All wildlife species matter for ecosystem restoration

Thursday, March 3rd, 2022 02:40 | By

On December 20, 2013, the 68th session of the UN General Assembly agreed to proclaim March 3 as a World Wildlife Day to commemorate and promote awareness of the wild fauna and flora. This year’s theme is ‘Recovering key species for ecosystem restoration’ to bring attention to the conservation status of some most critically endangered species.

Yet, with all the efforts to recover and protect wild fauna and flora, wildlife trade remains a multi-billion-dollar industry estimated at over $42 billion annually. Of this, up to $20 billion is illegal.

The leading drivers of the trade are the increasing demand for exotic pets (that have not been domesticated and are still wild animals), fashion items, traditional medicine and trophies. Despite any economic profits, trade is considered as a prominent causes of global ecosystem collapse and biodiversity loss. This is having negative consequences on the well-being of humans and species conservation.

A recent 2019 report by the UN on biodiversity showed that the extent of extinction threat facing wildlife is due to direct human exploitation such as harvesting animals for trade.

Africa is privileged to be home to the world’s famous wild animals such as lions, elephants, rhinos, cheetahs and buffalo, in addition to many other species considered less charismatic yet play a critical role in maintaining ecosystems, especially the ecological food webs.

Regardless, wild animals are cruelly captured in the wild or borne into captivity in millions to meet the demand for wild animals or their derivatives.

The potential for animal suffering exists at each stage of the trade chain. For example, currently there are between 8000 and 12,000 lions held in 342 breeding and keeping facilities and more than 1600 parrot breeders across South Africa.

Captivity is inherently cruel for these highly intelligent sentient animals.  South Africa in May 2021 took the bold step of announcing publicly its intention to close its captive lion breeding industry.

This move is just a drop in the ocean because many more species across Africa are inhumanely being bred and kept in captivity for commercial purposes. They are hunted in the wild for their trophies, a practice which many conservations and animal welfare organisations rightly contest from moral and conservation grounds.

A recent report by World Animal Protection dubbed ‘Big 5 and Little 5’ highlights the most traded wildlife species from Africa according to the CITES data between 2011-2015.

Infectious diseases

This report revealed that more than a 1.5 million live animals and 1.2 million skins (each skin presumed to represent an individual animal) were legally exported from Africa to supply the booming international wildlife market.

Notably, some species mentioned in the report like the Africa Grey Parrots, are offered the highest level of protection—CITES prohibits commercial trade of wild-caught birds and is classified as ‘Endangered’ by the IUCN Red List.

Furthermore, wildlife trade is a risk to public health.  Sixty per cent of emerging infectious diseases are zoonotic and 70 per cent (including Covid-19) are thought to originate from wildlife.

The risk of spill-over is heightened further by the unregulated and unhygienic conditions associated with wildlife markets, where proximity between humans and animals (of different species, overcrowded and cramped on top of each other) provide an ideal environment for pathogens such as viruses to mutate and spread.

Recent reports show some species legally traded are not yet protected under CITES but that does not mean they are not a conservation concern now or in the future. Even those permitted, some trade happens without required permits or non-adherence to export quotas.

This means irrespective of legality, wildlife trade is a threat to the welfare of the individual animals, conservation, and poses biosecurity and public health risks.

Therefore, collective efforts are needed to protect and expand habitats, and to shift communities and states away from the commercial exploitation of wildlife, rather than improving the status quo, to protect people, animals, and the planet.

— The writer is a Research Manager at World Animal Protection

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