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October 13, 2021 – Plants, animals, fungi, microorganisms, and products derived from them are traded all around the world for various purposes such as provision of food, medicine, ornament, fashion, and furniture. They can also be traded live as pets, research or for exhibitions in zoos, aquaria and botanical gardens.

Wildlife can also play different social and economic roles for local communities, be harvested, and consumed locally, or be passed along a complex multinational trade chain.

Pygmy slow Loris (Nycticebus pygmaeus) (Vietnam), a small mammal threatened by the illegal or unsustainable wildlife trade. Photo: Chien Lee.

“When people think about wildlife trade, they may think about ivory smuggling or the commerce in wild pets. But wildlife trade is more present in our daily lives than people imagine. For example, the timber that was used to make the table where your family has dinner may be a product of the wildlife trade,” says Caroline Fukushima, researcher at the Finnish Museum of Natural History (Luomus), University of Helsinki.

The trade affects also other species, including us

Wildlife trade can be legal, illegal, or unregulated, sustainable, or unsustainable.

“However, people need to be aware that legally trade does not necessarily mean ‘sustainably produced or traded’. Illegal or unsustainable wildlife trade (IUWT) represents one of the five major drivers of biodiversity loss and extinction at global scales”, Fukushima says.

Besides the target species themselves, IUWT often also affects species with which they interact in their native or introduced range. Ultimately, the illegal and unsustainable wildlife trade affects the ecosystem services on which other species, including our own, depend. Often other species are in fact the main losers in the process, even if these go largely unnoticed.

“Invasive alien species, zoonotic diseases, connection with corruption and crime networks, negative repercussions on the local and global economy, and promotion of social, economic, and environmental injustice, are some of the many negative consequences of wildlife trade that is not well managed and regulated,” says Pedro Cardoso, also from Luomus, one of the researchers leading the publications.

Cooperation is urgently needed

An international group of conservation biologists, activists, enforcers, practitioners, and other actors have built on the manifesto “World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity”, issued by the Alliance of World Scientists. The group wants to review illegal and unsustainable wildlife trade and alert us on how it can negatively impact our own well-being.

The group discusses the challenges faced when tackling illegal and unsustainable wildlife trade and propose some actions to overcome them. They also highlight the urgent need for more cooperation between actors and disciplines to curb its negative consequences.

“Understanding the cultural roots and drivers of wildlife consumption and taking into account its cultural and social nuances are essential to develop conservation strategies that are more likely to succeed,” says Caroline Fukushima.

The authors point out that it is still necessary to measure the scope, scale, and impact of wildlife trade on all of biodiversity. Strategies to curb IUWT depend on accurate and reliable knowledge about biodiversity, generated by scientists and other experts including citizen scientists and conservationists working along local communities with international and local NGO (non-governmental organizations).

Curbing illegal and unsustainable wildlife trade needs the engagement of different disciplines such as sociology, economy, criminology, social marketing, and computer science. Its human dimension needs to be considered in all phases of conservation action.

There are already many technologies and tools available for analyzing, tracing, monitoring, and curbing unsustainable and illegal wildlife trade. However, its rise shows that only law enforcement is not enough to stop such activity. Education is the key factor to change consumer’s behavior. Everyone should engage in fighting unsustainable or illegal wildlife trade.

What are the risks of illegal or unsustainable wildlife trade (IUWT)?

  • It is one of the major drivers of extinction.
  • Species loss may cause a cascade of effects on other dependent species and their ecosystems.
  • It facilitates invasions by species from other regions, and the diseases they may carry.  
  • IUWT, including illegal logging, affects climate regulation, pollination of crops, and other ecosystem services. 
  • It supplies live animal markets, facilitating outbreaks of zoonotic and vector-borne diseases that can lead to global pandemics.  
  • Criminal networks are deeply involved in wildlife trafficking, which also fuels corruption in range, transit and consumer states.
  • It can impact the economies of local communities that depend upon wildlife or on the ecosystem services wildlife provides.
  • IUWT and associated criminal activities, including tax evasion and money laundering, can affect the global economy.

What should we do to reduce or eliminate illegal or unsustainable wildlife trade?

As a conservationist, a policy maker, or an enforcement officer:

  • Ensure sustainability of the trade.
  • Understand the cultural and social aspects of the demand for wildlife, and design nuanced strategies to curb IUWT.
  • Listen to, engage with and facilitate leadership by local communities that depend on wildlife trade.
  •  Ask for better regulation and surveillance of online wildlife commerce.
  •  Ensure that the legislation of your country protects wildlife from IUWT.
  • Support scientific research and use it as the framework of conservation actions and policies.
  • Make technologies and other resources to curb illegal wildlife trade accessible to all.
  • Create an international network of professionals with expertise in related fields including biology, forensics, and trade regulation.

As a consumer:

  • Choose sustainably sourced, legally obtained products and promote initiatives designed to ensure that trade is sustainable.
  • Demand political will and funding for initiatives that can curb IUWT.
  • Raise awareness about IUWT and reduce or change wildlife consumption habits that harm biodiversity.
  • Don’t buy illegal/unsustainable wildlife or its products, be it in markets, touristic centers, online, elsewhere.
  • Think twice before liking or sharing social media posts depicting unnatural human-wildlife interactions.
  • Don’t support tourist attractions or volunteer opportunities that offer human-wildlife interactions.

About the authors

Caroline Sayuri Fukushima 

Caroline is a postdoc researcher at Finnish Museum of Natural History at the Laboratory for Integrative Biodiversity Research. She has been working with evolution, taxonomy, natural history, and behavior of arachnids since she was an undergrad student. All the experience obtained during years working with those amazing but unfairly feared animals is being used to understand the drivers of the legal and illegal trade of live tarantulas and scorpions and its impact on wild populations, aiming to propose effective ways to protect them.

Pedro Cardoso

Curator at the Finnish Museum of Natural History, docent in Ecology at the University of Helsinki. Cardoso works in global conservation science, as well as in policy and the development of new computational methods to track species extinctions. With a predilection for spiders, he quickly realized that global solutions are needed for all of biodiversity, including the small creatures that truly make the world work. He is leading the Laboratory for Integrative Biodiversity Research, which includes a team of 20 researchers who work in subjects as varied as conservation biology, biogeography and biodiversity informatics.

JOURNAL ARTICLE: Biological Conservation: Scientists’ warning to humanity on illegal or unsustainable wildlife trade; DOI 10.1016/j.biocon.2021.109341

Other authors:

Patricia Tricorache, Natural Resource Ecology Laboratory (NREL), Colorado State University, USA. orcID: 0000-0003-1493-1028

Adam Toomes, Invasion Science & Wildlife Ecology Lab, University of Adelaide, Australia. orcID: 0000-0003-4845-1073

Oliver C. Stringham, School of Mathematical Sciences, University of Adelaide, Australia. orcID: 0000-0002-4224-7090

Emmanuel Rivera-Téllez, National Commission of Use and Knowledge of Biodiversity (CONABIO), Mexico. orcID: 0000-0001-6340-8001

William J. Ripple, Department of Forest Ecosystems and Society, Oregon State University, USA.

Gretchen Peters, Center on Illicit Networks and Transnational Organized Crime (CINTOC), Washington, DC, USA.

Ronald I. Orenstein, wildlife conservationist from Ontario, Canada. orcID: 0000-0002-1194-3835

Carlos A. Martínez-Muñoz, Zoological Museum, Biodiversity Unit. University of Turku, Finland.

Thais Q. Morcatty, Oxford Wildlife Trade Research Group, Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, UK. orcID: 0000-0002-3095-7052

Stuart J. Longhorn, Arachnology Research Association, Birmingham, UK. orcID: 0000-0002-1819-3010

Chien Lee, Institute of Biodiversity and Environmental Conservation, Universiti Malaysia Sarawak, Malaysia. orcID: 0000-0001-9578-2305

Sabrina Kumschick, Stellenbosch University and Kirstenbosch Research Centre, South Africa. orcID: 0000-0001-8034-5831

Marco Antonio de Freitas, Instituto Chico Mendes de Conservação da Biodiversidade (ICMBio), Brazil.

Rosaleen V. Duffy, Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Sheffield, UK. orcID: 0000-0002-6779-7240

Alisa Davies, World Parrot Trust, Hayle, Cornwall, UK.

Hubert Cheung, University of Queensland, Australia, and Atlas Conservation Initiative, Toronto, Canada. orcID: 0000-0002-5918-9907

Susan M. Cheyne, Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, UK. orcID:  0000-0002-9180-3356

Jamie Bouhuys, from the Netherlands.

João P. Barreiros, Centre for Ecology, Evolution and Environmental Changes (cE3c), Azores University, Portugal. orcID: 0000-0003-4531-6685

Kofi Amponsah-Mensah, Centre for Biodiversity Conservation Research, University of Ghana, Ghana. orcID: 0000-0002-8625-1681