World Animal Day: Shocking Statistics Show the State of Global Wildlife Trade

Researchers have released shocking statistics which highlight the huge scale of the global wildlife trade in time for World Animal Day—an international day of action to raise awareness for animal rights and welfare.

One study published in the journal Science found that at least one in five vertebrate species—animals with a backbone—are bought and sold on the wildlife market.

A team of researchers, led by Brett Scheffers from the University of Florida and Brunno Oliveira from Auburn University at Montgomery, suggest that this is between 40 and 60 percent higher than previous estimates.

"This is a shockingly high number of species that are commercially valued," David Edwards, another author of the study from the University of Sheffield in the U.K., told Newsweek.

The wildlife trade is a multi-billion dollar industry which involves wild animals being captured or intensively farmed to be sold as exotic pets, or slaughtered to be turned into various products, such as meat, traditional medicines and furniture.

Scientists know that this trade poses a severe threat to the planet's wildlife, however, much less is known about its scale and the exact implications for global biodiversity.

To try and shine a light on this issue, the team examined nearly 32,000 bird, mammal, amphibian and reptile species using data from the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES) and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List.

They found that 5,579 of the species studied—18 percent of the total—are currently being traded internationally. The authors note that the trade has a particularly large impact on certain groups—such as birds and mammals—as well as threatened species. Furthermore, its impacts are felt more severely in some parts of the world over others.

"Our study shows that sheer magnitude of the global wildlife trade," Scheffers told Newsweek. "Approximately one in five species are traded as pets and/or products. Importantly, the trade tends to be concentrated in the biologically diverse tropical regions of the world."

"Trade is uniquely different from other human disturbances in that it is governed by supply and demand economics and so there is a market force that is intensively focused on individual species. As a result, species that were once safe just 10-15 years ago are now critically endangered," he said. "The issue is that we did not know who was being traded or where the epicenters of trade occur and that is what our study accomplished."

Using a specially developed model, the researchers also predicted that more than 3,000 of the species they studied which are not currently traded could be at risk in future, due to their similarities with animals already involved in the market.

"We hope that our identification of so many traded species will further raise the profile of this critical conservation issue," Edwards said. "Our list of species at risk of future trade can support a more proactive than reactive approach to dealing with wildlife trade, with more rapid acknowledgement of the arrival of species in trade, including via targeted searches on online sales platforms."

The team also suggest that nearly 9,000 species could be at risk of extinction soon, highlighting the need for conservation strategies to tackle the impact of the global trade.

"Action need to be taken at on the supply and demand sides, as well as via enhanced monitoring of trade," Edwards said. "On the supply side, we need to support poor local people engaging in wildlife collection to develop alternative economic opportunities and we need to better enforcement targeting middle men who are illegally trading wildlife."

"On the demand side, we need to make people more aware of the fact that they are purchasing wild caught products and pets, and that there are potential risks to the long-term conservation of such species," he said.

In addition to the worrying findings published in the Science paper, another study conducted by experts from non-profit World Animal Protection has revealed the scale of the global animal trade with regard to ten African animal species which are being particularly badly affected.

The report reveals that between these ten species alone, 2.7 million animals were legally traded between 2011 and 2015. Most are being captured from the wild and bred in commercial farms to be traded for their skin and to be sold as pets.

The report splits these animals up into the "Big Five" and the "Little Five." The former are the Nile crocodile, the cape fur seal, Hartmann's mountain zebra, the African elephant and the common hippopotamus.

The latter are the ball python, the African grey parrot, the emperor scorpion, the leopard tortoise and the savannah monitor lizard.

The report highlights the immense suffering that these species are forced to endure, ranging from the initial traumatic capture, cramped export conditions, poor conditions in captivity, poor treatment when sold as exotic pets, and slaughter.

Below are some of the key observations detailed in the report. It is important to note that this is all happening legally:

  • Nile crocodiles are intensively farmed so that they can be slaughtered and skinned for their leather. Between 2011 and 2015, more than 189,000 skins were exported around the world annually, on average.
  • Every year, Cape fur seals are subjected to a horrific hunting tradition in Namibia. "Thousands of pups are rounded up and clubbed and suffocated to death. Adult seals are shot or clubbed, and sometimes even skinned alive, due to demand for wild fur in fashion accessories."
  • Elephants are killed in the wild for their ivory and skin, which are used for jackets and car interiors, among other applications. When poachers shoot these animals, a humane death isn't guaranteed due to their large size. Bullets that miss their intended target often result in a prolonged and agonizing death.

"When people hear of Africa's famous 'Big 5' and 'Little 5' they probably think of the iconic wild animals tourists hope to see on a wildlife safari. But after reading this report, I hope they'll remember a different 'Big' 5' and 'Little 5'—those African wild animals that are being greedily exploited the most by consumers around the world," Neil D'Cruze, Head of Wildlife Research and Animal Welfare at World Animal Protection, said in a statement.

"Trading animals in this way may be legal, but it doesn't make it right. These are wild animals—not factory-produced goods. This cruel industry hurts wild animals and can damage Africa's biodiversity with devastating long-term impacts on livelihoods and economies too," he said. "How did we get to the point where animals are exported and greedily exploited for our personal pleasure? Does the life of an animal mean nothing at all?"

This article was updated to include additional comments from Brett Scheffers and David Edwards.

Nile crocodiles
Nile Crocodiles, Grumeti River, Tanzania, East Africa. Tim Graham/Getty Images

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