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Why exotic animal trade grows in Asia

Rising wealth lifts demand for exotic pets and delicacies in Asia. Meanwhile, enforcers are stretched thin.

By Aidan JonesCorrespondent / January 28, 2012

A male Sumatran tiger was caught by villagers in October. Bima, as he’s called, growled inside his cage in Perawang, Indonesia, earlier this month. Tigers, along with elephants and orangutans, are mostly threatened by habitat loss on Sumatra island, but poaching is a major threat, too. Bima is to be released back into the wild in April.

Tatan Syuflana/AP

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Jakarta, Indonesia

On a traffic-snarled Jakarta roadside, a market trader thrusts out a forearm with a terrified looking primate clasping tightly to his skin.

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"You can have it for 300,000 rupiah [$30]," he says of the slow loris, a protected species whose sluggish movement makes it easy prey for poachers. The destruction of its habitat and its low reproduction rate are why the loris is classified as facing extinction under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, which bans their trade.

But here at the Jatinegara market, there is no attempt to conceal the sale of loris or many other endangered species. Orangutans, Sumatran tigers, and Javan eagles are just a few of the threatened species in Indonesia's animal markets.

It is a scenario that has been playing out across Southeast Asia for centuries, but with increased speed in the past decade, as a burgeoning class of wealthy Asians who cherish rare creatures as exotic pets, delicacies, or for supposed medicinal qualities fuel a booming and illegal trade.

The plunder – a small piece of the greater challenge of environmental conservation in Indonesia – is happening in conjunction with habitat depletion, and conservationists fear some species will soon disappear while new ones tumble onto the endangered list.

"Rare animals have become status symbols. They are trophies for people to demonstrate their wealth and the collateral damage of Asia's economic rise," says James Compton, senior director for Asia-Pacific at Traffic, a conservation group that monitors wildlife trade.

"We will see some local populations of endemic species disappear very quickly. Look at what happened to the tiger population over the past 100 years," he says.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations Wildlife Enforcement Network predicts that between 13 and 42 percent of the region's animal and plant species will be wiped out this century, mostly due to logging and loss of habitat.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organi­za­tion estimates that Indonesia loses 6.2 million acres of forest – equivalent to the size of Vermont – every year. By 2008, Indonesia had lost 72 percent of its ancient forests, and what remains is threatened by commercial logging, forest fires, and clearing for palm oil plantations, according to Green­peace.

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