By Hilary Feldman
The word “farm” typically conjures up a rather conventional image – maybe a red barn, some moo cows and baa sheep, that sort of thing. Of course, it is completely dependent on exposure, so that rural inhabitants have an experienced and accurate picture of their local farms. Then there are farms where only crops are grown, tree farms, or other variations.
One type of farm that may be surprising is a wildlife farm. This is a place dedicated to raising normally wild animals. For example, a bison farm may focus on bison herds to provide increasingly popular buffalo meat. Or a llama farm might raise these animals as pets, beasts of burden, or fur providers.
In Southeast Asia, wildlife farms have been established in the past 20-25 years. Commercial operations, these farms raise rare species often designated as threatened under international trade conventions. Ranging from snakes, turtles, and crocodiles, to monkeys and other large animals, the farms provide meat and other highly sought commodities. One argument is that captive-bred animals can relieve the pressure to hunt or poach wild animals. This view sees such farms acting as sources of wildlife products without impacting free-living populations.
However, the opposite effect may be true. By feeding the demand for such products, wildlife farms may fuel the market and actually lead to increased hunting of wild animals. A recent study coordinated by the Wildlife Conservation Society and the Vietnamese government found that commercial farms were actively contributing to population declines. Almost 50 percent of the farms continued to capture wild animals to replenish captive groups.
In addition, farmers were involved in illegal trade in listed species. Once supply and demand relationships were established, financial incentives were hard to resist. And farmers were already inured to conservation concerns through daily contact with these animals. This raises the issue of animal welfare, since captive conditions are pretty minimal and impoverished.
Then there is the problem of unintentional escapes. One in five farms had experienced the escape of dangerous animals, hybridized animals, and non-native species. These unplanned introductions pose a threat to local residents and native species alike.
The findings across all areas of Vietnam can probably be extended to other Southeast Asian countries, where similar challenges and incentives are faced. Instead of contributing necessary protein for local communities, these farms are actually supplying the international trade in illegal wildlife products. This problem has been brewing for years.
The WCS report recommends careful monitoring of farmed species so that rare and protected animals are not raised in captivity. In addition, there should be clear documentation of all animals and a system for oversight. It is unclear how feasible this will be. After all, many wildlife farms are remote and regular checks may be impractical. Hopefully, the findings will spur action. And if you are planning a trip somewhere exotic, remember that many wildlife products marked as “farmed” are still not legal for trade or import – nor are they a guarantee of intact wild populations.