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Trade in Endangered Species

Humans have always used wild animals and plants for their products, such as fruits and seeds for food, skins for clothing, wood for fires etc. Apart from its use for basic needs, wildlife has also been exploited for luxury items e.g. ornaments and fashion. At one time, when there were far fewer people on Earth and a lot more wildlife, such exploitation did not have any significant effect on the overall numbers of animals and plants. With over six billion people in the world today the situation is now very different. As a result of pressure from an ever-increasing human population, many species of animals and plants have been greatly reduced in numbers and they will not survive for much longer if we continue to kill them for luxury items. Modern technology and knowledge means that we can manufacture or find substitutes for products from endangered species: plastic for tortoiseshell or ivory, jojoba oil for whale oil, synthetic drugs for rhino horns and tiger bones. We can live very happily without leopard-skin coats, mahogany furniture, turtle soup or pet orang-utans.

Wildlife and the Law

Over the last 30 years or so there has been a growing world-wide concern that trade in endangered species should be controlled. In 1973, representatives from 80 countries met in Washington to draw up a formula for trade controls and licences. As a result of this meeting the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) was formed. The purpose of CITES is to decide which species in trade are in danger of becoming extinct and to establish laws to stop them from being pushed any closer by international trade. There are now at least 126 member countries and their representatives meet every two years for discussions and to decide whether any changes are needed. Environmental organisations can attend the conferences to contribute to the debates and to lobby the delegates.

When a country joins CITES, its government must pass laws to control or prohibit trade in live or dead specimens and parts or derivatives of them. The amount of trade allowed depends on which 'Appendix' (group) the species has been listed in. The rules for deciding which species should be listed in which appendix were set down at the very first CITES conference in Berne, Switzerland, in 1976, although they have been revised since then. Any member country can put forward a species for listing, or changing to another appendix, but to be adopted, two thirds of the delegates must vote for the proposal. A proposal is usually a scientific report summarising the best available information on the status of the species and the impact of trade on it. The Convention cannot control trade between two countries who are not CITES members, but fortunately the number of member countries is slowly increasing year by year.

There are three appendices:

Appendix I
trade is totally banned for primarily commercial purposes.

Appendix II
potentially threatened species for which trade is allowed if there is "no detriment" to the species: quotas (the numbers of individuals traded) may be imposed.

Appendix III
species requiring additional protection in their country of origin.

Enforcing the law
this is a difficult problem, especially when officials responsible for the enforcement don't take it seriously - and this happens all too often. Even CITES does not have a Law Enforcement Working Group. It is expensive to enforce a law and yet a law is useless unless it can be enforced.

Smuggling i.e. illegal trading, is not easy to control. It is easier to stop the poverty-stricken poacher than the rich, influential businessman, or, worse still, corrupted government official. It is also difficult for the customs officer to identify the protected species in a big shipment of animals and plants - especially as they are often hidden or disguised.

Of all the hundreds of species of animals and plants involved in international trading laws, amongst some of the best known examples are:- big cats, whales, elephants, rhinos, bears, parrots, apes and rainforest plants.

Here are some brief case histories


Fifty years ago there were eight subspecies of tiger, but three are now extinct. Today, all five remaining subspecies are endangered. The total number left in the world could be as low as 5,000. All tigers are in demand by Eastern countries because of their belief that tiger bones, claws, teeth and most other body parts have medicinal properties. China, South Korea and Taiwan are the main consumers but tiger products are also exported to Chinese communities in the rest of the world. China's own tigers are almost extinct so traders have turned to tigers in other countries and much illegal smuggling goes on. Tiger numbers are also declining because of the loss of their forest habitat and a shortage of prey.

Trade laws
Most tiger countries have laws protecting them, but they are often poorly enforced. Tigers are on Appendix I of CITES but five of the fourteen countries (which include China, India, Thailand, South Korea, Vietnam, Russia and Japan) have yet to join CITES - Bhutan, Burma (Myanmar), Cambodia, Laos and North Korea. However, these five, together with the CITES members, have voluntarily pledged to stop international trade in tiger products and, within their countries, to ban the use of tiger bone in traditional medicine. These countries have formed the Global Tiger Forum to discuss ways of working together to help tiger populations recover.

The future
The protection laws must be enforced somehow if the tiger is to survive. The US government's action of imposing trade sanctions on Taiwan, and threatening to do the same to China, may help. Hopefully, the Global Tiger Forum's discussions will bring about effective enforcement. Conservation organisations have set up projects to try and control poaching and to win the support of people who live in tiger areas, and to persuade people to use alternatives to traditional tiger-based medicines.


The world's bears, like tigers and rhinos, have suffered because of a medicinal demand for their parts in the Far East - China, Japan, Korea, Singapore, Taiwan and Thailand. The bear's gall bladder is in the most demand, believed by the Chinese to be good for all sorts of ailments, from liver disease to blindness. Gall bladders are on sale throughout Asia and the trade is thriving because of increasing affluence in the Far East. China and Korea have 'bear farms' where bears are kept in cruel conditions and 'milked' for their bile (the liquid from the gall bladder).

The Asian bear species i.e. Asiatic black bear, sun bear, sloth bear and the brown bear in Russia, are under the greatest threat. For example, Russia's Kamchatka Peninsula had about 11,000 brown bears in 1991, but only 4,000 by 1993.

The American black bear, brown bears in Europe and North America, and spectacled bears in South America, are now being poached.

Many bear cubs have been captured alive, by killing their mothers, and used as 'dancing' bears in India, Pakistan and Turkey. There has been much public opposition to these cruel practices and they are beginning to be outlawed.

Trade laws
All bear populations are listed on either Appendix I or II. They are protected on paper in many countries and in others they may be legally hunted for 'sport', but throughout most Asian countries law enforcement is practically non - existent and prosecutions are rare.

The future
Organisations such as The World Society for the Protection of Animals is campaigning against abuses of bears and public protest is causing Far Eastern governments to make greater efforts to enforce laws which are designed to protect bears. As with tigers and rhinos, it is important to promote alternative medicines to users of Chinese cures.

snow leopard endangeredLeopard

Today, very few people in the US and Britain would consider wearing leopard skin coats but in some parts of the world people still consider a leopard skin coat to be a status symbol. Such coats may be bought by tourists in a place such as Kathmandu, Nepal, even though the traders are aware that they are likely to be confiscated by customs at the airport.

Some men regard shooting a leopard, and taking home parts of it as 'trophies', as a very macho thing to do. This 'trophy hunting' has been allowed by CITES in African countries which report leopard numbers to be adequate. These so-called 'sport' hunters are mainly from North America and Europe.

The latest threat to leopards is an increasing demand for their bones, as a tiger-bone substitute for oriental medicines. Bones are smuggled mainly into China and Taiwan from neighbouring countries.

The leopard is most common in India and Africa, though not nearly so numerous as it once was. Other races, existing in former Soviet Union, China and the Middle East, are either extremely rare or thought to be extinct. The Snow leopard, from the Himalayas, Tibet, Central Asian Republics and Mongolia is also rare - 5,000 left. The Clouded leopard is found in forests of Nepal to South China down to Sumatra, Borneo and Taiwan, but, although many skins turn up in China, no estimates of their numbers exist.

Trade laws
All leopard species are listed on Appendix I of CITES. Officially, they are protected everywhere although African countries allow licensed and controlled hunting for trophies. Enforcing the protection laws is difficult, especially where there is conflict with the public in areas where leopards are accused of killing children and cattle. In India, unlike tigers, leopards are not confined to reserves, where they would be well-protected, so enforcing the law is more difficult.

The future
The organisation 'People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals' is trying to discourage people around the world from buying furs, and 'Respect for Animals' campaigns against trapping for fur. Other conservation groups investigate the fur trade and promote research and leopard conservation projects. If people no longer wanted to wear leopardskin coats or display 'trophies', then there would be no point in continuing the trade in skins and other parts.


Parrots have been popular as pets for years but the capture of large numbers of wild birds for mass exports to pet shops all over the world is causing a serious decline in many wild populations. The trade still thrives despite the cruelty and high death-rate involved in their capture and transit. Even common species, such as the African Grey, are beginning to be affected. A specialist collector will pay thousands of pounds for one rare bird. Although many species are bred in captivity, these are often more expensive to buy than wild-caught birds, and this encourages the wild trade to continue.

Trade laws
There are 328 species of parrot and all but three of these are listed on either Appendix I or II of CITES. In the USA, the 1992 Wild Bird Conservation Act insists that the traders prove their trade will not result in a decline in the wild population of the species. This action has resulted in a dramatic fall in the US bird trade since 1992. Bird imports into the UK have fallen by about 30 per cent each year since 1992, but there is an urgent need for similar legislation to that of the US and an effective wildlife enforcement unit.

The future
Through lobbying by conservation organisations and the public, over 100 airlines now refuse to carry wild-caught birds. Hopefully, all airlines will eventually support this campaign. If people wish to buy a parrot, they should first make sure that it has been bred in captivity.

An additional threat to parrots is the destruction of their forest habitat, and if the pet trade continues then many species are doomed to extinction in the wild in the very near future.


Although they are extremely important, and often beautiful, living organisms, plants are often overlooked when considering endangered species - animals usually attract more media attention. However, many thousands of species of plants need our help to prevent them from becoming extinct. Many commercial plants are grown in plantations or nurseries, but a large amount are still taken from the wild. Examples are the tropical hardwood trees, orchids, snowdrop bulbs, cacti and carnivorous plants, such as Venus flytraps. All these plants are removed from the wild either by the timber trade or for use as house and garden plants.

Trade laws
There are about 200 plants species listed on Appendix I by CITES. There are thousands more, including all orchids and cacti, on Appendix II. However, enforcement of the law is poor in most countries and many customs officers are not able to identify species in a shipment. Up to date, CITES has managed to list the Caribbean and Central American mahoganies on Appendix II, but fierce opposition by Brazil, Peru and Bolivia has prevented the Brazilian mahogany from also being listed - these countries have 90 per cent of these remaining mahogany trees. Japan is the biggest consumer of timber and living plants are sold mainly in North America, Europe and Japan.

The future
Various conservation organisations are either investigating the trade in plants or funding field projects. The charity 'Plantlife' has been set up specifically to save plants.

We can all help by refusing to buy items made from mahogany, or plants taken from the wild - check their source before buying.

Useful Addresses and Links
Birdlife International, Wellbrook Court, Girton Road, Cambridge, CB3 ONA.

British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection, 16a Crane Grove, London, N7 8LB.

Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, 110 Gloucester Avenue, London, NW1 8JA.

International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), Warren Court, Park Road, Crowborough, E. Sussex.

International Primate Protection League, 116 Judd Street, London, WC1H 9NS.

Marine Conservation Society, 9 Gloucester Road,Ross-on-Wye, Herefordshire, HR9 5BU

Orang Utan Foundation UK, 7 Kent Terrace, London, NW1 4RP.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), PO Box 3169, London, NW6 2QF.

Plantlife, c/o Natural History Museum, Cromwell Road, London, SW7 5BD.

Respect for Animals, PO Box 500, Nottingham, NG1 3AS.

Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), The Lodge, Sandy, Beds, SGl9 2DL

Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA)
Causeway, Horsham, Sussex, RH12 1HG.

UK Rhino Group
PO Box 308, Bristol, Avon, BS99 7LQ.

UK Elephant Group
c/o Born Free Foundation, Coldharbour, Dorking, Surrey, RH5 6HA.

World Parrot Trust
Glanmore House, Hayle, Cornwall, TR27 4HY.

World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA)
Dept. Wildlife, Freepost, London, N4 1BR.