Notably, the bodies criticized the scientific community for failing to keep pace with the illegal wildlife market.

“The research community has lagged behind the conservation practitioner community in recognizing the urgency of threats posed by illegal wildlife trade and the need for related research,” the resolution said. “There is a lack of basic ecological data on many trade-threatened species, and a lack of the long-term, species-specific research likely to generate this knowledge.”

“Customs officials need clear and simple guidelines to be able to differentiate protected from non-protected species,” the resolution continued. “Many [trafficked] species may not even have been described scientifically.”

The conference focused intensely on the wildlife trade, including a keynote panel and extended symposium on the issue.

Jacob Phelps, a researcher at Lancaster University, moderated the panel and organized the symposium. He said the research community “needs to ensure that the resolution is more than static words.”

“Conservation practitioners have been working on illegal trade issues for years, and it is time that conservation researchers chip in more actively,” he told Mongabay. “The Society for Conservation Biology and the Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation communities have a key role to play in helping to explore, innovate, design, test, critique and evaluate interventions that seek to stem illegal trade and enable the sustainable use of wild flora and fauna.”

Phelps’ panel featured a group representing a range of perspectives on the wildlife trade, including Chris Shepherd from TRAFFIC; Dwi Adihasto from WCS-Indonesia; Rebecca Wong, an expert on the wildlife trade in China; and Clifford Eu, a legal wildlife trader.

Shepherd highlighted the extent of trafficking in Asia and pointed to problems with the legal trade being used as cover for illicit activities. He cited Indonesia’s Tokay gecko market as prime example, noting that if traders were actually breeding the volume of lizards they claim to be producing, they would require a stack of enclosures 2 meters high and 69 kilometers long plus need to furnish billions of crickets.

“Or you can buy them for 15 cents each from the wild,” he said. “Captive breeding is a huge conservation problem.”

Dwi said that pangolins and hornbill parts are worth more than their weight in gold in Indonesia and pointed to asymmetry in law enforcement when suppliers tend to be low status members of society, while buyers and traders tend to be high status: rich and seemingly exempt from punishment. Wong however added that China has enacted laws that are much heavier on the demand side than the supply size — at least on paper. Eu said that despite the troubling trends, progress is possible, pointing to Singapore’s significant reduction in the trafficking of some endangered species.

The situation is dire in some places.

“As they get rare and difficult to find, many species now have much higher commercial value as specialty food, trophies, medicines or as pets than ever before,” Tony Lynam, a Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) biologist who has worked across Asia on issues related to wildlife trafficking and law enforcement, said. “For example, one live Myanmar star tortoise is worth more than its weight in gold in the pet trade in Thailand or Japan. As the species is extinct in the wild, rangers sleep on top of their cages at night to guard against them being stolen from captive breeding facilities. One live elephant calf traded in Lao PDR could be worth the price of a condominium.”

Lynam said the trafficking issue is largely overshadowed by other concerns. For example, while many companies are committing to eliminating deforestation and human rights abuses from supply chains, corporate policies generally have no provisions against poaching and wildlife trafficking. So while forests may be preserved, their resident wildlife may not.

“Habitat loss is one of the major threats to biodiversity across Asia. But in many places where habitat loss is now stabilized due to landuse planning and the creation of protected areas, poaching or harvest for commercial trade still affects the wildlife living under the forest canopy, in wetlands, or the ocean,” he told Mongabay. “Illicit and unsustainable trade has emerged as the most pressing threat affecting wildlife species in the region.”

Lynam said the resolution aims to elevate the profile of the issue to a level more commensurate with the scale of the problem.

Correction: the tagline for the original version of this post stated “Scientists criticize themselves for failing to do more to respond to Asia’s booming wildlife trade.” Upon re-reading, I concluded that language overstated the self-criticism of the resolution. I therefore changed the tagline to “Scientists urged to respond with better research for understanding Asia’s booming wildlife trade.”

Article published by Rhett Butler
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