June 12, 2024

More than 4,000 species around the world are being targeted by wildlife traffickers, causing “untold harm upon nature”, a UN report has warned.

Wildlife crime is driven by demand for medicine, pets, bushmeat, ornamental plants and trophies. Out of all the mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians seized, 40% were on the red list of threatened or near-threatened species, the report found.

The trade is active in more than 80% of countries, with seizures representing a small fraction of overall crime, according to the report from 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 looked at more than 140,000 wildlife seizures that took place between 2015 and 2021. They examined the impacts, trends and drivers of the trade. Corals, large reptiles such as crocodiles and elephants were involved in the largest number of individual seizures.

Wildlife crime appears to have been a driving factor in local and global extinctions of species such as rare orchids, succulent plants, reptiles and fish, the report says, and yet some species that are the worst-affected receive little public attention.

Body parts or bones of animals such as pangolins, seahorses and big cats are often dried and used in medicine. Parrots and iguanas are sought after as pets, and orchids as ornamental plants.

About 16,000 tonnes of goods were seized. “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 research has found that certain populations of spider monkeys and Baird’s tapir have declined by 99.9% owing to the illegal wildlife trade. Local disappearances could lead to global extinctions, researchers warn.

Much wildlife crime is linked to large organised crime groups. Corruption plays a critical role in undermining efforts to stop wildlife trafficking, from bribes paid to inspectors, to government officials allowing fake permits, the report says.

Seizures were made 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.”

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The number of seizures has been increasing over the past two decades, but declined in 2020 and 2021, possibly due to a range of factors, including the Covid-19 pandemic, less enforcement, a genuine reduction in trafficking, or shifts in the way the illegal trade was happening (such as moving to digital platforms) that made it harder to detect.

Some estimates suggest the illegal wildlife trade could be worth as much as $23bn (£18bn) a year, with more than 100 million plants and animals trafficked annually. A study published in 2019 found 24% of the world’s known land-based vertebrates were included in the wildlife trade.

The UNODC aims to end trafficking of protected species as part of the UN sustainable development goals. The data examined gives “no reason for confidence” that this target will be met by 2030, the report says.

Better enforcement is needed to tackle supply and demand, as well as better implementation of existing legislation, and more monitoring and research, the report says. Waly said: “To address this crime, we must match the adaptability and agility of the illegal wildlife trade.”

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