In the market for wildlife

Exotic animals are being sold not far from the international conference on endangered species in Bangkok

As the 16th CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) Conference of the Parties gets underway in Bangkok, delegates might want to think about taking a couple of hours to visit the world’s biggest weekend market at Jatujak. It’s only a few spots on the Skytrain from the venue, after all.

Sprawling over 35 acres, Jatujak attracts hordes of tourists. They come for the shopping: row after row and stall after stall of clothing, bags, cutlery, bed sheets, lampshades.

Whatever Thais can make, Jatujak sells. But the delegates shouldn’t waste time here. Instead, they should push their way through the crowds to Zone D of the area known as Jatujak Plaza.

Here there are fewer people and every piece of merchandise is unique. Buy one and you’ll never find another like it.

This is the area for pets and exotic species and it seems whatever there is in the world, Jatujak sells it.

There are thousands of dogs, cats, rabbits, mice and guinea pigs. Their scent hangs in the humid air, mixing with the smell of cooking from neighbouring food stalls and the acrid stench of sweat.

Exotic species

But Jatujak doesn’t confine itself to the everyday.

Here too, for those who care to look, are the some of the world’s more exotic species: animals and reptiles that are listed on the CITES Convention.

It didn’t take long to find a star tortoise, listed under Appendix II, which allows the sale of only captive-bred animals.

The helpful, if reticent, assistant told me it came from India but couldn’t say under what conditions or whether I’d need a permit to take it back home with me. He pointed out some leopard tortoises beneath.

“From Africa,” he said, rather proudly. Another species that is under Appendix II. He could sell one to me for 12,000 baht (US $403) but, again, couldn’t advise how I’d get it home or whether I’d need a permit. His tone was apologetic more than evasive.

Others were less accommodating. One shop offered a variety of species from snakes to chameleons and what looked like tamarins, shooed me out as I slid back the door to go inside.

The “NO PHOTOS” and “NO VIDEOS” signs pasted on the windows clearly meant what they said.

The bird-seller told me a bird he was pulling roughly out of a box was a pheasant and quickly got back to checking his stock.

I tried not to look at the mangy peacock struggling to maintain his dignity in a far too small cage and wondered what else was hidden inside the old beer boxes studded with makeshift breathing holes.

The hedgehog and squirrel woman didn’t seem to care much, nor the traders offering sugar gliders, a species native to Indonesia about which TRAFFIC has already raised concerns, for 1,200 baht ($40), or those selling North American prairie dogs.

I was told that the Thai authorities would probably close down the animal market for the duration of the CITES conference.

Certainly, there were many shops shuttered. As indeed was the Wildlife Department’s anti-wildlife trafficking booth a dog-eared poster for CITES posted in the dusty window and the doors chained shut with a padlock.

The market will, no doubt, be open for business next weekend. It would be an ideal opportunity for the CITES delegates to take some time out from talking about the trade in the world’s fauna and flora to see how it’s complicated system of permits works on the ground, and just how the pet trade can be exploited to help fuel the illegal trafficking of some of the world’s most treasured species.

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