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Misuse of wildlife trade data jeopardizes efforts to protect species and combat trafficking (commentary)

  • Oversimplification of the interpretation of wildlife trade data jeopardizes the ability of policy makers to prioritize aiming limited resources towards those species that truly require protection from unsustainable trade and wildlife trafficking, which threaten species with extinction.
  • In a recent study published in Science, the authors expressed a series of conclusions that are based on a gross misinterpretation of wildlife trade data.
  • Wildlife conservation policy decisions should rely on the best available analyses of threats in order to respond most efficiently. The interpretation of data presented in this study show numerous flaws that may interfere with perceptions about where unsustainable and illegal trade is actually occurring and where limited resources should be directed to prevent wildlife extinction.
  • This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.

This commentary is in response to Scheffers et al. (2019). Global wildlife trade across the tree of life, published in Science this month. A response to this commentary from the Science authors was published on November 8, 2019.

Oversimplification of the interpretation of wildlife trade data jeopardizes the ability of policy makers to prioritize aiming limited resources towards those species that truly require protection from unsustainable trade and wildlife trafficking, which threaten species with extinction.

In a recent study published in Science, the authors expressed a series of conclusions that are based on a gross misinterpretation of wildlife trade data.

The authors stated that, “~18% (N = 5579) of terrestrial bird, mammal, amphibian, and squamate reptile species, are traded globally.” They further state that, “Traded species are in higher categories of threat compared with nontraded species, confirming wildlife trade as a driver of extinction risk.”

Unfortunately, the methods described to reach these conclusions reflect an incomplete understanding of the many nuances of wildlife trade data and I urge readers to approach their conclusions with caution, until the data are corrected. I offer some insights from my experience of working with wildlife trade data for nearly two decades, which I hope will help to ensure that these common mistakes are corrected in future studies.

Bullfrog trade. Photo by Jonathan Kolby.

First, the authors assumed that all CITES-listed species are “traded” (see supplementary Table S10 in the study), but it is incorrect to assume that inclusion in the CITES Appendices automatically means that the species is being traded. There are species in the Appendices that are included for “look-alike” reasons or under a higher taxonomic listing, for which trade has never been recorded, and therefore should not have been reported by the authors as “in trade.”

An example of this is the inclusion of Osgood’s Ethiopian toad (Altiphrynoides osgoodi). I examined the CITES trade database records, which are based on annual submissions of reports on trade in CITES-listed species submitted by the 183 Parties to CITES, and no records of trade exist for this species. In addition, the IUCN Red List assessment likewise states that this species is not present in international trade. A. osgoodi is listed in CITES Appendix I, which includes species that are threatened with extinction that are or may be affected by international trade. Many of the species have been included in Appendix I as a precautionary measure to prevent the emergence of commercial trade. Therefore, rather than looking at the list of species in the CITES Appendices and asserting that they are all traded, as described in the methods, the authors should have instead looked at the actual CITES trade data and only considered those species that are actually traded.

I am also concerned that species that are possibly extinct are included in Table S10 as being present in trade. For instance, the Peru Stubfoot Toad (Atelopus peruensis) was included in this table based on the IUCN Red List assessment, which states that, “It has previously been reported in the pet trade, although this appears to have ceased.” The assessment further states that this species has not been seen after 1998 and is possibly extinct, likely due to an outbreak of disease from chytrid fungus. Species with only an anecdotal mention of trade in IUCN Red List assessments should not be considered as “in trade” with equal weight as current verifiable trade records in the CITES trade database. Including species in Table S10 that have not been seen or traded in 20+ years exaggerates the total number of species in international trade that are in need of attention as a result of illegal or unsustainable trade.

I also note that the authors reference throughout the paper the need to develop strategies to “combat trade,” when in fact, they should be referring to illegal and/or unsustainable trade. If species are to be represented as “in trade,” then it is important to explicitly describe how far back the data goes and clarify whether they’re talking about present or historical trends or something in between. Is there value to including a species in Table S10 and reflecting it as being in trade, if it has not in fact been traded in 10, 20, or 30 years?

Pangolin scale burn in Cameroon. Photo Credit: Kenneth Cameron/USFWS.

Similarly, the same question of intent could be posed for the decision to include species where only one specimen has ever been recorded in trade, or where only specimens for scientific or conservation purposes have been traded. There are a multitude of ways that these data can be interpreted and expressed to help show different trends or threats, but when all data in CITES-listed species are lumped together and these nuances ignored, the conclusions are likely to spread misinformation. This study caused alarm because the authors stated that trade is a leading cause for extinction and “the proportion of traded animals is 40–60% higher than previous estimates had suggested,” but this fails to inform the public that species traded only to benefit conservation were also lumped into these figures.

It’s disappointing to see that the purpose of trade was often mis-categorized by the authors despite the fact that the CITES trade database includes detailed information about the purpose and type of trade associated with every record. For example, the authors state that Giant Pandas (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) are traded as pets and products. A more careful examination of the CITES trade records for this species show that these transactions involved the trade in diagnostic samples or live animals moved between zoological institutions for conservation or zoological purposes. By creating new categories and criteria for characterizing trade, the authors have misused the data attached to CITES trade records to assert the presence of activities that would be cause for conservation alarm.

Lastly, any comprehensive study of the international wildlife trade should consider data from the trade database maintained by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, known as the Law Enforcement Management Information System (LEMIS). This database contains hundreds of thousands of records of international wildlife trade involving the United States, which are made publicly available upon request. A large proportion of these records document international trade in species that are not regulated under CITES. By stating that “Traded species are in higher categories of threat compared with nontraded species, confirming wildlife trade as a driver of extinction risk,” and not incorporating LEMIS information or other verified information on trade in non-CITES-listed species into the overall list of species considered, it remains possible that in this larger dataset, you may instead detect the opposite trend. Relying so heavily on the CITES Appendices and the array of species chosen to be evaluated by the IUCN, it appears as though the data are inherently biased toward species already in higher categories of threat.

A more thorough review of the data in Table S10 may identify additional errors or misinterpretations included in this published work, despite passing peer review by Science.

The concerns expressed in this commentary are neutral regarding the science and ethics underpinning the trade in wildlife. The single greatest point I wish to make is that wildlife conservation policy decisions should rely on the best available analyses of threats in order to respond most efficiently. The interpretation of data presented in this study show numerous flaws that may interfere with perceptions about where unsustainable and illegal trade is actually occurring and where limited resources should be directed to prevent wildlife extinction.

Madagascar bright eyed frog. Photo by Jonathan Kolby.

Editor’s note: A response to this commentary from the Science authors was published on November 8, 2019

CITATIONS

• IUCN SSC Amphibian Specialist Group 2018. Atelopus peruensis. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2018: e.T54539A89196220. doi:10.2305/IUCN.UK.2018-2.RLTS.T54539A89196220.en. Downloaded on 15 October 2019.

• Scheffers, B. R., Oliveira, B. F., Lamb, I., & Edwards, D. P. (2019). Global wildlife trade across the tree of life. Science, 366(6461), 71-76. doi:10.1126/science.aav5327

Jonathan Kolby is a CITES Policy Specialist with the US Fish and Wildlife Service* and has nearly two decades of experience in wildlife trade data interpretation and analysis. He obtained his PhD at James Cook University and studied the international spread of amphibian chytrid fungus and the global amphibian extinction crisis. Jonathan is a conservation biologist, National Geographic Explorer, and founding Director of the Honduras Amphibian Rescue & Conservation Center (HARCC). He is also an active science communicator (@MyFrogCroaked) and produces films about wildlife disease and conservation.

*The findings and conclusions in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

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