Besides being a major threat to biodiversity, the wildlife trade can be a cause of global public health issues and hundreds of billions of dollars of economic damage around the world from disease outbreaks, as might be the case for COVID-19. Despite its major ecological and socio-economic importance, no comprehensive analysis has been made of the global patterns of the wildlife trade.
"The illegal wildlife trade often has connections with organised crime. Criminal groups involved in drug trafficking, fraud and other illegal businesses are also active in the wildlife trade along routes used for other types of illicit products, and can combine this with different illegal activities, such as trafficking animals and drugs," points out Caroline Fukushima (pictured left), researcher at the Finnish Museum of Natural History (Luomus), University of Helsinki.
Based on such concerns, a group of researchers sought to describe the importance of all major groups of organisms in the global wildlife trade and called for more research on neglected groups. The collaborative team included Pedro Cardoso, Curator at the Finnish Museum of Natural History, University of Helsinki, Finland; Dr. Stefano Mammola, Researcher at the Molecular Ecology Group (MEG), IRSA-Water Research Institute, National Research Council, Verbania Pallanza, Italy; and, Dr Caroline Fukushima, Postdoc researcher at The Finnish Museum of Natural History - University of Helsinki, Finland.
"To us, it is evident that the phenomenon of the global wildlife trade is much more complex and widespread than previously acknowledged," says Stefano Mammola, researcher at the Italian National Research Council, as well as one of the authors. "Even though the wildlife trade permeates all branches of the tree of life - from fungi to plants, from small marine species to big terrestrial mammals - more attention is given to the trade of a small selection of charismatic species, preventing the development of comprehensive and effective conservation strategies."
Even the smallest, apparently insignificant organisms are traded
The research group found that trade is common among many different organisms, from mushrooms to large vertebrates. Sea cucumbers, anemones and corals in particular have extremely large proportions of threatened species being traded worldwide.
Additionally, when considering legal wildlife commerce on the global scale, the timber trade is the most relevant in monetary value, and plants emerged as the most traded group in sheer numbers of individuals.
"More or less, the general public are aware of wildlife trade regarding vertebrates. We constantly see news about seizures of elephant tusks, about birds being smuggled or even about legal trade of fishes, for example. But invertebrate and plant trade, legal or illegal, get a way less attention from the public, policy makers and enforcement officers, as well as receive less financial support to be studied, analysed and curberd when necessary," said Fukushima.
"Among other reasons, arthropods can be traded as pets. There is a large pet market for insects, spiders and scorpions in the UK, for example. Many species are traded illegally and it is likely the commerce is threatening natural populations of those animals."
Cardoso explained; "The reason for trading these small creatures can vary: molluscs, for example, are traded to be used in medicine, as religious symbols, ornaments and souvenirs. Who has never seen a beautiful big shell being sold in a market when on vacations at some beach place?"
"We are far from understanding the local and global patterns and drivers of wildlife trade of plants, fungi and invertebrates because there are still huge gaps in the knowledge about the diversity, distribution patterns and ecology of such groups."
Extensive data is needed on the trade and its consequences
Due to the obvious illegality of much of wildlife trafficking, it is difficult to obtain systematic and reliable data. For some groups such as invertebrates, the species listed in CITES or the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species are just the tip of the iceberg. The numbers of traded taxa in such databases are a gross underestimation of what is actually traded, as most species have never even been assessed for their relevance in the trade business.
"We are facing a biodiversity crisis. We need to be fast and effective in filling our gaps in knowledge, especially about non-vertebrate species. In this way, we can achieve a deep understanding of global trading patterns across the full canopy of the tree of life, and not just its most appealing twig," said Cardoso.
The future challenge for conservation biologists is now to map global trade across all living beings, know what drives such trade and find ways to fight traffic that might put both wildlife species and human health in danger. A major consequence of the widespread trade are disease outbreaks, as might be the case for the possible origin of COVID-19 from wildlife markets. It is urgent to take these matters seriously, as their consequences reach far beyond wildlife species survival.
The original paper, ‘Global wildlife trade permeates the Tree of Life’ was published in Biological Conservation and is freely available.
How you can help fight illegal wildlife trade
- Do your research and check the origin of wildlife products that you want to buy.
- Don’t buy illegal exotic pets and get informed about the related legislation.
- Report to the administrators of social media about illegal wildlife commerce on that platform.
- Don’t share or like posts with wild animals treated as pets or as humans (wearing clothes, for example), performing for entertainment, or serving as tourist attractions.
- Don’t buy live animals and plants, or souvenirs that contain parts of wildlife when travelling. More information
- Don’t take pictures with wild animals displayed at local markets and don’t support businesses where they are unethically exploited.
- Don’t use traditional medicinal products containing ingredients illegally or unsustainably obtained from endangered species.
- Support NGOs and groups that combat wildlife trafficking (TRAFFIC, ACCOand many others).
- Switch off geolocation apps before taking photos of indigenous wildlife in situ.
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CITES – The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora is an international agreement between governments to ensure that the international trade of specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival.
IUCN Red List of Threatened Species – The most frequently used global database for species conservation analyses. It lists threatened and non-threatened species according to what threatens them, including legal and illegal trade.