Plant and Wildlife Trade in the Tropics
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Plant and wildlife trade takes place all over the world and is a multi-billion dollar business. Most developed countries have laws and regulations dealing with the harvest of plants and animals. Undeveloped countries, however, lack many of these laws and most of these countries lie within tropical regions making conservation issues even more important and the harvest of the plants and animals devastating. Both legal and illegal wildlife trade are growing in the world and pose major obstacles to conservation efforts and in many cases are the single biggest threats to wildlife. In 2005 the legal trade in wildlife was valued at 21 billion dollars and is growing rapidly (Santos et al, 2001). This figure does not include the timber trade or the illegal trade in wildlife, much of which goes undocumented. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) estimated in 2007 that illegal wildlife trade was valued between $5 and $20 billion per year. Plants and wildlife are traded for a variety of reasons including food, collections, trophies, exotic pets, fashion and cultural items, accessories such as furs, and traditional medicines. Illegal wildlife trade is the largest illegal business in the world after narcotics. A fundamental problem with the illegal wildlife trade is there are big rewards with little risks. China and the United States are the two largest importers of illegal wildlife (Marshall, 2006).

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Drivers of the Wildlife Trade
The socioeconomic dynamics of the illegal wildlife trade are often complicated problems to address. One factor that contributes to this growing world problem is a lack of cooperation among countries in tropical regions to legislate and enforce wildlife laws. In addition, many of these countries have corruption within the governments counteracting any positive steps in the right direction. Combining these problems with wide spread poverty you have an environment set up for illegal activity. The illegal wildlife trade is a very lucrative business with little risk making it appealing to the rich and the poor. A study examining expert opinion conducted in 2008 by TRAFFIC identified socio-economic profiles for wildlife harvesters in Cambodia, Indonesia, Lao PDR, and Vietnam. In the majority of the cases, the harvesters were adult men while women and children’s involvement was only 20% and 10% (TRAFFIC, 2008). The experts also stated that the plants and animals were harvested on planned occasions and were harvested specifically for trade as opposed to opportunistic harvesting events and that the harvesting was needed for a source of income or emergency situations. In 75% of the cases the trade-chains in plants and wildlife are well established and that the parties involved were usually the same people year after year and that most of the harvesters did not sell directly to the consumers but to some sort of middle men. These experts also reported that local people were involved in nearly all cases of wildlife harvesting and that the poorest constituted the majority. One of the largest drivers of the wildlife trade are the consumers. When there is a demand for a product there will be a supply, whether its trophies, pets, food for the poor, delicacies for the rich, or anything in between. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) is responsible for regulating and managing wildlife within the United States. The FWS is charged with inspecting shipments into the US and confiscating shipments that violate US wildlife law, and in some cases rejects them. From 1997-2003 the U.S. Fish and wildlife Service collected data on the U. S. involvement in the international wildlife trade and made several important findings. It was shown that that was a general increase in shipments into the US over the study period and is still rising. Canada was found to be the largest supplier by number of shipments while Mexico was the largest supplier of shipments that were rejected for violation of US wildlife law (FWS, 2003). The number of live animals that entered the US in 2003 was over 235 million animal’s out of this 210 million were for the tropical fish trade. The largest number of shipment refusals during this study period constituted sea turtle parts such as eggs, meat, shells, creams, and leather (FWS, 2003).

Impacts of the Wildlife Trade
The loss of biodiversity is one of the most significant impacts of the wildlife trade. As plants and animals are harvested at unsustainable rates, entire ecosystems are altered and species are driven to extinction. Plants and animals from nearly every taxa are harvested for one reason or another with some of the most notable being tigers, elephants, and birds. Unsustainable harvesting has already driven many species to extinction, including animals such as tigers and lions, and has left thousands of animals at risk of becoming extinct if they are continuously harvested unsustainably. The pet trade is one area that has had an astonishing impact on wild animal populations. One of the most popular groups of animals in the pet trade is the birds, especially the parrots (family Psittacidae) which have more endangered species than any other bird family. This is especially true in the neotropics where 31% of the parrot species are threatened with global extinction due to high rates of poaching parrot chicks for the pet trade (Wright et al. 2001). Another highly popular group of animals for the pet trade are the fishes. Each year millions of tropical fish are removed for coral reefs to support a growing demand for aquarium fish, the majority of these fish end up in the United States (Rhyne et al, 2012). Since 1990 there has been a shift from aquariums containing just fish to aquariums with miniature coral reefs. Because of this, thousands of species of marine fish, invertebrates, and corals are harvested for the aquarium trade, many of which perform critical ecosystem roles. Coral reefs are also directly destroyed in the process of harvesting fish. Commonly used fishing methods, such as fishing with dynamite and fishing with chemicals, such as cyanide, have devastating impacts on the reef systems. In Southeast Asia, a commonly used fishing technique called “muro-ami”, uses pounding devices, which are usually large stones attached to ropes, and encircling nets. The rocks or cement blocks are repeatedly and violently lowered onto the coral reef, encircled by the net, to smash the coral reef in order to scare the fish out of their hiding places. These fishing techniques have left large tracts of reef completely destroyed. Introduced species constitute another important aspect of the wildlife trade. As Plants and animals are shipped around the world, accidental and intentional releases occur with devastating effects on the local environment. Invasive species can pose ecological threats on a grand scale by outcompeting native species and altering the structure of the ecosystem thereby driving the extinction of native plants and animals. There are thousands of introduced species around the globe. Some of the more notable invasive species in the US are the Zebra Mussel; an accidental release from the ballast tanks of cargo ships, and House Sparrows and European Starlings both intentional introductions. The subtropical climate of Florida creates a perfect environment for introduced tropical animals such as reptiles and amphibians that may not survive in other parts of the US. Many of these invasive animals come to Florida through the pet trade and comprise a wide range of fish, such as the Snakehead or Red-bellied Piranha; reptiles like the Nile River Monitor or Burmese Python, and even other highly venomous snakes. The spread of zoonotic diseases (infectious diseases carried and transmitted by animals) and the risks of infection have also increased with the increase in the wildlife trade. Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and highly pathogenic avian influenza (H5N1) are just two of the recent examples of the severe health risks that can be traced back to wild, undomesticated animals, particularly, animals destined for human consumption whether legally or illegally such as through the bushmeat trade (Swift et al, 2007). The spread of zoonotic diseases from the wildlife trade has also threatened agricultural animal stocks and native wildlife populations, as well as the overall health of global ecosystems. Outbreaks resulting from wildlife trade have caused hundreds of billions of dollars of economic damage globally (Karesh, et al 2005).

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Current Laws and regulations
The United States has a variety of laws that address the legal and illegal wildlife trades. These laws include the Endangered Species Act of 1973 and the Lacey Act and Lacey Act Amendments of 1981. The US also helps to regulate international laws such as the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the United Nations Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) which is the primary international treaty governing wildlife trade (Congressional Research Service, 2008). Even within developed countries such as the US with laws regulating wildlife trade, illegal trade still takes place on a large scale and in tropical countries where there are no laws, or enforcement of existing laws, the illegal wildlife trade is running unrestricted. CITES, which was established in 1973, is an international agreement between 150 nations that regulate trade of over 30,000 endangered plant and animal species. The central role of CITES is to protect wildlife collected for international trade by ensuring they are not harvested unsustainably. CITES is divided up into three appendices: Appendix I prohibits international trade of species threatened with extinction, although there are non-commercial exceptions such as hunting trophies. Appendix II protects species not currently threatened with extinction, but of high risk of becoming threatened if trade is not controlled, and allows commercial trade via permits; and Appendix III protects species upon request of needed Parties and permits less restrictive controlled trade than Appendix II, (Santos et al, 2001). Currently there is much debate over whether or not trade bans are an effective means of conservation because many animals, such as elephants and rhinoceroses, are still harvested despite their CITES listing. This, in part, may be due to an animal’s increase in value as it becomes more endangered or because of its legal status, i.e. being illegal makes them more valuable on the black market.

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Education and awareness play key roles in the wildlife trade and conservation, specifically, a need for the understanding of basic core principles in conservation, sustainability, ecology, and economics. Awareness is important for all consumers. Consumers need to be consciously aware of what they are buying and where it came from. This includes meals in restaurants, especially when traveling, purchasing pets from pet stores, or shopping for clothing. A fundamental concept in economics is the supply and demand chain. Reducing the value and demand for plants and wildlife will reduce the supply. The United States is one of the world’s largest importers of illegal wildlife. By reducing our desire for exotic plants and animals we will reduce the need to harvest them in the tropical regions of the world. Supporting conservation efforts also helps tremendously. This can be simple things like reducing consumption, avoiding exotic pets and plants, donations, and active participation in legislation concerning the wildlife trade practices. An important aspect of wildlife legislation is the enforcement of such laws. Simply passing wildlife trade laws without the ability to properly implement and enforce them may do more harm than good by driving up the prices of the animals, making them more valuable. In addition, a need for stricter penalties is needed. One of the reasons the wildlife trade is so big and growing is because there are not strong enough penalties for the violations. In some Asian countries possession of critically endangered animals is no more that a small fine, if anything. Improvement in wildlife forensic science training, especially for inspectors of international shipments is necessary to combat the illegal markets. Many illegal plants and animals come into the United States because of a lack of expert abilities to discern between legal and illegal wildlife. Many smugglers will mix illegal plants and animals with legal look-alikes making it difficult to identify illegal shipments.

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The global trade in plants and animals is a billion dollar business and is one of the most threatening forces on the environment and in many cases is the leading threat to the existence and survival of hundreds of species all around the world. The need to better regulate legal trade and stop illegal trading is paramount to the future of our planet. These devastating and heartbreaking practices can be stopped if people and countries come together to solve the problem.

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