Rhinos, tigers, elephants – these are the iconic creatures that spring to mind whenever we think about illegal wildlife trafficking. And the attention given to these so-called “charismatic species” is a good thing, of course – it has helped to implement laws protecting them.
But sadly, there are many more species also under threat from overexploitation, albeit quietly so. Some of these are the source of products so rare – caviar, tortoise shell ornaments and shark’s fin, for example – that they were once consumed only by the elite, sometimes royalty. But as the world population has grown and people have become richer, these status items have been more in demand and populations have become endangered.
Butterflies are often symbiotic pollinators associated with specific plants, so taking them from the wild can easily unbalance ecosystems. Before this was fully understood, butterfly collecting – capturing and mounting them in frames – was a popular hobby for amateur naturalists, and displaying them demonstrated an appreciation for biology, geography and nature. The hobby fell out of favour over time when it became apparent that overenthusiastic collecting was harming populations – even Sir David Attenborough felt so guilty that he hid his collection in his loft before finally giving it to Cambridge University. While the fashion for butterfly hunting has abated, demand for rare butterflies – such as montane birdwing butterflies from Java, Sumatra and New Guinea, and the Jamaican swallowtail – is still high and drives a lucrative trade. This poses a great threat to already vulnerable populations, as butterflies live in increasingly fragmented habitat.
Sturgeon have survived longer than dinosaurs. Yet despite their hardiness, these living fossils are one of the most endangered animals in the world, primarily because they’re overhunted for their delicious eggs, which we eat as caviar. The world’s most prized caviar is from the Caspian Sea, home of the beluga sturgeon – which can live to be over 100 years old – harvested and traded primarily by Iran and Russia, the world’s two largest producers of caviar. Illegal harvesting has led to near extinction of Caspian Sea sturgeon, and in December 2013 Russia and all countries bordering the Caspian signed a year-long fishing ban – which can be extended to five years – of caviar-producing sturgeon to allow stocks to recover. Wild sturgeon products are also banned in Romania and Bulgaria, but illegal poaching and trade in those countries persists, threatening the sturgeon of the Danube River and Black Sea region – one of the last remaining viable habitats for sturgeon. All sturgeon and sturgeon products are under the protection of CITES, but wild sturgeon caviar is still available for consumption. Look for a CITES label to make sure it comes from a sustainably harvested source.