Why the habit of wanting to own a piece of nature’s beauty needs to be broken

The US banned trade in salamanders for spreading a disease that threatened wild populations. Shutterstock

When thinking about wildlife, what image first comes to mind? Elephants rubbing up against trees, or perhaps tigers stalking deer through the jungle? Unfortunately humans’ love affair of wildlife is also associated with a darker side: the desire to have a little piece of it for ourselves.

World Wildlife Day, celebrated each year on March 3 commemorates the day on which the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) was signed. Trade in wildlife is defined as the sale or exchange of wild animal and plant resources by people.

The legal side of this trade was valued at US$ 160 billion in the 1990s. But by 2009 the wildlife monitoring network TRAFFIC estimated that the value of global imports in wildlife trade had risen above US$ 323 billion. Trade in wildlife is on the increase in many economies, and that’s the reason World Wildlife Day is a good chance to have everyone think harder about their role in wildlife trade.

The illegal trade in wildlife

The size and scale of the illegal wildlife trade is practically impossible to quantify. It’s been estimated as being worth hundreds of billions of dollars, but the impact on biodiversity is probably far costlier. Some of the species that are being traded play important roles in our lives.

Trade in animals is out of control. This has a negative effect not only on the species that are removed from the wild, but may subsequently lead to the spread of diseases, and some may even form invasive populations that threaten biodiversity in other areas.

For example, the trade in amphibians, both for frogs’ legs (yes, there is still a global demand) and as pets, has led directly to invasive populations of many species which now threaten amphibian diversity. In addition, these animals may be responsible for the spread a fungal disease around the world, which has already driven many frog species to extinction.

The motivation to own a piece

Trade in wildlife is driven on three fronts.

  1. The dwindling resources in many areas, especially urban areas, send people back to rural settings to gather timber or bush meat.

  2. The strong beliefs that pieces of animals and plants can cure ailments or enhance and restore ageing, failing organs; think of the plight of vultures or rhinos.

  3. The growing appreciation of the beauty of the biodiversity that the world offers. Images you’ll see on the pages of news sites, your TV and magazines all promote the magnificence of plants and animals. Something we’ve failed to be able to synthesise or recreate.

But how can we break the vicious circle that links our appreciation of wildlife with our desire to have a piece in our own homes?

The demand for unusual pets has grown at an alarming rate. Governments and NGOs are rightly concerned about this growing trend to move ever increasing numbers of different species of live animals and plants around the world. These all have a potential to become future invasive species which could carry high economic and environmental costs.

There are strong beliefs that pieces of animals like rhinos can cure ailments. Shutterstock

When is trade likely to cause a problem?

A group of international scientists have applied their minds to this problem to produce a scheme that can help governmental agencies decide whether a species should be traded. The information will also be made available to the public, so that you and I can be informed in the decision we make next time our offspring voice their desire to own an unusual or exotic pet.

The scheme is called Environmental Impact Classification for Alien Taxa (EICAT). It attempts to categorise the impact caused by species which could be traded or moved accidentally with trade. It looks rather similar to the IUCN red list, the most comprehensive global list of determining biodiversity’s conservation status, and that’s because it has now been adopted by the IUCN as a non-partisan way to advise governments on which species are likely to cause most problems.

The team is made up of international scientists including researchers from Stellenbosch University’s Centre for Invasion Biology where I work. We are now trying to assess the thousands of species that have already formed invasive populations around our planet.

My own input has been to lead a team evaluating the impact of the world’s invasive amphibians. We discovered a startling impact that outwardly humble and harmless looking frogs may have. For example, in Florida the foam nests of invasive Cuban Tree Frogs can cause shorts in transformers resulting in power cuts.

Perhaps most upsetting is the invasion of toxic Asian toads in Indonesia where people regularly eat native frogs, but the poison glands of this invasive species has led to the death of at least one child. In another study we have now found that these same toads are occasionally unintentionally brought into South Africa with furniture shipments.

And trade in salamanders (newts and their relatives) spread a disease which threatened wild populations in North America and Europe. In 2015, only 2 years after the discovery of the fungus that infects salamanders and newts (Batrachochytrium salamandrivorans), the US banned all trade and movement of salamanders.

The ban alone won’t solve our problems. It’s crucial for the public to be well informed about the consequences of participating in both legal and illegal trade as well as the consequences of apparently well meaning actions, like taking an unwanted pet to the nearest park, and the potential negative consequences. These include spreading of disease and invasion of non-native species.

We recognise the need to provide impartial advice to governmental agencies and the public on the risk of trading animals and plants. We do this in our capacity as a honest broker, using scientific literature to base assessments of the impact of each species. We believe that this work will have a positive impact on trade, not by reducing numbers or stopping people having pets, but by informing the public of the impact that species may have on our natural ecosystems.

Our fascination and admiration of the natural environment may draw us closer to it, but we need to remain responsible about any desire to own a piece.