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Leave iguanas in the jungle, expert says to Costa Ricans

SAN JOSE, Costa Rica -- Thousands of parrots, monkeys, iguanas, toucans, turtles and other rainforest animals are kept as exotic pets in Costa Rica, a practice putting some species at risk, according to experts.

The Central American country, famous for its rich biodiversity, won plaudits from conservationists two years ago for banning sport hunting in a pioneering move to protect wild animals.

But scientists and activists — gathered this week for the country's first-ever conference on the issue of captive wildlife — say tropical animals face another major threat in Costa Ricans' long-time love of exotic pets.

“There are no precise figures, but we know it's a problem of great magnitude, because a study by the environment ministry found that 25 percent of households have a parrot or a parakeet as a pet,” said Andrea Aguilar of the Instituto Asis, a key figure behind the conference.

That would add up to nearly 400,000 exotic birds in cages, she said.

Aguilar's institute runs a shelter for wild animals in La Fortuna de San Carlos, a lush region in northern Costa Rica that draws large numbers of foreign tourists with its famous wildlife and tropical vegetation.

The shelter takes in wild animals kept as pets that fall sick or are wounded by people, cars or electric shocks.

It gives them veterinary care and, when possible, prepares them for an eventual return to the wild.

“Costa Rican law forbids keeping wild species as pets, but the law isn't enough because there's a very deep-rooted custom. People don't realize that wild animals are not and cannot be pets,” Aguilar told AFP in an interview ahead of the First Congress on Wildlife Rescue, Recovery and Freedom in San Jose.

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A nurse from the Simon Bolivar Zoo's veterinary surgery gives a medicine to a squirrel, in San Jose on Thursday, Aug. 28. (AFP)

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