22 October 2018

The illegal trade that threatens our natural world

Plants are under threat from illegal trading, which makes millions of dollars out of their harvesting. Kew has joined forces with the international community to try and reign in the damage.

By Meryl Westlake

Orchid, RBG Kew

Illegal Wildlife Trade 

Significant and irreparable damage to our planet’s lush biodiversity is being made by criminals, illegal deforestation and black-market sales. 

Estimated at up to $10 billion, the Illegal Wildlife Trade programme considers it one of the highest valued illicit trade sectors in the world. 

The illegal trading of wildlife usually conjures images of shark fins and rhino horns. 

Now, the international stage has recognised that the threat to plants is equally as detrimental – and needs saving. 

Kew is firmly part of that global fight. 

What is being traded? 

In October 2018, the UK Government hosted the Illegal Wildlife Trade Conference in London. 

Global leaders came together to make strides in eradicating illegal wildlife trade, and for the first time included aims to protect the world’s most iconic species from threat of extinction. 

Nearly 7,000 different plant species were found in more than 164,000 seizures across 120 countries. 

Timber, orchids, cacti, medicinal plants, or plants used for tourist knick-knacks, musical instrument materials and food have all been illegally harvested, heavily depleting wild plant populations. 

Orchids, wanted for ornamental use or as part of food supplements, dominate the illegal trade in plants over the world. 

Illegal logging is one of the most destructive wildlife crimes. At 35% of the total illegal trade, it makes up more than elephants and rhinos. Tree species like the Rosewood tree, used for furniture, have been overharvested to the point of near-extinction. 

In fact, rosewood made up 35% of total wildlife seizures between 2005 and 2014. 

Oud, a resin from a handful of trees species used in cosmetics and perfume, suffers a similar fate. 

One tiny kilo of woodchips is worth thousands of dollars. Hard to track once produced into tiny powder or oil states, it’s very difficult to determine how much is being illegally trafficked. 

Looting and unnecessary felling to find the rare resin has contributed to making these species endangered. 

How are we trying to stop it? 

International governments and INGOs are all working together to identify and regulate the trade of protected species of flora and fauna. 

Kew is the designated UK CITES Scientific Authority for Flora and has an active role in implementing CITES, or the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. 

CITES controls and monitors over 30,000 plants threatened by international trade. Over 180 countries have signed the convention to protect listed plants and animals. 

Working with Border Force and police forces, authorities have been able to seize and protect thousands of species that were likely caught up in illegal trade. Kew’s contribution to enforcement is primarily species identification, whether its medicinal plants or derivatives, timber, or live plants, and this allows enforcement officers to determine whether the trade is legal or illegal. 

The illegal trade in wildlife has yet to show signs of slowing down. 

However, by joining these global forums, Kew’s scientists and horticulturalists are now at the forefront in controlling the movement of the world’s most endangered species.