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Thousands of Illegally Traded Wild Animals Put at Risk by Missing Data

Records of confiscated live wild animals represent only a fraction of the actual animals being illegally traded, according to a new review study.

By Shreya Dasgupta


The crab-eating macaque was the only mammal among the top 10 most commonly confiscated live wild animals. (Photo: Sakurai Midori/Wikimedia Commons)

Data on illegal wildlife trade collected by enforcement agencies is riddled with gaps, concludes a new report by the University of Oxford Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU) and World Animal Protection.

Between 2010 and 2014, more than 64,000 live wild animals belonging to 359 species were seized by authorities, according to the trade database of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES). But only 54 countries party to the CITES reported seizures, researchers found, while 128 countries did not report any illegal wildlife trade, researchers write in the report published in Nature Conservation.

This suggests that the number of confiscated live wild animals reported to the CITES represents only a fraction of the actual animals being illegally traded, researchers say.

The gaps in seizure records could exist because not all illegal transactions are seized and not all seizures are recorded officially, the researchers say. This could, in turn, be due to varying efforts put in by countries to control and report on illegal wildlife trade, researchers add, depending on a number of factors including political will, available resources, levels of corruption, and the species involved.

Between 2010 and 2014, more than 64,000 live wild animals belonging to 359 species were seized by authorities.

“We fear this staggering number is just the tip of the iceberg,” co-author David Macdonald of WildCRU, said in a statement. “Only a relatively small proportion of wild animals involved with illegal trade are thought to be intercepted by enforcement agencies — confiscation records were completely missing for 70 percent of countries party to CITES. Given the rapidly growing global trends in illegal wildlife trade activity, it is highly unlikely that no live wildlife seizures were made on their borders.”

The study found that reptiles were the most frequently reported among live animal seizures, followed by fish, birds, mammals, and amphibians. In fact, the crab-eating macaque, native to southeast Asia, was the only non-reptile species among the 10 most commonly seized live species.

The team also noted that nearly 20 percent of the animals seized are currently threatened with extinction. A majority of the animals though — nearly 70 percent — are listed as least concern in the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List and do not face immediate conservation concern. But the researchers warn that the booming wildlife trafficking business could easily push these species toward extinction in the near future.

Moreover, the fate of most confiscated animals remains unknown, the study points out.

Confiscated wild animals can either be maintained in captivity, returned to the wild, or euthanized, according to the CITES guidelines. But it is not obligatory for parties to formally record information regarding the disposal of confiscated live wild animals, the researchers write. This lack of information makes it difficult to monitor the number of seized wild animals that may have re-entered the multi-billion-dollar wildlife trafficking business, they add.

“Improved data recording is critical to knowing what happens to each animal, and can help in looking at the challenges and issues enforcement agencies face in managing animals after seizure,” co-author Neil D’cruz of World Animal Protection, said in a statement, “Without this transparency, there’s a real possibility that endangered species may be put back into the hands of the same criminals whom they were taken from. We need to be able to account for these wild animals.”

Macdonald added: “We strongly recommend that the CITES trade database should include information on the fate of all live wild animal seizures, so we know what happens to these animals, and we can reduce the risk of them re-entering the illegal wildlife trade.”

This story originally appeared at the website of global conservation news service Get updates on their stories delivered to your inbox, or follow @Mongabay on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.