Europe Urged to Restrain Booming Wildlife Trade

BRUSSELS, Belgium, May 30, 2007 (ENS) - Caviar, tropical timber, rare live reptiles and reptile skins - the European Union is one of the biggest global markets for wildlife trade, which has a devastating impact on the survival of many endangered species and their environment.

The first analysis of the volume and scope of wildlife imports to Europe was released in a report today by TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network, ahead of an international conference on trade in endangered species that opens next week in The Netherlands.

Fiji banded iguana, Brachylophus fasciatus, seized at customs. This species is endangered due to habitat loss and the introduction of predators. (Photo © WWF-Canon / Wil Luiijf)
TRAFFIC works to ensure that trade in wild plants and animals is not a threat to the conservation of nature. TRAFFIC is a joint program of the global conservation organization WWF and IUCN-The World Conservation Union.

"As EU membership has expanded, so has the size of the market and demand for wildlife products,” said Rob Parry-Jones, Head of TRAFFIC Europe, who co-authored the report with Maylynn Engler.

Since May 2004, the European Union has expanded from 15 to 27 member states.

More than 170 governments will meet in The Hague from June 3 to 15 for the triennial Conference of the Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, CITES.

Because this is the first CITES conference to be held in the European Union, WWF and TRAFFIC believe the meeting provides an opportunity for the EU to lead the way in promoting sustainable wildlife trade worldwide.

"It is important that the EU adopts a clear strategic plan that guarantees external assistance to countries where wildlife products originate, to ensure their trade is sustainable," says Delia Villagrasa, advisor to WWF European Policy Office.

The legal trade of wildlife products into the EU alone was worth €93 billion in 2005, TRAFFIC estimates.

Wildlife imports to Europe include caviar from the Caspian Sea, snakeskin handbags and shoes, rare reptiles as pets, as well as billiard cues made of ramin, a tropical hardwood tree from Southeast Asian forests.

TRAFFIC estimates that from 2000 to 2005, Europe imported 3.4 million lizard, 2.9 million crocodile, and 3.4 million snake skins, all species listed under CITES, along with 300,000 live snakes for the pet trade.

During the same period, the EU imported 424 metric tons of sturgeon caviar - more than half of all global imports.

In 2004 alone, Europe imported more than 10 million cubic meters of tropical timber from Africa, South America and Asia, worth €1.2 billion.

Illegal logging in the rainforest along the Rio Las Piedras, near the Alto Purus Reserved Zone, department Madre de Dios, Peru. (Photo © WWF-Canon / Andrι Bartschi)
Increasing demand for wildlife products is fueling both the legal and the illegal trade despite existing EU regulations and export-import trade rules, the TRAFFIC report finds.

"While much wildlife trade is legal," said Parry-Jones, "we cannot ignore the growing illegal trade stemming from the demand for exotic pets, timber and other wildlife products," he said. "This is a serious threat to the survival of species such as reptiles and sturgeons."

From 2003 to 2004, enforcement authorities in the EU made over 7,000 seizures involving over 3.5 million CITES-listed specimens.

"Unsustainable and illegal trade is a major factor driving biodiversity loss and poses a serious threat to the long-term survival of species," the report warns.

Species at risk from the illegal trade include the big-leaf mahogany, Swietenia macrophylla, the vicuna, Vicugna vicugna, a South American camelid that produces small amounts of extremely fine wool, and several sturgeon species prized for their caviar.

Caviar confiscated by customs officers at Heathrow Airport. United Kingdom (Photo © WWF-Canon / Edward Parker)
From 2000 to 2005, almost 12 metric tons of caviar were seized by law enforcement officials.

Some seizures demonstrate the seriousness of the problem of illegal wildlife trade. In the last four years, seizures in the EU of the Critically Endangered Egyptian tortoise represented around 13 percent of the estimated population of these animals remaining in the wild.

The demand for rare specimens and products means that black market values can be very high. TRAFFIC reports that certain species of tortoise can fetch €30,000 per individual animal.

High prices paid for rare wildlife, low penalties and low political awareness allow the illegal trade to flourish. "It is little wonder that organized crime syndicates are engaged in wildlife crime," the report says.

"Illegal wildlife trade also affects the economies of developing countries," the report states, "Illegal logging costs developing country governments an estimated €10–15 billion every year in lost revenue."

WWF and TRAFFIC point out in the report that well-regulated and legal trade can bring benefits to local people, local economies and conservation.

For instance, the EU imports 95 percent of all vicuna wool produced, providing income for 700,000 people in impoverished Andean communities.

The vicuna is a wild relation of the llama that is sheared and its wool is exported under CITES rules from Bolivia, Peru, Argentina and Chile. Sustainable development of the Vicuna wool trade has been supported by Italy, Germany and the European Commission.

Although the EU has achieved some successes in managing the wildlife trade, the TRAFFIC report finds it could do more to control illegal trade and to support exporting countries.

The report, "Opportunity or threat: The role of the European Union in the global wildlife trade," is online at: or