000.
This year, about 30 pet exhibitions will be held in China, 26 of which will feature lizards and rare birds, according to World Animal Protection, a global nonprofit group.
A report released by the group shows that the global trade in exotic pets has "flourished", with more than 500 bird species and 500 reptile species traded worldwide, and the Chinese market has seen rapid growth in recent years.
Having bred rare tortoises for 30 years, 45-year-old Luo Peng, from the southwestern province of Sichuan, is a loyal exotic pet fan. The balcony of his apartment in downtown Chengdu, the provincial capital, is home to more than 100 tortoises.
As an enthusiast, Luo has collected nearly every subspecies of box turtle－a rare tortoise with a domed shell that is hinged at the bottom, which enables it to be closed to keep predators at bay. A baby box turtle is priced at 60,000 to 80,000 yuan.
"China's exotic pets market has boomed in the past five to 10 years. For example, in the 1990s there was no domestically made food for tortoises－imported brands didn't appear until 2000," he said.
From 2009, some fans sold homemade tortoise food, based on their own experience, according to Luo. "Now, at least seven domestic companies are making tortoise food, providing more than 20 kinds for different species and ages. Compared with imported foods, domestic brands are far more diverse," he said.
Data from the National Bureau of Statistics show that annual per capita disposable income soared from 18,311 yuan in 2013 to 28,228 yuan last year, and Luo believes the rise in living standards has been a major driver of the booming pet market.
"People can easily satisfy their basic needs, and that gives them more freedom to develop hobbies and spend their extra cash on pets," he said.
Many Chinese fans of exotic pets are ages 20 to 35, the so-called millennial generation, who are passionate about exploring new things and seeking a unique identity.
"Young people are our major customers. Instead of raising a traditional pet, they want something special to show off to their friends, especially via social media. Also, many enjoy the experience of learning and knowing more about a certain wild animal by raising it as a pet," said Liu Yiyan, who owns a store that sells lizards, snakes, African hedgehogs, marmots and flying squirrels.
Liu, 25, loves exotic pets. At age 21, he started raising a central bearded dragon, a lizard native to the woodland and deserts of central Australia.
"It was cool to have a lizard as a pet when most of my friends had cats and dogs. Nowadays, young people want to be different, and having an exotic pet is a good way to stand out," he said. "When I discovered that many people had a strong interest in exotic pets, it gave me the confidence to start my business."
Together with his 29-year-old sister, Liu runs his store at the Laiguangying Pet Market near Beijing's North Fifth Ring Road. In the two years since it opened, the 35-square-meter store has seen a steady rise in customer numbers, earning the siblings a combined monthly income of about 25,000 yuan.
Prices range from 300 to 5,000 yuan for each animal, but those that exhibit rare colors, have great affinity for human contact or are happy to interact with their owners cost more. "Snakes are easiest for beginners, but women prefer flying squirrels because of their cute appearance," Liu said.
He said many purchasers are novices in the exotic pets market and have barely heard of the animals. "Most brick-and-mortar stores like mine prefer to sell exotic pets that have been popular for several years. That makes it much easier for novices," he said.
By contrast, the internet is the major trading platform for people looking for the most unusual pets. For example, a popular retailer called Ant Farm, which opened in 2010, sells the insects on Taobao.
The store, which receives about 2,500 orders a month and has 30,000 registered fans, sells more than 200 kinds of ants. They range from honeypot ants－a queen costs nearly 3,000 yuan－to Messor cephalotes, where a group consisting of a queen and three to five worker ants costs 2,000 yuan.
"Owning ants is still a new thing in the exotic pets market. I was among the first group of ant lovers that emerged about 10 years ago. Back then, the group only had a few hundred members, but now, the number is estimated to be 100,000," said Yang Yu, 35, Ant Farm's owner.
A colony of ants usually costs about 10,000 yuan, much less than a single rare tortoise, according to Yang. Some ordinary species, such as bullet ants or the Bornean queenless ant, cost just a few hundred yuan for a small group, meaning they are popular with younger collectors.
Yang said raising ants is a good option for quiet people. He said owners have a lot of fun observing the highly organized insects working collaboratively, and it is considered a tremendous achievement if the group produces the next generation in captivity.
He has established two online ant chat groups, each of which has nearly 2,000 members. Many are high school students, who are still beginners in the field, while others are senior players, though still age 40 or younger.
"They share common ground－a strong interest in ants and great curiosity about the small underground kingdom. Most of them are their family's only child and they want a pet for companionship," he said.
"Thanks to increasing social tolerance, you will not be seen as a geek for raising an exotic pet. On the contrary, it has become a cool thing that has attracted more people."
Given the rising popularity of exotic pets, experts are urging owners to conduct research on animals before buying them. Many have warned that some exotic pets may pose health risks because they can carry bacteria and parasites linked to infectious diseases. For example, some reptiles can transmit salmonellosis, whose symptoms include diarrhea, fever, abdominal cramps and vomiting.
"The old, young and people with weakened immune systems are more likely to develop severe illnesses. In some serious cases, people can die from the infection," said Zou Qiangjun from the Beijing Aquatic Wild Animals Rescue and Care Center.
He said that in recent years, the center has received reports of pets, including snapping turtles and giant salamanders, being bred in captivity and then abandoned.
In 2012 and 2015, the center rescued two 1-meter-long Siamese crocodiles that had been abandoned in a river and on a golf course. When experts examined the crocodiles, they discovered that the reptiles had been bred in captivity.
According to a report by World Animal Protection, nearly 50 percent of first-time buyers "hardly take any time" to learn about their animals.
"They lack enough knowledge and preparation to raise wild species at home. Some young wildlife might be cute and suitable for keeping at home, but things may go beyond people's expectations," Zou said.
"Wild animals belong in the wild. The best thing we can do for them is to respect their original conditions and leave them in the wild."
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