More than 5,500 species of birds, mammals, amphibians and reptiles are bought and sold on the worldwide animal market, a volume that is around 50 percent higher than earlier estimates, a study published in Science said. The legal and illegal trade of wildlife as pets or for animal products is a multi-billion-dollar industry, and recognized as one of the most severe threats to biodiversity. But the extent of the trade has remained poorly understood.

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The research by scientists at the University of Florida and the University of Sheffield found that threatened and endangered species were disproportionately represented. Overall, 5,579 of the 31,745 vertebrate species are traded, or 18 percent. Among mammals, the figure rises to 27 percent, with the animals mainly used to produce products — for example pangolins, which are killed for their scales and for their meat.

Amphibians and reptiles are more often sold as exotic pets or to zoos, while 23 percent of bird species are traded, both as companion animals and for their use in medicine. There is a growing demand for the ivory-like casque of the helmeted hornbill, which has resulted in tens of thousands being traded since 2012.

It is predicted that future trade, both legal and illegal, will add up to 3,196 more species to the list, mainly threatened or endangered, based on similarities with currently exploited species — for example, the African pangolin, which started to be exploited after Asian pangolins became harder to find.

More than 2,300 endangered tigers have been killed and illegally trafficked since the turn of the century, according to a report published on Tuesday, urging more action to protect the giant cats. With an average of more than 120 illegally trafficked tigers seized each year — which amounts to over two each week — since year 2000, conservation group Traffic warned there was little sign of respite for the species.

In 1900, more than 100,000 tigers were estimated to roam the planet. But that fell to a record low of 3,200 globally in 2010. Since then, population numbers have inched upwards, but there are still estimated to be fewer than 3,900 tigers left in the wild.

It found that an estimated total equivalent to 2,359 individual tigers were seized from 2000 to 2018 across 32 countries and territories.

Skins are the single most frequently seized tiger part, with an average 58 whole tiger skins seized each year, the report found, also noting a clear increase in seizures of whole animals, both dead and alive. The study also highlighted the growing role breeding centres play in fuelling the illegal tiger trade, especially in Southeast Asia.

The tiger farm industry often argues the trade in captive animals helps to relieve the pressure on wild felines, but wildlife groups argue it reduces the stigma around buying the animals or their body parts and could create new markets for them.

More than half of tiger seizures in Thailand and a third of those in Vietnam over the past two decades were identified as coming from captive breeding facilities.

“Seizures of tigers from captive facilities continue and serve as a stark reminder that such facilities seriously undermine conservation efforts to safeguard this species and provide opportunities for laundering and other illegal activities,” said senior Traffic crime analyst in the statement.

A cruel evolutionary logic is at work among the world’s wildlife. Charles Darwin said the ability to adapt to change determined which species survived. Today, change is so fast, many of our larger animals simply don’t have time to adapt.

Among the species threatened with extinction are rhinos and eagles. The researchers say that losing these creatures will bring about the collapse of ecosystems on which humans depend for food and water.

Larger animals are most at risk because they take longer to reproduce and reach maturity than smaller birds and animals. Most cannot easily change diet or habitat. So there is simply not enough time for them to adapt to a fast-changing world.

The future belongs to “smaller, faster-lived, more fecund, more generalist and preferentially insect-eating species” which, the researchers say, will fundamentally restructure life on our planet.

The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) says most of the world’s land has already been modified by humans, with harmful effects on biodiversity. One sixth of the Earth’s surface is now designated for wildlife protection but the same cannot be said for freshwater and marine environments.

Freshwater species populations declined by more than 80% between 1970 and 2012, mostly due to habitat loss from dams and water abstraction. The amount of life in the seas declined by a third over the same period, mostly due to overfishing.

The researchers at Southampton University say that if the extinctions they predict are allowed to materialise, it will threaten the future of human life on the planet. For example, vultures, which have long lifespans and breed small clutches, play a vital role in disease suppression.

Without vultures to dispose of dead animal carcasses, the potential for the spread of disease to humans will increase significantly, especially if the number of insect-eating birds is also reduced by the same human pressures that see off the vultures. Saving endangered wildlife is an act of self interest.

The triennial World Wildlife Conference, known formally as CoP18 of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), on 28 August 2019 responded to extinction crisis by strengthening international trade regime for wildlife. The conference revised the trade rules for dozens of wildlife species that are threatened by unsustainable trade linked to overharvesting, overfishing or overhunting. These ranged from commercially valuable fish and trees to charismatic mammals such as giraffes to amphibians and reptiles sold as exotic pets.

The Parties established the CITES Big Cat Task Force with a mandate to improve enforcement, tackle illegal trade and promote collaboration on conserving tigers, lions, cheetahs, jaguars and leopards.”Humanity needs to respond to the growing extinction crisis by transforming the way we manage the world’s wild animals and plants. Business as usual is no longer an option,” said CITES Secretary-General Ivonne Higuero. Celebrating the successes and strong decisions at COP18, Susan Lieberman, Vice President of International Policy with Wildlife Conservation Society, told IANS that species received needed trade protections.”The governments of the world have now put more teeth into protecting the world’s sharks and rays,” she said.