‘Insignificant’ species threatened by extinction as illicit wildlife trade proliferates

To mark the International Day for Biodiversity, a new United Nations report highlights the importance of conserving less iconic species threatened by the illegal wildlife trade.

Frog friends
The lack of regulatory controls for trade in amphibians in Southeast Asia has led to population declines. Image: David Clode via Unsplash

The illegal wildlife trade threatens thousands of species, but some of those worst affected receive little public attention, finds the World Wildlife Crime Report 2024 by United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

To date, public and policy attention has focused mainly on a small minority of iconic species like elephants, tigers and rhinoceros.

“Charismatic megafauna” is a term used to describe large species, usually mammals, which garner widespread affection and serve as focal points to mobilise conservation efforts.

Yet, some of the clearest examples of conservation harm caused by wildlife crime receive comparatively little attention. The illegal collection of succulent plants and rare orchids, and the trafficking of a wide range of reptiles, fish, birds, and mammals appear to have played a major role in local and global extinctions, according to the report.

In Southeast Asia, the trade in amphibians is often overlooked. The region has a high diversity of amphibians, but most are neither nationally protected nor is the trade in these animals internationally regulated. The lack of regulatory controls has contributed to trade in unsustainably high volumes, and consequently resulted in population declines, according to a report by Traffic, a non-governmental organisation that tracks the wildlife trade.

Take for instance newts, which are partially terrestrial salamanders. The wildlife trade is the primary threat to all Southeast Asian newts. It was responsible for the population decline of the Lao Warty Newt (Laotriton laoensis), an endangered newt endemic to Laos. Besides its value as a pet, the Lao Warty Newt is also consumed locally as a delicacy and used globally in medicines to treat respiratory diseases and arthritis.

“Combating wildlife crime is crucial to ensure the survival of wild animal and plant species, not only for this generation but for future generations and the future of our biodiversity,” said Ivonne Higuero, secretary-general of the Secretariat on the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

Between 1970 to 2018, the relative abundance of global species has declined by 69 per cent.

The potential impact on biodiversity from the extinction of iconic species has been well-documented. It is harder to determine the impact on species which have not received sufficient conservation attention, since less is known about them.

“The full consequences and knock-on impacts of species loss are often never fully understood until it is too late. With less iconic species we stand a real chance of losing species before we even begin to understand their role in nature and any benefits that they could bring,” said Kanitha Krishnasamy, director for Traffic in Southeast Asia.

Not on track to meet SDGs by 2030

The world is not on track to end the trafficking of protected species of flora and fauna by 2030, which is Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 15.7, the World Wildlife Crime Report warned.

The report is the third iteration in the series and aims to identify the latest trends in the illegal wildlife trade.

Globally, intercepted illegal wildlife trade as a proportion of all wildlife traded increased from 2017 onwards, peaking during the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 and 2021.

During those two years, wildlife seizures accounted for 1.4 per cent to 1.9 per cent of the global wildlife trade, which exceeds the range of 0.5 per cent to 1.1 per cent recorded in the years prior.

The 2024 edition is also the first time UNODC has populated the indicator for target 15.7 under of the SDGs.

To meet target 15.7, the world needs to take urgent action to end the poaching and trafficking of flora and fauna, and address both demand and supply of illegal wildlife products.

“Seizures are clearly part of the solution, but alone, are not enough to resolve the problem,” said Angela Me, chief of the research and trends analysis branch at UNODC.

Me highlighted the importance of looking at various actors and driving forces, and undertaking different levels of intervention at the national, regional, and international scale to end the unsustainable wildlife trade.

Asia: a three-in-one hub

Asia lies at the heart of illicit wildlife trade, playing a crucial role as a source, transit, and destination region. Southeast Asia alone accounts for up to a quarter of the global demand for illegal wildlife products.

Much of the demand for wildlife products in Asia – and the rest of the world – falls into four categories: collectibles, pets, traditional medicine, and food.

Ivory horns, endangered birds, bear bile, and pangolins thus make their way into the regional black markets.

Wildlife trafficking rakes in up to US$20 billion a year, making it the most lucrative form of organised crime. Between 2015 and 2021, nearly 13 million individual wildlife specimens were seized, weighing close to 17,000 tonnes.

Asia’s rising affluence and connectedness to global consumer markets have spurred demand for illegal wildlife products. With growing purchasing power, consumers increasingly seek goods associated with luxury or rarity from worldwide sources.

“Because of its location, excellent infrastructure, and long history of trade with the rest of the world, it is a big transit hub for all commerce, including wild plants and animals from across the globe,” said Krishnasamy.

Freeports – ports exempt from customs duty – meant to streamline the movement of goods in the fastest and easiest manner have become a weak link in the chain that wildlife traffickers exploit. Simplified procedures, reduced inspection, and the large quantities of trans-shipped goods – that is, goods transferred from one vessel to another – that pass through each day create perfect conditions for traffickers to avoid detection.

In 2019, Singaporean authorities seized a record 12.9 tonnes of pangolin scales upon inspection of a shipment en route from Nigeria to Vietnam, which passed through Singapore’s ports. The seizure was worth about US$38.7 billion.

However, actual wildlife trafficking levels are usually far greater than recorded seizures.

Key challenges impeding efforts to curb the wildlife trade in Asia include weak legislation, poor enforcement, high levels of corruption, and low rates of conviction.

Apart from that, social attitudes towards the wildlife trade also influence demand. “We need to build a bigger constituency who believe strongly that buying and using illegal wildlife products is unacceptable, and that we must prioritise conservation efforts,” said John Baker, president of WildAid, a non-profit.

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