Wildlife under threat from legal trade in Southern Africa
Jane Surtees
05 October 2016

Photo: ©conservationaction.co.za

Southern Africa is losing protected wild plants and animals at an alarming rate. Between 2005 and 2014, around 18,000 individual species worth US$340-million were legally sold.

This figure, which excludes losses from poaching, was highlighted in a report by the United Nations Environment Programme that flashes a number of warning lights.

Topping the export list were hunting trophies, live parrots, live reptiles, crocodile skins and meat, live plants and their derivatives.

The report exposes the high global demand of parrots as household pets. Exports of live parrots increased 11-fold over the period, from 50,000 birds in 2005 to over 300,000 in 2014.

The SADC region has 18 native parrot species, half of which have declining populations and three of which are globally threatened. The African grey parrot, which is classified as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), is a popular pet in the US, Europe and Western Asia, and is the main exported parrot species. However, African grey numbers are falling and this has been attributed to its capture for the pet trade. An IUCN re-assessment is currently underway to gauge its eligibility for further uplisting.

The level of trade in wild-sourced grey parrots is particularly worrying, according to the director of the Africa conservation programme at World Parrot Trust, Rowan Martin.

“Current quotas are not founded on robust data and there has been no monitoring to ensure the sustainability of harvests,” he says. “According to the Cites stats, wild-sourced exports have remained fairly constant, although considerable illegal trade (often operating under the guise of legal trade) also occurs.

“The captive-breeding industry in South Africa has historically been responsible for the importation of a considerable number of wild-caught birds. The massive increase in the export of captive-bred birds is stimulating demand for pet grey parrots, and uninformed buyers may prefer to buy wild-caught parrots, as they are cheaper. In addition, exports of captive-bred birds provide opportunities for the laundering of wild-caught birds.”
The report also pinpoints South Africa as the region’s main exporter of animal trophies.

Approximately 180,000 individual cites-listed animals were directly exported from the region as hunting trophies during 2005-2014. Top of the list was the Nile crocodile, including trade in skins, skulls, bodies and tails. Other high trade trophies included Hartmann’s mountain zebra, Chacma baboon, hippopotamus, African elephant and lion. Most trophies came from wild-sourced animals, however, two-thirds of lion trophies were captive bred, and almost all of these came from South Africa.

Trophy hunting has long been controversial. Proponents say well-managed hunting can be an important conservation tool through financial incentives, especially when the money is invested back into conservation and is shared with local communities. However, this money does not necessarily go back into conservation or communities. The report noted a number of concerns including inequitable distribution of hunting revenues, insufficient resources to monitor populations and to establish sustainable harvest levels, and the limited transparency in funding flows.

SADC is home to eight species of cat, and four of them are classified as vulnerable. Apart from hunting trophies, cats are also traded as products for traditional medicine, ceremonial uses and as pets.

The report records a rise in the trade of lion bones and live lions and cheetahs during the 2005-2014 period. Again South Africa is listed as the main exporter of these products.

It identifies the increase in trade in lion bones for traditional medicine as an emerging threat to the species. It is believed that lion bones are now the main substitute for tiger in traditional Chinese medicine.

Cheetahs have become popular pets in the Gulf States, and the report states that illegal trade from wild populations is contributing to the decline in East African populations.

The illegal trade in leopard skins for ceremonial regalia is also highlighted. Focussing on the Shembe church in South Africa, the report suggests between 1,500 and 2,500 leopards are harvested annually to fuel the demand for skins, and that there are as many as 15,000 leopard skins distributed among Shembe followers.

The high-volume export of reptiles also comes under the spotlight. The largest trade came from Nile crocodile meat and skins, but the report expresses particular concern over the export of wild-sourced lizards, especially globally threatened Malagasy endemics.

SADC has around 1,500 reptile species, but the IUCN Red List has only assessed just under half. Of those, 31% are classified as globally threatened. The report says increased efforts are needed to identify species that need listing for protection and monitoring. Further work is also required on the potential conservation implications of the trade in endemic and threatened species.

From fauna to flora, the report notes the continuing trade in plants categorised as vulnerable, endangered or critically endangered, with red lights flashing over cycads.

Cycads remain popular exports for ornamental purposes, as a food source and as traditional medicine. However, they are the most threatened plant group in South Africa. Illegal harvesting of wild populations caused two of the three cycad extinctions in the wild. The report also unearths what could be an illegal trade of species non-native to South Africa.

The report concludes by acknowledging its difficulties in data collection, and notes that it’s likely that other species from the region should listed by Cites.

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