The world is dealing with unprecedented threats to wildlife. The loss of habitat from farming, mining and new urban developments has dramatically decreased the natural space for wildlife. Add to that the human demand for wildlife products—which generates as much as US$23 billion annually—and an estimated one million plant and animal species are threatened with extinction. Illegal wildlife trade continues to pose a real danger to biodiversity, ecosystems and human health, as a number of emerging diseases stem from animal products, both domestic and wild.
The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) hosts the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wildlife Fauna and Flora, known as CITES, which regulates trade in roughly 5,800 species of animals and 35,000 species of plants to prevent overexploitation. Roughly 20,000 elephants are killed each year in Africa, while more tigers are believed to be held in captive breeding facilities throughout Asia than are in the wild, where it is estimated that only 3,800 remain.
Biological diversity is the core of healthy and productive ecosystems and the benefits that humans gain from a thriving natural environment are vast. UNEP, together with other United Nations agencies, governments, international organizations and the private sector, is working to raise awareness, enforce laws and enlisting the support of local communities to stop the illegal trade in wildlife.
Here are three ways that UNEP works to address this illegal trade:
UNEP supports the legal and sustainable management and trade of wildlife, in compliance with national and international law
As long as it is conducted sustainably and is well regulated, trade in wildlife often has positive conservation outcomes, as it provides incentives for good management of both habitats and the populations of species in trade. It can also produce jobs for local communities that reduce the desire to overuse or transform natural areas. In this way, sustainable trade can ensure the long-term survival of wildlife by generating income to support its management and conservation.
Through a collaborative initiative, UNEP and the CITES Secretariat help countries and territories, upon their request, strengthen their environmental governance to meet CITES requirements to combat illegal trade in wildlife. This is done by designating at least one Management Authority and one Scientific Authority; prohibiting trade in specimens in violation of the Convention; penalizing illegal trade; and confiscating specimens illegally possessed.
UNEP advocates for an end to illegal wildlife trade globally
UNEP is working with other United Nations agencies and secretariats such as CITES to stamp out illegal sale and trafficking in wildlife both domestically and internationally. It works to improve the enactment of national legislation and helps countries partner up to address transboundary issues of trafficked products at ports of entry. Globally, corruption is a serious problem that impedes combating the illegal wildlife trade. This is why, UNEP provides support through trainings of judges, law enforcement and custom officials on combatting wildlife crime and developing rule of law.
Through its Wild for Life campaign, UNEP also raises the public’s awareness and understanding of the social, economic and environmental impacts of the illegal trade using famous influencers, which can reach one billion people through their social channels. In this way it aims to strengthen international efforts to develop and demand reduction for illegally-sourced wildlife products.
UNEP supports conservation of the world’s biodiverse habitats
At least two-thirds of the planet’s land and seas have been transformed by human activity. Habitat degradation and destruction results in the unprecedented loss of species we are currently seeing—by some estimates as much as 1,000 times greater than any recorded time in history.
Habitat destruction can also increase the exposure of humans to zoonotic diseases (illnesses that arise from human contact with animals). Scientists suggest that degraded habitats may even encourage more rapid evolutionary processes and diversification of diseases. This is why UNEP works towards strengthening the scientific evidence base for policymakers. In 2016, UNEP published its Frontiers 2016 Report on Emerging Issues of Environment Concern, which included a chapter on emerging zoonotic diseases, such as Ebola, bird flu, Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), Rift Valley fever, sudden acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), West Nile virus, and Zika virus disease.
“In the last two decades, emerging diseases have had direct costs of more than US$100 billion; if these outbreaks had become human pandemics, the losses would have amounted to several trillion dollars,” the report said.
As a result of UNEP’s work, significant progress has been made in garnering global high-level engagement in support of environmental governance, as well as mobilizing political will to achieve more impact at the national level.