Researchers from the US and the UK have revealed that at least one in five land-based species on the planet is traded on the global wildlife market.
In a paper published in this month’s edition of the journal Science, academics from the University of Florida and the University of Sheffield said the scale of the wildlife trade is far larger than had previously been thought, adding that they were “astounded” by what their research revealed.
After studying data on more than 30,000 land-dwelling species of mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians, the researchers discovered that 5,579 vertebrate species have been reported as being brought and sold on the global wildlife market either legally or illegally, and that up to 3,196 additional species are at risk of going extinct due to the trade.
The study also identified several global hotspots in which high numbers of species are traded, including the Andes and Amazon, Australia, sub-Saharan Africa and South East Asia.
According to the researchers, wildlife traders target animals that have distinctive features or attributes, and move on to new species once the supply of one has been exhausted through extinction.
Professor David Edwards, from the University of Sheffield’s Department of Animal and Plant Sciences, said: “Global wildlife trade is a billion-dollar industry and our study highlights that there is a hyperdiversity of species entering the trade.
“We predict thousands more species could be at risk of trade in the future. In combination with those species already known to be traded, this represents a major extinction threat to several thousand species of birds, mammals, amphibians and reptiles.
“Without urgent focus on how to stem both the supply and demand for wild-caught species, there is a real danger that we will lose many traded species.”
Authors of the study said the results of their analysis could reshape the current approach to wildlife conservation and help identify how the wildlife trade increase species’ risk of extinction.
In addition, the academics said their findings could help platforms such as eBay and Facebook screen transactions for at-risk species, and assist border control workers.
The report was published as experts gathered in the Peruvian capital of Lima for the first Americas Regional Conference on Illegal Wildlife Trade, which was convened to establish a framework under which regional law enforcement agencies can better tackle the illicit wildlife trade.
According to the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), which supported the event, wildlife traders in the region are coming under increasing pressure to provide unique live animals and offer a range of animal parts online.