More than 900 at-risk animal and plant species not covered by global trade protections, new research shows

Wednesday 12th Jul 2023, 12.56pm

A green bird with a black bib on its throat perches on a branch. The Greater Green Leaf Bird, a species likely threatened by international trade but not included in trade protections. Image credit: Shutterstock.

Overexploitation is a major threat to vulnerable animal and plant species, and one of the key drivers of biodiversity loss. Consequently, the recent UN-brokered deal for nature – the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework – included international pledges to ensure that the harvest, use, and trade in wild species is sustainable. With the Framework now in place, a team of researchers set out to identify potential gaps in international trade protections for the world’s biodiversity.

The study, published in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution, was conducted by a team of ecologists and wildlife trade experts at the University of Oxford, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the UN Environment Programme World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC) and the Zoological Society of London (ZSL).

The researchers used the IUCN’s Red List of Threatened Species – the most authoritative global source on at-risk animals and plants – to identify species likely threatened by international trade. They then compared these findings with the species of animals and plants included in the international wildlife trade protections set by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). Around 40,000 species are currently included in the CITES Appendices.

In total, the results identified 2,211 species that are likely to be threatened by international trade. Of these, 904 are not included in current CITES protections. These include hundreds of fish and flowering plants, besides many species of birds, reptiles and amphibians.

A pangolin – a long slender mammal covered in scales – clings to the bars of a cage.Pangolins were among the species identified as likely threatened by international trade, despite being included in current trade protections. Image credit: Shutterstock.

Of the 904 animal and plant species, 370 are classed as Endangered or Critically Endangered. These include 31 species of shark and ray traded for their meat and fins, as well as 23 species of palm heavily traded for horticulture. The list also includes the Endangered Owston’s Civet – which is snared for wild meat and traditional medicine – and the Endangered Greater Green Leafbird – which is caught for the songbird trade.

The analysis also identified 1,307 species that are likely to be threatened by international trade, despite being included within current CITES protections. This indicates that these species may require increased scrutiny to determine whether there are sustainability issues that may merit tighter controls through CITES provisions, as well as other measures. These species include 671 that are facing an extremely or very high risk of extinction, such as pangolins, the European eel, and various orchids.

International wildlife trade protections set by CITIES are periodically decided by signatory countries – termed “Parties to the Convention.” To date, there has been no robust, repeatable methodology to inform this listing process. The researchers are now calling for their findings and methodology to be used to inform Parties about species that may merit consideration for potential listing proposals at future CITES meetings.

Importantly, the results are also not limited to identifying species in need of greater trade regulation. Equally, they can inform the relaxation of trade controls for species that have improved in status and can potentially be traded sustainably.

A headshot photograph of Dr Dan Challender.Dr Dan Challender.

Dr Dan Challender, from the University of Oxford’s Department of Biology and lead author of the study, said: ‘CITES listings should respond to the best available information on a species’ status and be adopted where they will be likely to benefit the species. While our research shows CITES performs moderately well at identifying species in need of trade regulation, it also suggests that hundreds of species are overlooked.’

‘Cross-referencing data from the Red List with CITES listing information brings these potential protection gaps to light, and I hope that Parties to the Convention will use our methodology to inform their decisions in the run-up to and during the next CITES Conference of Parties, currently scheduled to take place in 2025.’

Kelly Malsch, UNEP-WCMC’s Head of Nature Conserved and study co-author, said: ‘To achieve the aims of both CITES and the new Global Biodiversity Framework on tackling nature loss, it is vital that the international trade in animal and plant species is both sustainable and does not threaten the survival of the species in the wild.’

‘Our work identifies hundreds of species – including 370 Critically Endangered and Endangered species – in need of protections, and we also know data gaps mean the true figure could be much higher. We hope that CITES Parties will be able to use our new methodology in future to ensure that CITES listings are based on the best available science.’

The study ‘Identifying species likely threatened by international trade on the IUCN Red List can inform CITES trade measures’ has been published in Nature Ecology & Evolution.