Surveys in Thailand revealed more than 347 orchid species available in a single market. They come from across the region and include many undescribed species, as well as those illegally transported into Thailand.
These species suffer the same fate as reptiles, with new discoveries often being exploited by the market, sometimes encouraged by researchers. They’re easily available over the internet, resulting in the extinction of these species based to trade alone and the refusal to accept the threat of trade.
Many bird species are also under severe extinction threat because of the pet trade. They include thousands of birds in South America, and an estimated 3.33 million annually from Southeast Asia (1.3 million from Indonesia alone).
The pressure on Indonesian birds is so severe that in just one day in a single market over 16,160 birds of around 206 species were reported to be for sale, of which 98% were native to Indonesia, and 20% occurred nowhere else in the world.
Fish have similar statistics. Up to 98% of those in aquaria are wild caught from reefs and suffer death rates of 98% within a year. As a result, wild fish populations of species, such as the clownfish, have decreased by up to 75%.
But unlike other illicit trade, much of the illegal wildlife trade is not buried in the “dark web”. Enforcement is generally so weak that traders of the majority of live animals and plants can operate in plain sight with little fear of reprisal.
The Lacey Act in the US prevents the import of live organisms from their countries of origin, in order to prevent potential laundering of wild-caught animals. But as Europe has no similar legislation, it provides a conduit in addition to an end point for trade.
The majority of the demand for these species, and especially rare species is from European and North American collectors. But, as only a tiny portion of this trade is regulated (2% of international amphibian trade, and 10% of global reptile trade), urgent action is needed to protect vulnerable species from possible extinction.
As many species of reptiles, amphibians and orchids have not been listed by CITES (due to insufficient information, or recent discovery), there is no real regulation in the animal trade. And customs officers cannot be expected to distinguish between a rare and a common orchid or frog, so simpler restrictions are required to prevent this potentially damaging trade.
Innocent until proven guilty?
As so many species have no CITES classification perhaps what we need is a paradigm shift so that only species classed as tradeable, and certified as such can be traded. This would mean all specimens without a certificate could not be transported internationally.
At present, tracking trade of whole groups is difficult as organisations that are in position to do this, such as the World Customs Organisation, do not include records for amphibians.
Many species in the West can only have arrived through illegal routes, yet domestic trade of these species once in a country is currently unrestricted. Licensing or certification systems should be created as a mandatory part of the sale of any taxa vulnerable to exploitation, with confiscations and punishments used to assist compliance.
Collectors of live animals and plants are predominantly hobbyists, so the majority are unlikely to go to great lengths to procure specimens if any level of enforcement were instigated. Such action also needs to extend to finally restrict the thriving trade via the internet in these species which currently exists.
Though pledges have been made by European governments to restrict wildlife trade, their efforts normally fail to account for the huge numbers of species at risk as pets and live specimens. Given the laundering and corruption in these species ranges, restrictions on import by consumer countries are urgently needed.
If we want any future for wild populations of these species, drastic action is needed to control their international and domestic trade. Without such action, we can expect to see the loss of many rare species to greed alone.