Wildlife trade is on the rise

Posted: 23 June 2003

Author: Amy Wagener and Curtis Runyan

Wildlife trade - both legal and illegal - is big business around the world. And it is growing. While estimates vary, the numbers show that trade in wildlife and wildlife products (excluding timber and fish harvesting) has grown from around $3 or $4 billion annually in the late 1980s to at least $10 billion in 2001, according to the wildlife trade watchdog group, TRAFFIC. Estimates place illegal trade at $5 to $8 billion annually.

The sources of traded species vary widely. Many live animals are captured in their native habitats and sold as pets or for research, or are killed and their parts sold for medicines, food, clothing, or other accessories. A number of animals sold on the international market, such as primates and lizards, are primarily bred and raised in captivity. Wild plants are commonly traded for use in botanical and pharmaceutical medicines. The value of medicinal plant exports in 1995 from approximately 100 countries was $880 million, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).parrotsUS official checking a shipment of parrots into the country.© US Fish and Wildlife Service/John and Karen Hollingsworth"Although habitat destruction and fragmentation are the biggest threats to biodiversity on a global scale, trade in wildlife and wildlife products also seriously harms many individual species," said Steve Cox, director of the World Resources Institute's Biological Resources Program. More than 350 million plants and animals are traded each year, some of them rare and endangered species. There have been a number of recent efforts to crack down on trade of protected species. In early June 2003, U.S. government officials turned back nine shipments of endangered mahogany from Brazil, after concluding that the wood may have been illegally harvested.

Protecting species

Concern over the wildlife trade - both legal and illegal - spurred the 1973 signing of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). The 154 nations that have signed the CITES treaty have agreed to regulate the trade of about 30,000 species threatened with or facing extinction (currently about 5,000 animal species and 25,000 plant species). Of these, trade is strictly regulated for more than 800 species "threatened with extinction." Trade in the other 29,000 species listed by CITES species is limited to prevent them from becoming threatened.

As the nature-based tourism industry continues to grow, CITES has become an important conservation tool for protecting valuable resources in a number of countries. For example, the UK-based Environmental Investigation Agency estimates that in Kenya a single elephant generates $1 million in tourist revenue over its lifetime.

"Despite its significant successes, the treaty is not without shortcomings," said Steve Cox. Nonparticipating nations cannot be held to the trade rules. And a number of countries have used a loophole in the treaty to declare "reservations" that allow them to continue trading individual species - even those listed as endangered. (There are currently 97 species listed as threatened or endangered for which one or more countries hold reservations.)

Illegal fishing

In addition, legal trade in species can cause problems when trade volumes begin to exceed reproduction rates. For example, high demand for caviar has driven up sturgeon prices and promoted overfishing as legal and illegal trade have flourished. In the Caspian Sea, where most sturgeon are fished, the amount of fish caught per year fell from 20,000 tons in the late 1970s to 1,000 tons in the late 1990s.

For a number of species, monitoring trade is now essential to survival. With adequate warning that a population's reproductive capacities are dipping in the wild, countries can opt to regulate trade volumes, or launch or increase complementary captive breeding or cultivation programs.

For seriously endangered and highly valued species like tigers, rhinoceros, and Asian bears, illegal trade has become the largest threat to survival, according to Craig Hoover, deputy director of TRAFFIC. Outlaw traders can earn more than $8,000 for a Hyacinth macaw from the Amazon, and $10,000 for an Australian palm cockatoo.

Medicinal demand

Many illegally traded species have body parts that are prized for traditional Asian medicines. A bear gall bladder, which is said to have medicinal properties, can sell for as much as $15,000. Likewise, a tiger can earn a poacher more than $5,000.

CITES trade data has helped highlight locations where plants or animals are under the greatest pressure from legal and illegal trade. Knowing these pressure points helps focus efforts to stop illegal trade, monitor potential damage from legal trade, and research efficient conservation and protection methods.

Trade bans may seem an obvious way to protect species, but there is the danger that a ban could make the species more valuable and appealing to poachers. The more endangered an animal or plant becomes, the higher its black market price, and the more poaching and illegal trade occur.

But for some species, bans have proven effective. In 1992, the United States - one of the biggest importers of parrots for pets - enacted national legislation (the Wild Bird Conservation Act) which banned imports of all wild-caught threatened parrots listed in CITES. As a result, parrot imports into the United States fell dramatically.

Similarly, a 1989 worldwide ban on ivory trade nearly eliminated elephant poaching and brought a sharp decline in the price of ivory worldwide. The price of an average 8 kg elephant tusk fell from about $3,800 before the ivory ban to just $35, according to the Environmental Investigation Agency. In Tanzania, for example, 10,000 elephants were killed per year prior to the ban, but afterward poachers killed fewer than 100 annually.

Amy Wagener is a former research analyst for World Resources Institute(WRI). This article is based on her original article, which appears in WRI's Earth Trends-the Environmental Portal. Curtis Runyan is the managing editor of WRI Features, a monthly international news features service on environment and development issues.© WRI Features. Reproduced with kind permission.Related links:World Resources InstituteTRAFFIC