The black-winged myna of Indonesia is one of 271 species threatened by the wildlife trade, but it has not been protected under international law.

JOEL SARTORE/NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC PHOTO ARK

It can take a decade for species endangered by wildlife trade to get protection

In just a decade, the number of black-winged myna birds found in the species’ home range in Indonesia has declined by more than 80%. A big reason is the wild bird trade: The ravishing black and white plumage and bright, complex trills of the myna (Acridotheres melanopterus) have made it a coveted prize among collectors. Now, less than 50 remain in the wild.

Despite the myna’s descent toward extinction, however, international policymakers have taken no steps to protect it. And according to new research, the myna’s situation is no outlier: On average, it can take 10 years for nations to agree on protections for species already known to be at risk from the wildlife trade.

The study “underscores the need for quicker action to protect species threatened by the wildlife trade,” says Ginette Hemley, senior vice president of wildlife conservation at the World Wildlife Fund in Washington, D.C., who was not involved in the research. “Identifying this gap is a great starting point for a lot more work to come.” 

Though elephants, rhinos, and tigers headline the trade in endangered wildlife, thousands of other lesser-known species are also hunted, captured, or maimed to turn a profit. To see whether species scientists consider imperiled are also getting attention from global policymakers, the researchers compared two lists. The first is an authoritative tally of 958 threatened species affected by the international wildlife trade compiled by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in Gland, Switzerland. The second is of species protected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), the primary international agreement aimed at curbing the wildlife trade.

“We thought we would see tight agreement” between the IUCN and CITES lists, says Eyal Frank, an economist at the University of Chicago and co-author of the paper. But the researchers found that more than one-quarter, or 28%, of IUCN’s at-risk species are not protected under CITES, the authors report today in Science. And they found that once IUCN lists a species as threatened, it takes an average of 10 years to receive protection under CITES. Some species are still waiting, 24 years after making the IUCN list.

The study suggests that while “the wildlife trade is so dynamic … the process by which we evaluate and respond to it with policy is often too slow—trade can drive a species to extinction before we realize it’s happening,” says Julie Lockwood, an ecologist from Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, who was not involved in the study.

These findings are not all bad news, Hemley says. CITES protects 95% of species flagged by IUCN as being most severely threatened by the wildlife trade, the researchers found.

IUCN scientist Dan Challender in Oxford, U.K., says his organization has had productive conversations with CITES leadership about how to more effectively provide conservation data to CITES member countries. “We are working with CITES to close the gap this paper identifies, but these two lists are very different conservation tools—a CITES listing requires very different criteria,” Challender says.

For a species to be protected by CITES, one of the member countries must recommend adding the species the protected list and the proposal must receive a two-thirds majority vote. But nations sometimes oppose a listing because of political or economic concerns. For example, proposals to ban trade in the Atlantic bluefin tuna (Thunnus thynnus) have been blocked by countries interested in continuing to catch and consume the hulking fish.

CITES member countries should clear the backlog of threatened but unprotected species by creating an automatic pathway from the IUCN list to CITES proposals, argue Frank and co-author David Wilcove, an ecologist Princeton University. The authors also suggest countries should move to use IUCN’s information to unilaterally protect threatened species within their own borders.

CITES members and the international conservation community will meet in May in Sri Lanka to discuss and vote on new proposals. CITES Secretary-General Ivonne Higuero says a number of the species identified by this study are among the 57 proposals set to be discussed and voted on at the meeting. The study’s findings, she adds, “provide valuable food for thought.”

“CITES and the IUCN are by far some of our most important conservation institutions,” Frank says. “We are simply trying to equip both with a measure of how we are applying scientific knowledge to guide policy now and in the future.”