Mumbai: Sudip Guria chose a pair of pyrrhura conures—of the parrot family, but found typically in Central and South America—to be his first pets. That was in 2010. Since then, he has bought 30 different kinds of conures at 30,000-70,000 a pair.

“Birds help me unwind," says Guria, a senior manager at shipping agency Parekh Marine Agencies Pvt. Ltd. It also helps that conures are easy to manage, live long and bond easily with their owners. “We did not want big birds or other pets like dogs or cats as they are messy, need a lot of space and make a lot of noise," he says.

A growing number of Indians like Guria are graduating from keeping cats, dogs and goldfish as pets to owning macaws, cockatoos and a host of other exotic species bought at hefty price tags.

The growing demand for non-native animals and birds as pets has given rise to thriving businesses across the country—such as at Crawford Market in Mumbai, Russell Market in Bangalore and Mulki Bazaar in Hyderabad.

Abdul Wahab has a plush 2,000 sq ft. showroom named Wet Pets in the heart of Bangalore on Infantry Road. The third-generation breeder and trader says he gets 40-50 enquiries every day for exotic pets, translating into daily sales of 12-20 birds or animals.

The pricey exotic pets are more than mere companions, acting as status symbols for the owners.

“Everyone has dogs," says Shiv Visvanathan, sociologist and professor at OP Jindal Global University, Sonepat. “Keeping exotic pets is a sign of identification. It will create memories and is more upmarket."

Anant Ambani, son of India’s richest man Mukesh Ambani, owns exotic pets, according to a 2010 report on the website of the Dhirubhai Ambani International School promoted by his family. So does Jaidev Thackeray, son of former Shiv Sena party chief Bal Thackeray, says a November 2005 Hindustan Times report. Babul Supriyo, a playback singer in Bollywood, keeps African grey parrots and conures among other birds in his 19th floor apartment in Lokhandwala, a crowded Mumbai suburb. “In this concrete jungle, I used to miss the chirping of birds. (Raising birds) keeps me close to my own self and brings back the memories of childhood," says Supriyo, who grew up on the outskirts of Kolkata.

The bird trade

It is difficult to estimate the size of the market in India for exotic birds because of a thriving black market, which according to the Indian Bird Conservation Network (IBCN) involves more than 300 of the country’s estimated 1,200 species.

Ornithologist Abrar Ahmed, in a December 2011 report titled Illegal Bird Trade in India, estimates the domestic wild bird trade at 2.5 crore a year. This does not include the value of exotic birds smuggled into the country and the trade in domesticated exotic birds that’s not prohibited. It’s not an easy business, since traders often skirt the edges of the law and face the ire of environmentalists and animal lovers. Under the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act of 1972, it is illegal to capture and trade in at least 1,200 varieties of indigenous birds. The Act does not cover non-native birds.

“There is no law regulating/protecting non-native exotic species of birds and animals in India which are not listed in the Wildlife Protection Act or CITES," says Raj Panjwani, senior advocate in the Supreme Court.

CITES, or the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, is an agreement signed in 1973 by various governments to ensure that trade in animal or plant species does not threaten their survival. India is a signatory.

The treaty bans trading in certain species of birds. But “continuous large consignments of exotic birds are smuggled to India through Bangladesh, Nepal via Pakistan", IBCN says in a report. “These include CITES-listed species such as the sulphur-crested cockatoo, blue-and-gold macaw, African grey parrot, Amazon parrot, several species of lories and rosellas." Certain CITES-listed foreign exotic species can be legally imported into India with the permission of both governments, India and the originating country, says Panjwani. Foreign birds that do not feature on the list can be imported under the Indian Customs Act, and this trade is regulated by the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960.

It is also “legal to keep foreign (non-native) animals bred in India, i.e., those which are offspring of legally imported animals with proper documentation", says N.G. Jayasimha, a Hyderabad-based lawyer and director with Humane Society International, which works on animal protection issues. He, however, adds that in most cases, it is difficult to establish a paper trail on the origins of these pets.

Cruel intentions

A walk down Crawford market in Mumbai is like visiting a mini zoo with little money for upkeep. All the animals and birds on sale—including monkeys, guinea pigs, Amazon Eclectus parrots, lorikeets, sulphur-crested cockatoos and Malaysian turtles—are crammed into small cages. This when a pair of Eclectus can fetch at least 1.5 lakh.

The Bombay high court appointed a birds’ committee in 1997 to find ways of reducing such trade and rehabilitating the exotic birds and animals as the business became widespread as did cruelty to the birds and animals. However, after conducting a couple of raids in the early days, the committee became inactive as it didn’t have a facility to rehabilitate the rescued animals or birds.

“The legal as well as illegal trade has been continuing unabated, inflicting inhuman cruelty to these birds as the committee has become dormant," says Shankuntala Majumdar, convenor of the 1997 committee that was reconstituted in March 2012. This new committee has also not been successful as other departments haven’t extended their cooperation, she says.

In any case, rehabilitation efforts are difficult. In Maharashtra, there is only one wildlife rescue and rehabilitation centre for the entire state, says Jayasimha. “In Borivali, even these so-called man-eating leopards are dying in tiny cages. The zoo doesn’t have the infrastructure and (the) forest department doesn’t have the manpower bandwidth. What do you do with them?"

Pet economics

The cost of upkeep for exotic birds can run into thousands of rupees. Macaws, for instance, tend to feed on expensive hazelnuts, walnuts and macadamia nuts. Raising a pair of macaws can cost 5,000-7,000 a month, says Rajeev Chirimar, who runs a jute mill in Kolkata. Guria, the collector of conures, spends 8,000-9,000 a month on raising them. Not every bird owner can afford the cost or the time to maintain the birds.

“There is a very good demand for these birds", but more people are buying on impulse as a status symbol without knowing how to take care of them, says Debashish Banerjee, a bird enthusiast and breeder. Exotic birds such as macaws or hand-tamed parrots live for close to 50 years. They need two-three hours of attention each day from their owners or else they pluck their own feathers out due to neglect, says Chirimar.

“People don’t realize that buying a pet requires a lifestyle change," he adds.

This, say animal lovers and non-governmental organizations such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, leads to abuse, neglect and people abandoning their exotic pets.

Section 11 of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act makes confinement of any animal in a cage that does not provide the animal or bird reasonable opportunity of movement a punishable offence. But it is difficult to enforce such regulations, say legal experts.

“Unfortunately, people trying to keep up with the Joneses are buying these unsuitable animals as status symbols," says S. Chinny Krishna, vice-chairman of the Animal Welfare Board of India. It might be legal to keep dogs “like St Bernards or Siberian Huskies or Afghan Hounds…, but these are unsuitable in most places in India" because they can’t cope with the climate.