Look beyond 'charismatic species' to fully tackle the wildlife trade, study finds

Researchers called for a ‘deep understanding of global trading patterns across the full canopy of the tree of life, and not just its most appealing twig’

Louise Boyle
New York
Tuesday 02 June 2020 02:08
Bottom trawling fishing method causes damage to marine life and environments

Tackling the multi-billion dollar global wildlife trade, which threatens nearly 9,000 species with extinction by one estimate, requires attention to the whole ”tree of life” and not just the ”charismatic” species, a new study has found.

Researchers from the University of Helsinki have called for tackling knowledge gaps across the web of biodiversity including fungi, plants and small marine life.

The scientists said that most analyses are biased towards vertebrates but that protecting biodiversity requires expanding focus beyond the big mammals which tend to garner the most attention.

The illegal wildlife trade is the world’s fourth largest criminal enterprise, worth an estimated $23bn (£18bn) annually. A large portion of the trade is in plants and invertebrates.

“Given that vertebrate taxa represent only 3 per cent of described species, this is a significant bias that prevents the development of comprehensive conservation strategies,” the scientists say.

The wildlife trade can lead to disease outbreaks such as we are experiencing with the coronavirus pandemic which has led to more than 371,000 deaths and 6m infections. The virus, which originated in Wuhan, China, late last year, has been linked to a wild animal market in the city but studies are not yet conclusive.

Plants and invertebrates make up a substantial amount of both legal and illegal trade but are often “overlooked and poorly documented”, according to the study.

Researchers noted that in recent seizures of protected fauna and flora across 109 countries by Interpol, the largest fraction of smuggled material was timber, the amount equivalent to 74 truckloads.

Based on data from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), vertebrates emerge as the most traded organisms, with 15,374 species listed under the category “Use and Trade”, the study notes, with more than half being fish. Amphibians and reptiles are most commonly traded as pets, and birds as both pets and products, while mammals are predominantly traded as products and fish as food for human consumption.

“Yet, given the predominance of vertebrates in the IUCN database, these results can be misleading,” the researchers wrote.

Several divisions of fungi are absent from IUCN databases and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) “preventing us to draw any inference about their significance in the global wildlife trade”, according to the study.

“When considering the identity and ratio of the traded/non-traded species based on IUCN assessments, eliminating such bias, it emerges that wildlife trading affects a large number of plants, fungi, most major invertebrate groups, and both terrestrial and aquatic vertebrates.”

For example, among cnidarians – a category of aquatic invertebrates - corals are the most traded group, used in their local environments for building materials and traded internationally as souvenirs, jewellery and for aquariums.

Sea urchins and sea cucumbers are under threat from commercial fishing and also from the emerging global trade in biomedical products. The most commonly collected seastar in the aquarium trade appears to be one called “Linckia laevigata”, taken from shallow waters in the tropical Indo-Pacific region. According to the Global Marine Aquarium Database, this species accounts for 3% of the total global trade in marine invertebrates.

The full study, titled “Global wildlife trade permeates the Tree of Life”, is published in next month’s volume of Biological Conservation.

“We emphasise the importance of being fast and effective in filling the knowledge gaps about non-vertebrate life forms, in order to achieve an in-depth understanding of global trading patterns across the full canopy of the Tree of Life, and not just its most appealing twig,” the researchers wrote.

The Independent is calling for an end to the high-risk sale and illegal trafficking of wildlife with our campaign, Stop The Wildlife Trade

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments