05 June 2020

The Wildlife Trade

Attempted smuggling of king cobra
snakes in potato chip canisters

(from www.reuters.com/news).
Customs agents at John F. Kennedy Airport arrested a man who hid 70 live finches inside hair rollers he had brought from Guyana. A Los Angeles man was arrested after federal prosecutors said he arranged to smuggle three live, highly venomous king cobra snakes into the U.S. hidden in potato chip canisters. Police investigators in Indonesia arrested individuals from a wildlife trafficking syndicate who were attempting to smuggle out three orangutan babies. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service confiscated tarantulas a German national shipped by mail into the U.S...
Attempted smuggling of baby
orangutans in Indonesia

(from www.reuters.com/news).

Were these souvenirs, isolated incidents, a small group out to make a buck? Not even close.

Welcome back. Legally and illegally taking and selling living or dead plants and animals and products derived therefrom is a multibillion-dollar business. In 2007, the U.S. State Department estimated that wildlife trafficking was the third-largest type of illegal trade, after drugs and weapons, at about $10 billion a year. Given that illegal wildlife trade is often connected with organized crime and terrorist organizations, it’s probable the dollar value has increased significantly.

Another economic factor is that the wildlife trade can be the cause of global health issues with disease outbreaks causing losses of hundreds of billions of dollars. It’s estimated that nearly 75% of emerging diseases that reach humans come from animals (e.g., SARS, avian flu, monkeypox, Ebola and likely Covid-19).

And finally, from an environmental standpoint, the illegal wildlife trade threatens thousands of wildlife species and is a major threat to biodiversity. Certain animals and plants are in higher demand, leading to a decline of those species in their native habitats, possibly introducing invasive and harmful species and pushing endangered indigenous species toward extinction. For example, the dramatic rise in poaching to supply the demand for their horns has rhinoceros species on the brink of extinction.

Analysis of Traded Species
I was drawn to the subject of wildlife trade by a recently published study from researchers with Finland’s University of Helsinki and the National Research Council of Italy.

In an effort to better address the diversity of traded organisms, the researchers analyzed data available in the database of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which has more than 1,400 government and civil society member organizations and input from more than 15,000 experts.

The IUCN’s Red List of Threatened Species evaluates the extinction risk of thousands of species and subspecies and is the most comprehensive inventory of the global conservation status of biological species.

The researchers analyzed IUCN’s Red List data from phyla or divisions with more than 10 assessed species, quantifying the number of species categorized as critically endangered, endangered, vulnerable, near threatened, least concern and data deficient.

Percentages of traded threatened species in IUCN (from www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0006320720300677?via%3Dihub).
Vertebrate Bias
The analysis found that, with 15,374 species, vertebrates (Chordata) are the most traded organisms. The group with the least traded species, only 12, is Basidiomycota (fungi), yet several divisions of Fungi are absent in IUCN, preventing any inference about their significance in global trade.

Although a huge fraction of legally and illegally traded wildlife involves invertebrates and plants, most analyses of global wildlife trade have focused on a small selection of charismatic vertebrate species. This bias prevents the development of comprehensive conservation strategies.

Wrap Up
Much of the wildlife trade is illegal, making it difficult to obtain reliable data. Further, for some organisms, such as invertebrates, the numbers of traded taxa in available databases are a gross underestimation, being
biased toward vertebrate species. 

The researchers recognize that their analysis, however detailed, is far from drawing a comprehensive picture about wildlife trade and its biological conservation consequences. They emphasize the importance of filling the knowledge gaps about non-vertebrate life forms to achieve an in-depth understanding of global trading patterns across the full canopy of the Tree of Life.

Thanks for stopping by.

Attempted smuggling in Australia of 51 tropical
fish in water-filled bags hidden in specially
designed apron under a woman’s skirt

(from www.reuters.com/news).
Wildlife trade background:
Study of wildlife trade species in Biological Conservation journal: www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0006320720300677?via%3Dihub
Article on study on EurekAlert! website: eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2020-05/uoh-twt052520.php
International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN): www.iucn.org/

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