Illegal trade accelerates wild plant extinctions, more transparency needed

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Orchids

Worth up to $258 billion, the illegal wildlife trade is often more associated with poached elephants than stolen orchids, but rare plant species are being increasingly stolen from the wild and sold for their beauty or medicinal properties.

Besides robbing the earth of its natural resources, this illegal trade deprives communities of livelihoods, and governments of income. The United States alone seizes around 5,600 illegally trafficked plants a year.

“We know this is a substantial problem,” says Lorena Jaramillo, an economist with UNCTAD’s BioTrade Initiative. “We see wild species disappearing and we know they’re being illegally harvested, but it’s hard to trace them without full visibility along the value chains.”

Some 30,000 plant species are now protected by CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, whose members are meeting from 24 September to 4 October in Johannesburg.

To support the discussions, UNCTAD prepared two studies in consultation with the CITES Secretariat and member countries.

The first study looks at ornamental plants, including orchids and Cycas from Latin America. The second looks at medicinal plants, such as agarwood, from the Mekong subregion.

“Wild plant species are difficult to distinguish from those which are legally grown in nurseries. This makes it hard to prevent the “laundering” of illegally sourced plants, especially in the traditional medicine market, whose value chains can be long and complex,” says Ms. Jaramillo.

Researchers found significant inconsistencies in data on exports and imports. These discrepancies, for example, represented almost 20% of the orchid trade and 33% of the trade in Cycas from the Andean region for the period 2010-2014.

In the case of agarwood, used for pricey perfumes and traditional Chinese medicines, Laos reported no exports during the period 2005-2014, yet over 15 tonnes of Lao agarwood showed up in the imports and re-exports of other countries.

“It’s hard to say with certainty what’s going on,” Ms. Jaramillo says. “The missing data may represent illegal harvest, but they may also show simply that data is being reported differently.”
“What the studies do show, though, is the urgent need for a clear, common traceability framework, with uniform information, to avoid a proliferation of systems which may not be compatible,” Ms. Jaramillo adds.

The studies also call for more attention on domestic supply chains. Laundering illegally harvested species is easiest in the earlier stages of the value chains, when the plants change hands before export.

Away from discussions on the illegal plant trade, UNCTAD submitted a third report on traceability systems for python skins in Southeast Asia.

UNCTAD’s work on the illicit wildlife trade is supported by the Swiss State Secretariat for Economic Affairs.

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