illegal wildlife trade


A UN report has revealed that over 4,000 species are being targeted by wildlife traffickers, causing “untold harm upon nature”.

The illicit trade in wildlife is driven by the demand for medicine, pets, bushmeat, ornamental plants, and trophies. The report highlights that 40% of seized mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians were on the red list of threatened or near-threatened species.

The trade spans more than 80% of countries, with seizures representing only a small fraction of the total crime, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

It states: “Despite gaps in knowledge about the full extent of wildlife trafficking and associated crime, there is sufficient evidence to conclude that this remains a significant global problem far from being resolved.”

Researchers analysed over 140,000 wildlife seizures from 2015 to 2021, examining the impacts, trends, and drivers of this trade. The largest number of individual seizures involved corals, large reptiles such as crocodiles, and elephants.

Wildlife crime has contributed to local and global extinctions of species like rare orchids, succulent plants, reptiles, and fish. Despite this, some of the most affected species receive little public attention. Animal parts, such as pangolin scales, seahorses, and big cat bones, are often used in traditional medicine. Parrots and iguanas are popular as pets, while orchids are sought after as ornamental plants.

Around 16,000 tonnes of goods were seized during this period. “Actual wildlife trafficking levels are of course far greater than the recorded seizures,” researchers say in the report.

“Wildlife crime inflicts untold harm upon nature, and it also jeopardises livelihoods, public health, good governance and our planet’s ability to fight climate change,” said Ghada Waly, the executive director of the UNODC.

Previous studies have shown drastic declines in populations of species like spider monkeys and Baird’s tapir, primarily due to illegal wildlife trade, with some populations decreasing by 99.9%. The report warns that local disappearances could lead to global extinctions.

Wildlife crime is frequently linked to organised crime groups, with corruption undermining efforts to combat trafficking. Bribes to inspectors and government officials enabling fake permits are common issues.

Seizures occurred in 162 countries. The report states: “An absence of seizures of a particular commodity or at a certain location could reflect lack of enforcement, rather than evidence that illegal trade was not taking place.”

The number of incidents has been increasing over the past two decades but declining in 2020 and 2021. This decline could be attributed to factors such as the Covid-19 pandemic, reduced enforcement, a genuine reduction in trafficking, or shifts to digital platforms that complicate detection.

Estimates suggest the illegal wildlife trade could be worth up to $23 billion annually, with over 100 million plants and animals trafficked each year. A 2019 study found that 24% of the world’s known land-based vertebrates are involved in the wildlife trade. The UNODC aims to end the trafficking of protected species as part of the UN sustainable development goals.

However, the report indicates that achieving this target by 2030 seems unlikely without improved enforcement, better implementation of existing legislation, and increased monitoring and research.

Waly said: “To address this crime, we must match the adaptability and agility of the illegal wildlife trade.”



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