Roughly one of every five animals that walks the land or plies the skies is traded internationally, according to new research published today in the journal Science. The sobering report seeks to illuminate the diversity of the known global market and predict what creatures may fall victim to it in the future.
In recent years, demand for exotic pets, furs, jewelry, and body parts used for traditional medicine has posed a serious threat to animals, including the pangolin and the helmeted hornbill. Yet although trade can rapidly drive a species toward extinction, the report notes, shipping animals across the globe doesn’t always reduce their numbers to unsustainable levels.
By marrying information from various databases on the wildlife trade, study co-lead author Brett Scheffers and colleagues hope their findings will help policymakers consider what vertebrate species require further attention and conservation resources. (Surprisingly, the vast majority of animals in the wildlife trade aren’t protected.)
“We are revealing the sheer magnitude of what this multibillion-dollar industry represents,” says Scheffers, a University of Florida conservation biologist and a National Geographic Society grantee. “We looked at over 31,000 land-dwelling species and found it was quite striking that almost 20 percent of the species are traded—that is about 40 to 60 percent higher than we previously thought.”
What’s more, his team devised a computer model that seeks to predict the species that will become part of future trade based on several factors: their unique physical characteristics (such as extraordinary coloring), genetic relatedness to creatures that are already popularly traded, and body size—in the past, larger animals have been more likely to be traded because, typically, they have lucrative attributes such as large teeth and claws and substantial amounts of meat and skin. (Here’s why elephants without tusks are in danger.)
The researchers concluded that more than 8,000 wild species might eventually be included in the global wildlife trade market—3,000 more than are now. The new total would encompass almost 30 percent of all mammals, birds, amphibians, and reptiles. Birds, among them various finches and weavers, are poised to join the trade, according to the analysis. So are dozens of types of horseshoe bats (their noses look like horseshoes) and beaked toads.
“The takeaway is that there are a lot of species in trade or that will be in trade that need to be paid attention to,” says Susan Lieberman, vice president of international policy for the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society, who was not involved in the study. “It also highlights there needs to be more attention on amphibians and birds not currently listed in CITES,” she says, referring to the international treaty that regulates cross-border trade in wildlife. (Learn about eight key outcomes from the recent CITES meeting in Geneva.)
To tally up the species now being traded, Scheffers and his team incorporated the official, recorded data on wildlife flows routinely submitted by countries that are party to CITES, as well as trade figures from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), whose Red List states the conservation status of wild animals and plants and their most pressing threats.
Neither CITES nor the IUCN has information that makes for perfect data sets, conservationists note. CITES relies on each country’s reporting, which may not always be complete and relates only to species officially designated as already threatened by cross-border trade. Meanwhile, the IUCN Red List draws from existing sources, including peer-reviewed studies and the CITES trade figures. IUCN entries rarely include domestic trade information, nor do they specify if trade threats are from local trade or from cross-border trade, notes Vincent Nijman, an anthropology professor at Oxford Brookes University, in England, who specializes in studying the effects of human disturbances on animals.
What’s missing from the study?
The lack of data on the domestic wildlife trade in the CITES and IUCN databases means that this new study underestimates the sheer breadth of the wildlife trade, Nijman says.
The authors say they focused only on certain species for which robust, consistent data were available, so some popularly traded animals—including fish, turtles, and crocodiles—weren’t accounted for, further limiting the scope. “We do recognize that turtles—especially tortoises—are a heavily targeted reptile group in the wildlife trade,” Scheffers says. “Note however that [turtles and crocodiles] are only a fraction of the total reptile species richness, and so we feel that our study captured the extent of the trade of reptiles.”
The paper concentrates on identifying species in the wildlife trade as opposed to the volume of the trade. While providing interesting data, Lieberman says, that approach could also skew the picture. For example, although Indonesia is considered an epicenter for the bird trade, the authors write that they didn’t identify the country as a trading hot spot since it has a lower diversity of bird species relative to some other areas, even though its birds are traded in “very high abundance.”
According to Nijman, the new predictive model is useful as “an original study,” but it can’t account for all the factors that help shape global trade markets, such as speed and ease of transport. “Trade that in the past was logistically or perhaps economically not feasible, with better transport links will be,” he notes. Today, for example, if you want to transport wildlife from Africa to East Asia, there are two ways to do it: by air or sea. In future, he says, those networks will be denser, and, with the addition of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, railroad transport may be another option. “Those connections may open up possibilities,” Nijman says.
In the past, animal traffickers for the exotic pet trade have mined the academic literature for clues about species to target. Consequently, scientists nowadays are often cautious about publishing information, such as the location of a newly discovered animal or plant, that might be useful to poachers. Nijman says the Science paper’s details about the current trade of species are already accessible and familiar to those who closely track these things. And its predictions for the future are vague enough—encompassing thousands of species—that, as he puts it, “I don’t think this gives renewed insights to traders of what to target.”
Earlier this year, a UN report on extinction rates found that about one million species of animals and plants are in danger of dying out—many within decades—because of human activity. Among the pressing threats, the global wildlife trade is unique, Scheffers says.
“If you look at habitat loss, pollution, or climate change, they have a trickling effect on nature over time, but trade is governed by supply and demand. You might have had a species 10 years ago that was of little concern and off the radar, but now it is critically endangered and on the brink of extinction.”