Wildlife trade threatening unprotected animals

A lizard sitting on a stick

Have you ever wanted a two-toed sloth for a pet? How about a Chinese water dragon? Well, if you live in the United States you might just have a chance of snagging one of these exotic species. New research from the University of Adelaide’s Invasion Science and Wildlife Ecology Group shows that three times as many of these unregulated species are being imported into the US compared to regulated species.

“The international wildlife trade is currently one of the leading threats to global biodiversity conservation and environmental security,” says Ms Freyja Watters, who is a PhD candidate in the School of Biological Sciences.

The international wildlife trade is regulated by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). It’s a large organisation with many participating countries, and it provides a regulatory framework that ensures wildlife trade is sustainable, traceable, and most importantly: legal.

But the problem is, CITES only covers 10.5% of all described “terrestrial vertebrates”, and when a country tracks wildlife being imported or exported, they usually only record and monitor those animals that are covered by CITES. This could mean that the authorities have no way of knowing how many potentially endangered animals are being imported, and no way of protecting these vulnerable creatures if they’re being imported unsustainably.

So, what about the other 89.5% of our terrestrial vertebrates? Ms Watters has aimed to answer this exact question, using a decade of importation data on wild animals entering the United States.

“Using this data, we found that 3.6 times the number of unregulated species were being imported into the U.S. compared with CITES-listed species (1,366 versus 378 species),” Ms Watters explains.

“Of those 1,366 species of amphibians, birds, mammals and reptiles that aren’t covered by CITES, there were species at risk of extinction such as the golden gecko (Gekko badenii) and Chinese water dragon (Physignathus cocincinus), or species with small and fragmented geographic ranges like Helens flying tree frog (Rhacophorus helenae) and the Chapa Bug-eyed frog (Theloderma bicolor).”

Dr Phill Cassey, co-author of the study and also from the University of Adelaide’s School of Biological Sciences, explains why this kind of investigation is so important.

“No systematic alert or standard procedure exists to identify when a species may require CITES listing and it is only after the documentation of major declines in wild populations or large volumes of illegal trade seizures that many species are identified as at risk from trade,” he says.

What’s next?

In their paper recently published in Conservation Biology, Ms Watters and the team highlight that since affluent countries like the United States have the highest demand for these exotic species, they should take the lead in the funding and implementation of better systems to manage international wildlife trade. The important analysis conducted by Ms Watters draws attention to this specific issue, and ensures that governments may more easily be able to identify species that are at risk of exploitation, and ensure that they adopt new policies to track and protect these animals.

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