The global trade network is more highly connected under conditions of greater international wealth inequality.
The global wildlife trade leaves misery in its wake and continues to despoil natural ecosystems at an alarming rate. Yet just how colossal it is may come as a surprise.
In just two decades from 1998 and 2018, say researchers from Hong Kong and Singapore, more than 420 million wild animals, all of which were listed as threatened or endangered, were traded around the world.
Trade routes crisscrossed 226 nations and territories such as Hong Kong, itself a hub of the global wildlife trade, and perhaps not surprisingly traffic in wildlife tended to go in one direction: from poor countries to rich ones.
Wild frogs, for example, were routinely shipped from Madagascar to the US, the world’s biggest importer of wildlife products, while wild fish were dispatched from Thailand to Hong Kong.
Meanwhile, endangered species from countries in Africa and South America are exported endlessly to rich nations. Between 2006 and 2015, for instance, as many as 1.3 million live animals and plants were exported from Africa to Asia alone, according to the anti-trafficking group TRAFFIC.
During the same period, 1.5 million skins and 2,000 tons of meat from wild animals like pangolins were also legally exported from Africa to Asia. Adding to that was a robust illegal trade in wildlife and their parts.
“The global trade network was more highly connected under conditions of greater international wealth inequality, when rich importers may have a larger economic advantage over poorer exporting nations/territories,” the scientists write in a study.
“Bilateral trade was driven primarily by socioeconomic factors at the supply end, with wealthier exporters likely to supply more animals to the global market,” they explain, adding that addressing stark inequalities in incomes could be key to rolling back the trade in wild animals worldwide.
One way of doing so could involve paying poorer nations that export the most animals to protect their wildlife in situ rather than sell it for extra incomes. The recipients would be countries like Indonesia and Honduras, which are among the world’s largest exporters of wildlife products.
“Funding would ideally be drawn from wealthy countries, given their commitment to the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), and the fact that they play a disproportionately large role in the global wildlife market,” says Jia Huan Liew, a scientist at the University of Hong Kong who led the research.
Although the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic has diminished the global trade in wildlife, it’s only a matter of time before volumes will pick up again unless something is done, Liew says.
“To avoid returning to business as usual, we should take advantage of the public’s awareness of the possible consequences of consuming wildlife products to reduce demand and make the Chinese ban on wildlife consumption permanent,” the scientist argues.