It can be difficult to reverse trends: once we develop a taste for something, it can be hard to give it up. And if the deterioration of a species isn’t making headline news, it can be moved in large numbers without anyone paying attention, even when it is protected by the international treaty on trade in endangered species, CITES.
This means that the risk of damaging whole ecosystems can be even higher than for the habitats of the more charismatic species. In fact, many products are so commonly traded that we, as consumers, can easily assume that they are being harvested sustainably and are contributing to the problem unawares. So watch what you buy.
Treasured as a precious gem, talisman and medicine by ancient Romans, Celts, Chinese and beyond, coral has only gained in popularity. We now know that coral reefs are critical habitats for marine life, but every year, millions of kilos of coral are harvested and sold as souvenirs and jewellery, for medical use and as a construction material. Live coral is also harvested for aquariums.
Corals, which are slow-growing, are easy to overharvest – whether by hand, trawling, dynamiting or remote-controlled submarine. The damage results in loss of habitat and eroded shorelines, and weakens reefs’ resilience to climate change and ocean acidification – not to mention the knock-on economic effects on fisheries and tourism.
Many coral and coral-dependent species are protected under CITES; however, red and pink corals, heavily harvested from the Mediterranean and Pacific for jewellery, are still being debated so are currently unprotected. Make sure any coral you buy is from a trusted source. And when buying live coral or reef-based tropical fish for your aquarium, look for a Marine Aquarium Council label, which ensures sustainability.
Crocodiles and alligators
Consumption of alligators and crocodiles is sustainable when the whole of the animal is used, and only in small numbers: they have long been eaten in Australia, Ethiopia, Thailand, South Africa and China, and they are prized for their skins, which are turned into exquisite and long-lasting leather for shoes, wallets, handbags, watchbands, belts and so on.
But when crocodile and alligator leathers – once a high-luxury item available only to the rich – became fashionable to the masses in the 1950s, millions of South American caimans, American alligators, and crocodiles in Africa, Asia and Australia, were slaughtered in numbers so severe that, within two decades, many South American countries had to prohibit trade. Today, all 23 species of large crocodiles and alligators have been overexploited and are protected under CITES – some in CITES Appendix I, which forbids trade of any kind. To some extent, breeding crocodiles in ranches to meet demand, as well as selling products made from legally culled wild animals, has helped – and bans have allowed a third of the world’s crocodile populations to recover.