"Its a hobby people fall in love with," says Harald Endig, stroking his pet, a a three-meter, 17-year-old python. "Its great just to look after the animals and watch them." It's also a pastime that requires a strong stomach: In Endig's case, looking after his pet involves feeding it a rabbit every eight weeks.
Despite the unusual feeding requirements, Endig's passion is shared by thousands. A dog may still be man's best friend, but for many pet lovers such everyday companions are passé -- fashionable pet owners in Europe are now opting for tarantula spiders, scorpions, snakes and rare lizards instead.
Endig, who has been keeping reptiles for 30 years, opened a store selling exotic animals in Berlin six months ago. "Ive had customers who donated blood for cash just to be able to afford a bigger terrarium for their corn snakes, he says, speaking in his shop where he is surrounded by rows of elaborate glass cases filled with staring lizards, chomping tortoises and snoozing snakes.
Plastic boxes of live petfood in the form of nervous-looking locusts and large creepy-crawlies are neatly stored next to the cash till in the well-appointed store, which is maintained at near-tropical temperatures to keep the animals comfortable.
Endig says 99 percent of the animals in his store were bred in captivity. Many of them are protected species that have to be registered with the local environment authority by the people who buy them. He insists that he takes a good look at buyers and makes sure they know how to care for their pets, especially if they're buying a dangerous one.
But not all animal dealers are so conscientious. The problem is that most reptiles are bought anonymously via the Internet and at exotic animal fairs. Many of the animals on sale have been caught in the wild and imported, wildlife conservation experts say. Illegal smuggling of endangered species has soared, pushing them closer to extinction, and many buyers aren't able to care for animals that need special attention.
Experts aren't sure why the trade in exotic pets has been growing so rapidly in recent years. It may be due to rising incomes, increasing leisure time, the growth in travel -- or simply because it's become fashionable to own a bearded dragon rather than a cocker spaniel.
"It's trendy," says Roland Melisch, head of Species Conservation at the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in Germany. "If you're a hip young person, you want to own a reptile." And the challenges of keeping such unusual pets are part of the attraction for some people, he says: "Many pet owners are also technical nerds interested in building complex aquaria and terraria."
"Animals are being collected from the world's most remote regions," said Harald Martens, head of wildlife conservation at Germany's Federal Agency for Nature Conservation, explaining that the hobby is becoming a mass phenomenon. "One of the problems is that many owners quickly lose interest in these status symbols."
Such fickleness could explain the mysterious appearance of piranha fish in Germany's Erft river in recent years. The razor-toothed meat-eaters from the Amazon were probably thrown in the river by an owner who grew tired of them. They survived because the Erft, a short tributary of the Rhine, is kept unusually warm by the inflow of warm waste water from a nearby lignite mining works, environmentalists say.
While much of the trade is legal, some of it breaches international wildlife conservation laws. In 2005 alone, customs officers at Frankfurt airport made 20,000 seizures of protected animals and plants and products made from them. The market is reducing the local population of rare animals and making them more vulnerable to extinction, environmentalists say.
Business is booming
It has also become a highly lucrative business. Martens told SPIEGEL ONLINE that the world market for exotic wildlife is worth billions of euros: "It's a boom business with a much bigger market share than 10 or 20 years ago."
Take the Lear's Macaw, for instance. There are only 150 pairs living in the wild, but the rare birds are fetching more than €30,000 on the black market, according to TRAFFIC, an international wildlife trade monitoring network. Even a relatively common boa or python can cost up to €2,000 in Europe.
The hunt for profitable pets has become so intense that some of the animals found, shipped and sold are unknown species, says Martens. A few years ago a type of monitor lizard that biologists had never seen or heard of turned up at the world's biggest reptile fair, Terraristika in Hamm, northwestern Germany, he said -- someone had plucked it from the Indonesian island of Obi.
So theoretically, it's possible that new species unknown to science are crawling around apartments in Dortmund, Lille or Birmingham.
One dealer, who declined to be named, said environment authorities don't have the manpower to adequately monitor the market in exotic animals in Germany, and that much of the stock imported by wholesalers is caught in the wild.
Profits are so high that smugglers are using the kind of ingenuity associated with drug trafficking -- except it's living creatures they have down their trousers rather than cocaine.
Common techniques include carrying parrot eggs in ones underpants, shoving iguanas and small birds in plastic tubes, or squashing poison dart frogs in plastic drinks bottles. In one case 375 little tortoises were found packed in a suitcase at Frankfurt airport.
The most recent available statistics for the European Union countries, from 2000 to 2002, show Germany topping the list of seizures, with almost 110,900 illegally traded animals, plants and products, followed by Italy with 51,500, the Czech Republic with 37,400 and Poland with 22,500, according to data from TRAFFIC. The organisation estimates that between 2000 and 2002 more than 1,000 heavily endangered Egyptian tortoises were smuggled to Poland and Malta.
And the true figures are believed to be much higher, says Melisch. "You get deliberate smuggling of eggs labelled as something else, or a box of snakes in which common approved ones are at the top and rare illegal ones at the bottom," he explains.
The WWF and TRAFFIC want tougher punishment of smugglers and more rigorous controls on imports and exports, for example by using more sniffer dogs. They also want buyers to be more aware of where their pets came from and whether they're endangered.
But supporters of exotic pets argue that the hobby has benefits too. Endig, fondly eyeing his python as it slithers across the carpet at the back of his store, says responsible reptile owners are helping to protect species that are threatened with extinction or have already died out in the wild.
Besides, he adds, keeping ordinary pets poses problems too: "The way many cats and dogs are kept in small apartments can be far more alarming."