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Online trade and pet clubs fuel desire for little-known Javan ferret badgers

  • Researchers identified an increase in online sales of Javan ferret badgers, a small carnivore relatively unknown to the general public outside its native Indonesia.
  • Pet clubs and online forums are driving demand for small mammals such as ferret badgers, civets and otters.
  • Enforcement against the illegal wildlife trade online and in open-air markets in Indonesia remains lax.

The Javan ferret badger, a small nocturnal carnivore endemic to the islands of Java and Bali, is becoming an increasingly popular pet throughout Indonesia, where it continues to be found in illegal wildlife markets and, more recently, for sale online, according to a new study in the publication Endangered Species Research.

Little is known about the Javan ferret badger (Melogale orientalis), such as its primary diet or breeding behavior, although some scientists postulate it’s similar to the Bornean ferret badger (M. everetti), burrowing and eating eggs, carrion, invertebrates, small mammals and fruit when available.

“In captivity ferret badgers climb freely, but maybe they’re just bored. And in the wild, hardly anyone goes out by night and watches what these animals do,” said William Duckworth, who coordinates the Small Carnivores Specialist Group at the IUCN, the global conservation authority.

There are no documented population numbers for the species, and the IUCN lists the conservation status of the Javan ferret badgers as “least concern,” at the last assessment in 2015, before the pet trade was more thoroughly studied.

An image of a Javan ferret badger is captured by a camera trap in the wilds of Indonesia. Image courtesy of Dr. Anna Nekaris.

“Javan ferret badger range is far too big to come anywhere near even Near Threatened,” Duckworth wrote in an email. “And when we review and revise the species Red List account in the next two to three years, there presumably won’t be any strong data on population change. We will have to make a judgment call based on what the population rate of change probably is, even though it won’t be known. Because of the trade demand, it may well not be Least Concern at the next review.”

Unlike the other species of ferret badgers — Bornean, Chinese (M. moschata), Formosan (M. subaurantiaca), Vietnamese (M. cucphuongensis) and Burmese (M. personata) — Javan ferret badgers tend to live in secondary forests and landscapes changed by humans, including cropland.

The animal’s preference for anthropogenic landscapes may be one of the reasons it’s found more often in trade markets, said Anthony Giordano, executive director of SPECIES, a nonprofit research organization that frequently surveys Indonesia.

“It’s hard to say if [expanding human] settlement is causing more harm to ferret badgers,” he said, noting that coyote populations skyrocketed in the U.S. once human settlements took over natural habitat.

The study looked at how many instances a Javan ferret badger was for sale at illegal wildlife markets in the Indonesian provinces of Central Java, Yogyakarta, East Java and Bali from 2011 to early 2020, when the pandemic brought fieldwork to an end. Researchers documented 40 Javan ferret badgers for sale in the markets during that period. They also found 100 Javan ferret badgers on offer from online sellers based in Java, mostly on social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram, and Kaskus, the largest Indonesian online forum.

And most were relatively cheap, selling at an average of about $37 at the beginning of the study period, and ending at around $22 by 2020.

“The novelty of pet owning is unique in some respects, compared to surrounding countries,” Giordano said. He added that in Myanmar and Laos, most wildlife is traded in parts and skins, not kept alive for the pet trade. And a lot of the overseas wildlife trade is facilitated by organized crime, which isn’t necessarily the case in Indonesia.

Javan ferret badgers tend to live in secondary forests and landscapes changed by humans, including cropland. Image courtesy of Dr. Anna Nekaris.

Keeping wild animals has nonetheless become commonplace in Indonesia, which has a long cultural history of keeping, trading, and competing with songbirds. Pet clubs, where communities of wild animal owners meet in online forums and in real life at malls and other recreational areas, have increased dramatically in the past decade, particularly for civets and otters.

“Overall, it just continues to grow at a terrifying rate,” Chris Shepherd, a co-author of the study and executive director of the Monitor Conservation Research Society, a Canada-based nonprofit that researches illegal trade in lesser-known wildlife, said about the online trade and the proliferation of pet clubs.

The increase may be partly due to the convenience of social media networks. It’s easy to post a YouTube video showing off a newly acquired ferret badger or plan a meetup to parade and pass around a new purchase. Many Indonesians see owning wildlife as a status symbol.

Researchers are still unclear what many owners feed Javan ferret badgers in captivity and how they care for them. Shepherd called Javan ferret badgers, and many other animals in the open market trade, “cut flowers” — animals that may look fine and healthy in the market, but will most likely die within a short period of captivity.

Regardless of whether there’s a club or not, most cases of wildlife trade are illegal in Indonesia. For animals with protected status under Indonesian law, such as critically endangered orangutans, it’s illegal to trade live individuals; if a market in Jakarta was found to be openly selling an orangutan, it would most likely be shut down. Prosecution for orangutan pet owners is rare, however.

Tree shrews for sale in a market in Java. Keeping wild animals has become commonplace in Indonesia. Image by Animal People Forum via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).

Some species with non-protected status in Indonesia are under a quota system for trade, meaning a select number can be taken for trade, mostly for export, from the wild. Many species of frogs, turtles, snakes and fruit bats endemic to the archipelagic country fall into the quota category.

Lastly, there are the non-protected species with no quota for export. It’s technically illegal to trap and trade any non-protected wildlife; but enforcement is lax for this category, which includes Javan ferret badgers.

Shepherd said it’s up to Indonesian authorities to crack down on the illegal trade in wildlife markets, both open-air and online.

“The legislation and laws are on the books — it’s enforcement of the law that is essential,” he said. He added corruption plays a major part in why the markets aren’t shut down.

To get protected status for Javan ferret badgers, more research needs to be done. And while funding has increased across the board for wildlife surveys, Giordano said, with the underlying importance of biodiversity on the planet fueling more open pockets, lesser-known species such as the Javan ferret badger aren’t seeing studies solely dedicated to a broader understanding of the animal in its natural habitat.

The pandemic has also exacerbated the situation, with studies grounded but the online trade thriving.

“There are far more gaps in our knowledge in these species than actual facts,” Shepherd said. “It impedes protecting them. They could be closer to extinction than we know.”

Banner image: Camera trap image of a Javan ferret badger. Image courtesy of Dr. Anna Nekaris.

Citation:

Thomas, E. M., Nekaris, K. A., Imron, M. A., Cassey, P., Shepherd, C. R., & Nijman, V. (2021). Shifts of trade in Javan ferret badgers Melogale orientalis from wildlife markets to online platforms: Implications for conservation policy, human health and monitoring. Endangered Species Research46, 67-78. doi:10.3354/esr01142