Illegal wildlife trade endangers plants — but few are listening


9 October 2018 11:36
Wild orchids harvested to make salep © A Hinsley
Wild orchids harvested to make salep

Environment ministers and experts from across the globe are meeting at the London Conference on the Illegal Wildlife Trade this week to make high-level commitments to tackle the illegal wildlife trade. But plants – including many of the world’s most endangered species – will be side-lined.

Plants are missing from the agenda for the London Conference, which will focus on topics such as elephant ivory, exotic pets and organised crime. This is despite calls from across the conservation field to give plants a voice.

Dr Jacob Phelps, of the Lancaster Environment Centre, and Dr Amy Hinsley of the Oxford Martin Programme on Illegal Wildlife Trade, are helping to tackle the problem of so-called ‘plant blindness’. The term ‘plant blindness’ was coined over 20 years ago referring to the lack of attention plants receive in high-level discussions about wildlife.

Both are members of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature Species Survival Commission (IUCN SSC), which has written to the UK Government, highlighting the problems with illegal plant trade and discussing its contribution to the biodiversity crisis.

 “Plants are the most illegally traded wildlife in the world, including as medicines, ornamental plants and food,” said Dr Phelps, chair of the IUCN SSC Orchid Specialist Group. “We are not only losing critical biodiversity, but also species that are important to people’s livelihoods and that provide essential functions for all life on earth.

“It is understandable that the London Conference has a strong focus on charismatic animals, such as elephants and tigers. However, we cannot afford to overlook the thousands of other species also threatened by illegal trade, including plants, reptiles and fish.”

IUCN SSC are warning participants at the London Conference about the risks of continuing to overlook the illegal trade in plants.

More than 365 protected plant species currently openly traded via Amazon and EBay; Cacti, for example, are among the world’s most threatened species. A recent IUCN assessment indicates that wildlife trade is the leading threat to 47% of all known species.

Orchids are the largest family of flowering plants, and represent 70% of all species listed on the CITES Convention, which limits the international trade in endangered species (alongside elephants and rhinoceros). This includes slipper orchids, 80% of which are threatened with extinction, largely due to horticultural trade. Illegal trade of orchids is rampant and countries have done little to respond

Dr Hinsley said: ““These staggering numbers speak for themselves. The evidence is clear that, if governments and conservation organisations claim interest in combating the illegal wildlife trade, then they should also prioritise plants.”

Dr Phelps added: “While we are glad plants will have this presence at the conference, we hope that in future years they won’t just be side-lined to a conference booth, but will be given full consideration for exactly what they are: wildlife.”

IUCN SSC Orchid Specialist Group – Global Trade Programme will host a booth at the London Conference, urging policy-makers, conservationists and media to pay greater attention to plants when setting illegal wildlife trade commitments, and priorities.

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