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From corals to crocodiles: Wildlife crime still a major threat, leading some species to extinction

An orangutan waits in a cage to be sent back to Indonesia following a sting operation against a suspected wildlife trafficking ring in Bangkok, Thailand, 12 November 2015.
An orangutan waits in a cage to be sent back to Indonesia following a sting operation against a suspected wildlife trafficking ring in Bangkok, Thailand, 12 November 2015. Copyright AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit, File
Copyright AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit, File
By Angela Symons
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Which species are worst affected by trafficking? This new UN report paints a bleak picture for wildlife.

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Despite efforts to curb wildlife trafficking worldwide over the past 20 years, more than 4,000 species are still affected, a new report reveals. The majority of them are endangered.

The World Wildlife Crime Report, released by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) today, says this inflicts “untold harm upon nature”, including driving some rare species to extinction.

The impact of wildlife crime stretches far beyond the direct threat to species, devastating delicate ecosystems, removing a key source of income for nature-dependent communities, and undermining the Earth’s capacity to mitigate climate change.

Greater efforts are needed to target the incentives driving organised crime groups to traffic wildlife, and to target corrupt officials who allow it to happen, the report says.

Which species are worst affected by trafficking?

The report analyses over 140,000 reports of wildlife seizures between 2015 and 2021 across more than 160 countries and territories. Corals represented the largest chunk of individual seizures (16 per cent), followed by crocodiles (9 per cent) and elephants (6 per cent).

Measures to reduce trafficking of iconic species like elephants and rhinos have been successful over the past decade, however. Poaching, seizure levels and market prices have steadily declined for both of these species.

This is thanks to efforts to curb both demand and supply, including high-profile policy attention, stricter market restrictions and the targeting of high-level traffickers by law enforcement. Cross-border cooperation and criminalisation of wildlife crime have also improved.

But not all species get the same attention. Of the 1,652 plant and animal species recorded in seizures, 40 per cent have been classified as threatened or near threatened on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List.

Some rare orchids, succulents, reptiles, fish, birds and mammals face the gravest threat - including one newly described species of orchid stripped from its habitat soon after discovery - but receive little public attention due to their obscurity.

Orchids are often sought as ornamental plants or their tubers may be used in food. Pangolins, seahorses and big cat bones, meanwhile, are typically trafficked for medicine.

The number of seizures has been rising over the past two decades, meaning progress to meet the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) target to end trafficking of protected species by 2030 is not on track.

This photo provided by Interpol shows a seized live pangolin on 20 October 2023 in Mozambique.
This photo provided by Interpol shows a seized live pangolin on 20 October 2023 in Mozambique.Interpol via AP

How can we combat wildlife trafficking?

Wildlife is trafficked for a number of reasons ranging from food and medicine to pets and decoration.

Arrests and seizures of illegal goods are often seen as markers of success in curbing wildlife trafficking, but they do not necessarily have a long-term impact, the report warns. Wildlife traffickers are quick to adapt in their methods and their trafficking routes, exploiting gaps in regulation and legislation and jumping on market trends.

That’s why lawmakers need to target the criminal incentives that drive illicit markets, be they economic or socio-cultural. The report also highlights the need for greater scrutiny of and harsher penalties for corrupt officials who undermine government restrictions and assist large organised crime groups in trafficking wildlife.

“To address this crime, we must match the adaptability and agility of the illegal wildlife trade,” says Ghada Waly, UNODC Executive Director. “This demands strong, targeted interventions at both the demand and the supply side of the trafficking chain, efforts to reduce criminal incentives and profits, and greater investment in data, analysis, and monitoring capacities."

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