While the illegal trading of elephant ivory, rhino horns, and pangolin scales often grab headlines, thousands of species are traded every day, putting them at risk of extinction. For example, the large helmeted hornbill bird was commonly found in the wild in China and Indonesia in 2012. But three years later, it was close to extinction due to a sudden increase in demand for its ivory-like beak. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) exists to protect these wildlife. By placing restrictions on international trade, CITES aims to prevent the overexploitation of animals and plants. While CITES is the policy body, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) is recognized as the scientific authority for evaluating extinction risks and maintains a ‘Red List’ of potentially endangered species.
Through my research with David Wilcove from Princeton University, we’ve found that too often there are gaps between the scientific knowledge of extinction threats from international trade and the policy actions in protecting animals. This has led to hundreds of wildlife being in danger of extinction, as two-thirds of them wait close to or more than two decades to be protected. As international wildlife authorities prepare to gather in May, there are important opportunities to better sync up the scientific and policy communities and ensure that endangered wildlife receive the protection they need.
Classifying the threats and the degree of extinction risk is a challenge. David and I analyze 958 species on the Red List that are endangered by international trade. We find that trade restrictions are missing for 28% of the species. Apart from them, we fortunately discover that almost all of the most heavily harvested are banned from trade. However, 30% to 40% of the remaining, many of which are still highly harvested, are not protected.