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Wealth inequality fuels flow of wildlife from poor countries to rich, says new analysis

The US, France, and Italy are the largest importers, while Indonesia, Jamaica and Honduras are the biggest wildlife exporters, according to a new study of legal trade data from a global wildlife treaty.

Toxic Bubble Bounce Mushrooms or Green Iguana Disco Mushrooms may sound like psychedelic drugs, but they are, in fact, names of live corals available for sale online. These brilliantly colored corals from the tropical waters of Indonesia and small Pacific islands like Fiji and Tonga adorn aquariums across the US

Most live corals sold in the international market end up in the US The country is, in fact, the largest importer of wildlife by far, a paper published in Science Advances found. France comes in a distant second, followed by Italy.

Indonesia, Jamaica and Honduras are the biggest exporters of wildlife.

The possible link between Covid-19 and the wildlife trade has focused attention on both illegal and legal markets for wild animals.  One of the most comprehensive data sets on the legal trade comes from CITES, the global convention governing the wildlife trade.

What was clear from the 21-year data set: richer countries are the biggest destinations for wildlife, which, more often than not, originates from poorer countries. “We expected wealthier countries to be central to CITES regulated trade, what caught us off guard was how much more important they were,” said Jia Huan Liew, first author of the study and researcher at the University of Hong Kong.

One reason for the pattern is simple: people in richer countries can pay more for the wildlife.

When the inequality between countries was higher, the volume of trade was larger. 

Jia Huan Liew, researcher, University of Hong Kong

Digging deeper, the researchers found it isn’t just that wildlife products mostly flow from developing to developed countries, but that wealth inequalities drive the trade. “When the inequality between countries was higher, the volume of trade was larger,” Liew said.

The study considered 12 widely traded groups: mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, insects, amphibians, anthozoans (which include corals), sharks and rays, arachnids, bivalves (which include oysters), hydrozoans (which include jellyfish), and snails.

More than 4 million individuals from these groups were traded across international borders between 1998 and 2018. The number is only an estimate owing to record-keeping discrepancies. For example, in some cases, information provided by importing and exporting countries about transactions does not match.

“This is an excellent use of wildlife trade data, and I am especially impressed by the large number of explanatory variables the authors looked at to explain the patterns they observed,” said Vincent Nijman, an anthropologist at Oxford Brookes University in the UK.

The transactions are legal, but this is no guarantee that the trade is not harming wild populations. The authors say it would be a good thing to reduce wildlife trade, even the legal trade.

Some groups, especially animal welfare groups, go even further, calling for an end to commercial trade in wildlife. Objections about the commodification of sentient beings and the inhumane way they are stored and transported apart, these campaigners say unsanitary conditions promote the emergence of diseases.

However, the risk of zoonotic diseases is not a consideration under CITES. The central aim of the treaty is to ensure that trade does not threaten the survival of a species or impair its ecological function. The strength of trade restrictions depends on the severity of threats.

Appendix I species are at risk of going extinct, so no commercial trade is allowed. Appendix II species are not necessarily facing extinction, but unregulated trade can still be detrimental to them, so export permits are issued under CITES. There are about 35,000 species under its purview, with most falling under Appendix II.

To allow trade, CITES requires exporting countries to conduct detailed assessments showing that trade would not harm wild populations; in CITES jargon, these are called “non-detriment” findings.

Keeping tabs on the legal trade and fulfilling the requirements under CITES is not easy. Producing non-detriment findings is not a one-time affair; populations must be monitored regularly. Many countries don’t have the resources to do this, and at times do not prioritise such research.

The nebulous nature of the global market for wildlife products has complicated efforts to regulate it. Even disentangling the illegal and legal trades is not easy, especially when source countries have weak regulatory structures and monitoring capacity.

CITES tracks trade in captive-bred specimens as well. But only transactions in wild-caught animals were considered in the study because of the potential they could lead to biodiversity loss.

Corals are increasingly harvested in coral farms and also supply this market. However, despite this, the demand for wild corals has not diminished. The researchers say this is a worrying trend seen across animal groups. There appears to be a seemingly unquenchable appetite for wild animals and plants.

About 65 per cent of the US demand for live corals is met through imports.

Indonesia, the largest supplier of corals, passed a blanket export ban in 2018 over threats to the health of its coral reefs. It lifted the ban two years later. Fiji attempted to curb the trade with an embargo in 2017 but withdrew it only months later after vigorous lobbying by the industry.

The authors say it’s unrealistic to expect reductions just by telling exporting countries to curtail supply. Instead of any comprehensive effort to stem the flow of wildlife into global markets, what exists today is an assortment of conservation programmes that attempt to make wildlife extraction less lucrative.

It would be better to systematically finance alternatives for those engaged in the wildlife trade, especially among communities that capture or collect the wildlife, the study authors say. They recommend an overarching program like REDD+ that exists for carbon credits, where richer countries that purchase carbon credits finance programmes that keep trees standing in developing countries.

Demand reduction should be an equal priority, they add.

Not everybody is convinced that the way to preserve biodiversity is to focus on the legal trade. “The illegal trade in wildlife in violation of CITES provisions or other national and international legislation is something that deserves greater attention, but unfortunately the authors included very little of that in their analyses and instead focused on legal reported trade,” said Jonathan Kolby, former CITES specialist with the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Kolby is now an independent consultant who has also consulted for the CITES Secretariat.

Others point out that CITES is imperfect, even the legal trade has many loopholes and the requirements for legal trade are not being met.

If, for example, Indonesia exports 1,000 different species, it needs to create an inventory and assess the status of all those species, Nijman pointed out. “That is not happening. If 1,000 species are being exported, it may be happening for 10,” he said.

Liew and his colleagues say it’s unfair for the burden of proving that the trade would be sustainable to lie with exporting countries, many of which are poor. The EU has already taken the lead in sharing the responsibility by commissioning research about the sustainability of its imports. Others, like the US, do not currently do that.

It is important to consider that CITES is also, in some ways, a trade treaty, where money is being made all along the supply chain. Kolby pointed out that the legal trade in sustainably harvested wildlife is also beneficial for poorer exporting countries, where it provides opportunities for locals and income for traders and intermediaries.

CITES is currently underfunded, Nijman said, and all countries, rich and poor, should contribute far more than they currently are to ensure it is effective.

This story was published with permission from Mongabay.com.

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