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Illegal trade threatens nearly half the world’s natural heritage sites: WWF

  • Poaching, illegal logging and illegal fishing of rare species protected under CITES occurs in 45 percent of the natural World Heritage sites, a new WWF report says.
  • Illegal harvesting degrades the unique values that gave the heritage sites the status in the first place, the report says.
  • Current approaches to preventing illegal harvesting of CITES listed species in World Heritage sites is not working, the report concludes.

Wildlife crime plagues nearly half of the world’s natural UNESCO World Heritage sites, according to a new WWF report.

Illegal harvesting — poaching, illegal logging and illegal fishing — of rare species protected under CITES (Convention on International trade in Endangered Species), and their trafficking, occurs in 45 percent of the more than 200 natural World Heritage sites, the study reported.

Poaching of threatened animal species, such as elephants, rhinos and tigers, has been reported in at least 43 World Heritage sites, for example. Illegal logging of high-value tree species like rosewood and ebony was found to occur in 26 heritage properties, and illegal fishing has been reported from 18 out of the current 39 marine and coastal properties.

Illegal rosewood stockpiles in Antalaha, Madagascar, in 2007. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Natural World Heritage sites, from the Great Barrier Reef in Australia to the Sundarbans in India and Bangladesh, Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Galápagos Islands, include some of the world’s most iconic species. Many of these sites are also the last refuges of critically endangered species.

For example, Ujung Kulon National Park in Indonesia is believed to host the last remaining wild population of around 60 critically endangered Javan rhinos. Similarly, the Islands and Protected Areas of the Gulf of California is home to the critically endangered vaquita, the world’s smallest porpoise. The extremely rare vaquita is now estimated to be down to the last 30 individuals.

Conservationists fear that if current levels of illegal harvesting continue in World Heritage sites, many species could soon become extinct.

“This report is a sobering reminder of just how far this type of organized crime can reach, extending even into the supposed safety of World Heritage sites,” Inger Andersen, Director General of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), said in a statement. “This is a global challenge that can only be tackled through collective, international action.”

Less than 100 Sumatran rhinos remain, mostly in Indonesia’s Tropical Rainforest Heritage of Sumatra. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

Illegal harvesting of rare species from the World Heritage sites degrades the unique values that gave these places the status in the first place, the report says. Many of these sites also generate considerable tourism and local revenue, and decline of species due to illegal trade undermines the sites’ attractiveness to tourists, and threatens the livelihoods of the local communities.

Wildlife trafficking also endangers the lives of conservation workers, the report notes. Between 2009 and 2016, for example, at least 595 rangers were killed in the line of duty, many of whom were protecting World Heritage sites.

Current approaches to preventing illegal harvesting of CITES listed species in World Heritage sites is not working, the report concludes.

“Governments must redouble their efforts and address the entire wildlife trafficking value chain, before it’s too late.” Marco Lambertini, Director General at WWF International, said in the statement. “We urgently need more collaboration and integration between CITES, the World Heritage Convention and national authorities to lead a more coordinated, comprehensive response to halt wildlife trafficking — from harvesting of species in source countries, transportation through processing destinations, to sales in consumer markets.”

John Scanlon, CITES Secretary-General, added: “This report provides a range of options to further enhance coordination between CITES and the World Heritage Convention, focused around World Heritage sites. It is essential that CITES is fully implemented and that these irreplaceable sites are fully protected. In doing so, we will benefit our heritage and our wildlife, provide security to people and places, and support national economies and the rural communities that depend on these sites for their livelihoods.”

World Heritage sites host almost a third of all remaining wild tigers. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.