WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE - More Than a Quarter of Nicaraguan Households Keep Wildlife as Pets, but Now the Country Is Cracking Down

By Hendrix, Steve | International Wildlife, September-October 2000 | Go to article overview

WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE - More Than a Quarter of Nicaraguan Households Keep Wildlife as Pets, but Now the Country Is Cracking Down


Hendrix, Steve, International Wildlife


Tereza Zuniga picks her way across the drifts of litter that line the alleys of a cramped Nicaraguan market-moldering banks of cast-off orange peels, chicken feathers and cookie wrappers that add a pungent edge to the tropical air. She keeps her eyes sharp for pickpockets as she works her way deeper into the noisy labyrinth of vendors. In a doorway, three young boys stare out with vacant eyes, inhaling deeply from glass jars filled with glue or gasoline. You can buy almost anything in Managua's Mercado Oriental.

That's why Zuniga is here.

After a dozen dizzying turns past stalls crammed with fruit, meat, shoes and screws, Zuniga hears a sharp animal screech above the babble of buying and selling. "This way," she says, making a sudden left. And there they are, row after row of cages, walls of them, stacked in columns or hanging from rusty wires. Inside are flashes of green and scarlet and gold impossibly brilliant in the dingy shade of the high tin roof. This is Nicaragua's main wildlife market, the epicenter of arguably the most robust wild pet trade in Central America.

Like other people across Central America, Nicaraguans love pets-not just cats and dogs, but truly wild animals plucked straight from the surrounding jungle. It's a phenomenon driven partly by ancient custom, partly by a modern wildlife trade-both legal and illegal-that encourages local trappers to take animals from the wild for sale around the world.

Recent research confirms the wild pet problem throughout the region. More than a quarter of households in Costa Rica, for example, were found to keep captured wildlife as pets-from macaws to monkeys to jaguars.

Experts agree that poorer countries such as Nicaragua and Honduras have even higher levels of pet ownership, as does southern Mexico. But Nicaragua is leading the way in cracking down. After decades of relaxed attitudes toward selling endangered animals, the government promises that now it is the pet trade itself that is about to become extinct.

Zuniga, a wildlife biologist working with the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources, is part of that new effort. She and her husband, biologist Ramiro Perez, recently conducted the first in-depth study of Nicaragua's wild parrot trade. She has spent hours in the Mercado Oriental, wheedling information from wary sellers. What she finds stuffed into its pens and cages, or tethered nearby, is a fair representation of Nicaragua's jungle wildlife: scores of parrots and parakeets, pacas, an ocelot cub, deer yearlings, a spider monkey.

Other animals-the most coveted, the most endangered-are available even if undisplayed. Ask Jorge, a wildlife dealer who won't give his last name, about procuring a jaguar cub, and he promises he can have one delivered to your house or hotel within a few days. No tapirs today, but they're coming. A great green macaw-one of Nicara-gua's most endangered birds-can be had for $50 to $150. "You can get any kind of animal here," says Zuniga. "There's a very well-established network that starts with poor rural people capturing the animals and a series of middlemen transporting them across the country to be sold here."

And business is booming. Walk through Managua's neighborhoods-from the gritty ghettos around the airport to the lush enclaves above Lake Managua where affluent homes peak from behind high walls-and it sounds like a rain forest at dawn. The city is filled with the chuckle of parrots, the shrieks of toucans and monkeys, even the occasional low growl of a puma.

"You could conduct a census of the macaw population in Nicaragua just by strolling through town and counting the calls," jokes Juan Carlos Martinez, head of Fundaci-n Cocibolca, one of the country's few environmental groups, and part of a small group of activists working to change Nicaragua's wild pet tradition. "At this rate, in a few years we won't have any macaws left in the wild. …

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