Species at Risk
Thousands of elephants are killed every year to fuel the global demand of ivory.
African elephant populations have fallen from an estimated 12 million a century ago to around 350,000. According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), more than 100,000 African elephants were killed during 2006-2015, with poaching for ivory as the main driver of this decline. As a result of global conservation efforts, poaching rates have been slightly, yet steadily, declining over the past few years across Africa. The annual poaching mortality rate has dropped from an estimated peak of over 10% in 2011 to approximately 5% today. We are still losing elephants faster than they can reproduce.
Commercial international trade in the ivory of African elephants is prohibited under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). The United States, United Kingdom, Japan, and China have recently imposed bans on the domestic ivory trade to further protect elephants. Despite increased conservation efforts, elephant populations continue to decline in some countries. If poaching continues, the long-term survival of African elephants is still uncertain. The IUCN Red List classifies African savanna elephants as “Endangered” and African forest elephants as “Critically Endangered.”
A larger number of Asian elephants are tuskless, so they are not nearly as widely trafficked as elephants in Africa. However, they are still under threat from the ivory trade and are also poached for their skin—used in traditional medicine and shaped into polished beads to make jewelry. Asian elephants are also taken from the wild to supply the tourism industry in Southeast Asia. The IUCN Red List classifies Asian elephants as “Endangered” and they are listed in Appendix I of CITES.
An average of three rhinos are killed per day in South Africa.
Rhinoceroses are rapidly disappearing from the wild due to high demand for their horn, used primarily in traditional medicines. One fifth of the remaining population of African rhinos have been killed since 2008, and only 3,000 Asian rhinos remain in the wild. All five species of rhino receive some level of protection from the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), and they range from “near threatened” to “critically endangered” according to the IUCN Red List.
Pangolins are believed to be the most trafficked mammals on earth.
More than one million pangolins have been poached from the wild in the last decade alone, killed in large numbers to meet a growing demand for their meat, skins, and scales. All eight species are at risk of extinction. Pangolins have very few defenses and will roll up in a ball as a response to predators, which makes them susceptible to poaching. All eight species of pangolin are listed in Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), meaning that all international trade is prohibited; and the IUCN Red List classifies them from “vulnerable” to “critically endangered.”
Sharks and Rays
Every year, approximately 100 million sharks and 5,000 manta rays are killed.
More than 400 species of shark exist in our world’s oceans, but a quarter of shark species are now facing extinction. Illegal and unsustainable fishing due to high demand for shark fins, which are used to make soup, have led to a rapid decline of shark species globally.
Fourteen shark species are now listed in Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which requires that any international trade in these species be legal and not detrimental to populations in the wild. This includes, the oceanic white tip shark, basking shark, whale shark, great white shark, porbeagle shark, thresher sharks (all three species), hammerhead sharks (smooth, great, scalloped), silky shark, and shortfin and longfin mako sharks. The IUCN Red List lists these fourteen species from “vulnerable” to “endangered.”
Manta rays, which are caught throughout their range in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans, are killed for their gills to supply the demand for traditional medicine. Both manta ray species—reef and giant—are listed as “vulnerable” on the IUCN red list and are included in CITES Appendix II.
Tigers and other Cats
Nearly half of all cat species are threatened with extinction.
Tigers and other wild cats are in demand as live animals, skins, bones and other parts and products. All wild cats receive some level of protection under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), meaning international trade of live animals or their parts is either prohibited or highly regulated.
Tigers are one of the most threatened victims of illegal trade. In the last century, 97% of the wild tiger population has disappeared, and less than 4,000 tigers remain in the wild. Of the eight subspecies of tiger, three are already extinct. The remaining subspecies throughout their range are being decimated due largely to the value of tiger bones and other body parts in traditional medicine, falsely believed to have aphrodisiac and curative properties.
Since 1980, the cheetah population has fallen by about 90% in Africa; and in Asia, only about 200 remain in the wild. Cheetahs are caught to supply the illicit trade, driven largely by high demand in the Middle East to own them as pets.
Many other wild cat species are also at risk from poaching and illegal trade. Jaguars and leopards are under threat from growing demand for their skin/fur, teeth and claws; and lion bone is traded illegally for traditional medicine.
All seven remaining sea turtle species are at risk of extinction.
Sea turtles are one of Earth’s oldest creatures, existing for over 100 million years. Sea turtles are threatened by poaching and illegal trade in the water and on nesting beaches. Sea turtles are frequently poached for their eggs, meat, skin and shells. All sea turtle species are listed in Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), meaning that commercial trade is prohibited. The critically endangered hawksbill sea turtle has seen a 90% decline in the last century due to over-collection for their shell, which is sold as “tortoiseshell” trinkets and souvenirs around the world. Sea turtle nests are frequently poached to supply the demand for eggs, which are considered a delicacy or to have aphrodisiac properties in certain markets. Sea turtles are also illegally caught to supply the demand for leather and meat.
Tortoises and Freshwater Turtles
Nearly half of the world’s freshwater turtles and tortoises are at risk of extinction.
Tortoises and freshwater turtles are also some of the most heavily trafficked victims of the global exotic pet trade, as well as the trade in meat, shell pieces and other parts and products. Tortoise species such as the radiated tortoise, ploughshare tortoise, leopard tortoise and star tortoise are in high demand in the live pet trade. Asian freshwater turtle species, such as the Yunnan box turtle, golden box turtle and Vietnamese pond turtle are particularly endangered, where they are traded illegally by the thousands to supply the demands for live animals, meat and shells. But native U.S. species, such as spotted turtles and bog turtles are also at risk, primarily due to poaching to supply the pet trade.
Every year, millions of live birds are traded illegally and sold into the live pet trade. Many won’t survive the capture and transport process, resulting in even more deaths. Other birds are traded for falconry or as feathers or other parts and products.
Wildlife trafficking is one of the biggest threats to endangered birds throughout the world as demand to own exotic pets and use of their parts continues to increase. Songbirds (particularly in Asia) are heavily traded to be kept as pets, or for singing competitions popular in Asia, Europe and Latin America.
The helmeted hornbill, found primarily in Indonesia, Borneo and Thailand, has a red beak (also known as “red ivory”) that is illegally traded to make jewelry and other trinkets. They are also caught for their tail feathers. The helmeted hornbill is now classified as “critically endangered” on the IUCN Red List and is listed in Appendix I of from the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), meaning that international trade is prohibited.
Seahorses, Corals and other Marine Species
Corals, mollusks, seahorses and numerous other marine species are removed from the wild illegally to supply the demands for live specimens for the aquarium and food trades, curios sold as tourist souvenirs, and as traditional medicines.
Corals are threatened by a variety of factors, including illegal harvest of live coral for the aquarium trade and dead coral skeletons to make curios and jewelry. Many coral species are protected under international, domestic or even state environmental laws. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) protects stony corals, blue corals, black corals, red/pink corals, organ pipe corals, lace corals, and fire corals.
Queen conch populations are declining in many parts of the world due to overfishing and poaching. Conch shells and jewelry made from shells are commonly sold to tourists and live conch are illegally harvested for meat. Queen conch are listed in Appendix II under CITES on Appendix II, which requires that any international trade in these species be legal and not detrimental to populations in the wild.
High demand for abalone, considered a seafood delicacy in China and other parts of Asia, has led to a multi-billion dollar illicit trade from South Africa. Despite listing in Appendix III CITES, excessive amounts are still illegally harvested at a rate that is unsustainable for this species.
Worldwide, seahorses are in trouble in large part due to a massive illegal global trade. Seahorses are often illegally traded for use in traditional medicines, sold as souvenirs to travelers, or used for home aquariums. All seahorse species are listed in Appendix II of CITES, which requires that any international trade in these species be legal and not detrimental to populations in the wild.
Rising demand for American eels, which are often poached as juvenile “glass” eels and smuggled to Asian markets to be raised for food, has led to rampant poaching along the eastern United States. Juvenile eel harvesting is now prohibited in the U.S. except in Maine, South Carolina and Florida, although Maine and South Carolina heavily regulate eel fisheries to prevent overfishing.
Snakes, lizards, crocodilians
Snakes, lizards and crocodilians are often found in illegal trade to supply the demand for live animals, skins, meat, and other parts and products. Pythons, monitor lizards and crocodiles are often poached and illegally traded to supply the demand for exotic leathers. Endemic snakes and lizards such as Australian pythons and New Zealand geckos are in demand in the high-end pet market. Cobras and other snakes are sought after in Asia for their supposed medicinal value. Although many of these species are protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), poaching and illegal trade remain a very real threat to their survival.
Iconic primates such as chimpanzees and orangutans, as well as lesser known species such as squirrel monkeys and marmosets, are taken illegally from the wild to supply the demand for exotic pets. Often, adult animals are killed so that valuable babies can be captured, meaning that several animals may be killed for one to make it to market, where its chances of survival are very low. Despite all primates being protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), the illegal primate trade continues to threaten the survival of many species.