New study reveals levels of illegal trade in USA and EU markets for a sample of wildlife species

Photo: tagging American alligator skins/US Fish and Wildlife Service, Office of Law Enforcement

A new paper published this week finds that border seizures of animal material added an average of almost 30% and 10% to US and EU reported legal trade levels, respectively, across the sample studied.

The study, published in Conservation Letters, compares seizures of animal products with legal wildlife trade volumes over time for various animals and products including live pythons, corals, and American black bear claws. These seizures can be used as a ‘minimum estimate’ of the level of illegal trade in some threatened wildlife species. 

In some cases, illegal seizures made up a significant proportion of the overall trade, for example the shells of Maxima clams (Tridacna maxima) and leather products and items made from Indian Cobras (Naja naja). 

The COVID-19 pandemic has increased debate about the future of wildlife trade at both global and local levels, renewing calls for trade to be legal, sustainable, and managed to mitigate against disease risk. 

In this context, the implications of this research for effective trade regulation are particularly important.

The findings demonstrate why governments should consider seizure data – where possible - when deciding whether and at what volumes the international wildlife trade is sustainable, to ensure that it does not negatively impact species in the wild.

The research used a sample of 28 CITES-listed products imported into the USA from the 1980s to 2014, and 20 products imported into the EU from 2005 and 2014. While the relationship between levels of legal trade and seizures over time varied substantially between species and destination markets, there was an overall significant positive relationship between seizures and legal trade volumes into the USA.

This emphasises the need for improved collation and sharing of seizure data as part of wider efforts to ensure sustainability in wildlife trade. 

Kelly Malsch, Head of Species Programme, UN Environment Programme World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC), says: “The COVID-19 crisis has made clear that we need to rebalance the relationship between people and nature. Ensuring a legal, sustainable, and safe wildlife trade that does not increase risk of zoonotic diseases is a crucial part of that process. This research shows the complexity of the international wildlife trade, the need to strengthen trade monitoring data, and the importance of considering the totality of trade activities in policy and regulatory responses.” 

The paper was authored by researchers from the Department of Biology, Dalhousie University; UNEP-WCMC; TRAFFIC; the US Fish & Wildlife Service Office of Law Enforcement; Fauna & Flora International; the UN Environment Programme (UNEP); the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, Massachusetts Institute of Technology; and CMEC, University of Copenhagen. The research was funded by UNEP.

‘Evaluating the relationships between the legal and illegal international wildlife trades’ can be accessed here.

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