Study: Wildlife at an alarming risk
Report finds rate of extinction skyrocketing, yet current conservation regime lacking teeth, requiring 'urgent reform'.
Last Modified: 24 Dec 2010 07:00 GMT
A fifth of all mammals and nearly a third of all amphibians are threatened and at risk of extinction [GALLO/GETTY] 

Poor data, minimal funding and lax enforcement are undermining the fight to protect endangered species, raising the risks from the spread of pests and diseases, according to a new study.

Destruction of habitats, over-hunting and climate change have already driven the extinction rate for plants and animals to the highest level since the dinosaurs were wiped out 65 million years ago, the United Nations said on Friday.

More than a fifth of all mammals and nearly a third of all amphibians are threatened and at risk of extinction, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature's benchmark Red List of Threatened Species.

Fact File
  The rate of extinction is at its highest in 65 million years
  CITIES relies on self-reporting by countries
  International wildlife trade is a leading threat to conservation
  US lacks co-ordinated approach to monitoring wildlife imports
  Brazil has no programme to report wildlife confiscations

'Urgent reform needed'

The study, conducted by scientists from the National University of Singapore and Britain's Oxford Brookes University, said the main UN convention governing trade in endangered species needed urgent reform and a boost in support from member states.

This was crucial to prevent more species from being wiped out by trade but also to prevent the spread of infectious diseases and invasive species into new areas where they can threaten crops and livelihoods.

Key issues were lax enforcement and a lack of data on species being collected and traded, allowing governments either to make poor conservation decisions or corrupt officials to turn a blind eye to illicit trade.

"Data collection at all levels depends on proper species identification, which remains a leading challenge," the scientists, including Jacob Phelps and Edward Webb of the Department of Biological Sciences at the National University of Singapore, say in the latest issue of the US journal Science.

"Wildlife trade studies are surprisingly few and far between," Phelps said. "For many species - not only tigers and rhinoceros, but hardwood trees, primates and birds sold as pets and medicinal plants - wildlife trade remains a leading threat."

The authors called for an overhaul of the UN's 35-year-old Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which regulates the trade of nearly 34,000 species.

The authors said the secretariat that runs CITES depends on member states to provide data and enforcement. Yet many CITES parties failed to systematically monitor and report international wildlife trade, the authors said.

Corruption risk

More than half of documented live-animal imports into the United States from 2000 to 2006 were identified only by class, while only about 14 per cent were identified to species, they said, opening the door to potentially damaging foreign species.

"It is very likely that similar under-reporting is occurring for other protected species"

Edward Webb,

Other problems were CITES' lack of internal and external checks and balances and the secretariat's annual operating budget of only $5.2 million.

"CITES relies exclusively on country self-reporting, although incentives are high for biased analyses and misreporting, and most CITES-listed species occur in the tropics where governance is often weak and corruption high," the authors said.

Poor data collection also risked massive underreporting of animal and plant trade.

Phelps pointed to a recent visit to a Thai border market along the Mekong river where a trader could sell more CITES-regulated wild orchids in a day than officially reported trade into Thailand from Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia and Myanmar over a nine-year period.

"It is very likely that similar under-reporting is occurring for other protected species," Webb said, pointing to the need for much greater funding, stronger collaboration, better compliance standards and improved data collection and analysis.

The study was published two months after world nations agreed on 2020 targets to save nature. Collectively, species provide crucial services to mankind and economies, such as clean air and clean water from forest watersheds and coral reefs and mangroves that protect coastlines.

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