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23% of world’s birds are bought and sold illegally, study says

global wildlife trade
Doves, parakeets, and songbirds sit in cages at a market in Vietnam in March 2019. Photo by Al.geba/

Nearly one-fourth of the world’s bird species are bought and sold on the wildlife market, according to a new study.

The research, published today in the journal Science, finds that about 18 percent of all living terrestrial vertebrate species — birds, mammals, amphibians, and reptiles — are illegally traded. That’s 40-60 percent higher than prior estimates.

The study breaks down the global wildlife trade like this:

  • Birds — total number of traded species: 2,345, or 23% of all bird species
  • Mammals — total number of traded species: 1,441, or 27% of all mammal species
  • Amphibians — total number of traded species: 609, or 9.4% of all amphibian species
  • Reptiles — total number of traded species: 1,184, or 12.4% of all reptile species

Authors Brett Scheffers, Brunno Oliveira, and colleagues note that wildlife trade has driven the Bali Myna to “the cusp of extinction in the wild,” and “growing demand for the ivory-like casque of the Helmeted Hornbill (Rhinoplax vigil) resulted in tens of thousands of birds traded annually since around 2012.”

“Our results suggest that, for birds—but not for mammals, amphibians, or reptiles—traded species are more evolutionarily distinctive than nontraded species,” the authors write. “Humans have long admired birds’ aesthetic attributes, including song and plumage complexity, and perhaps this long-standing admiration is reflected in the bird trade.”


The researchers who led the study also developed a model to predict which species that aren’t traded now would likely be traded in the future, a tool that could help traditionally reactive wildlife managers become more proactive, they say. The trade of wildlife as pets or for animal products, such as horns, ivory, medicines, or meat, is a multi-billion-dollar industry. It is also widely recognized as one of the most severe threats to plants and animals.

The paper notes: “Some highly colorful bird groups at high risk of future trade include Tangara tanagers, Serinus finches, and Ploceus weavers, whereas Rhinella beaked toads and Rhinolophus horseshoe bats are the highest-risk amphibian and mammal genera, respectively.”

The most biodiverse tropical regions are the hotbeds of the wildlife trade, the study says. A new article from a vice president at the Wildlife Conservation Society offers hope, however. In a commentary on the website Mongabay, Susan Lieberman writes: Finally, Latin America is tackling wildlife trafficking.


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