How food choices can endanger wildlife, and what you can do about it

In celebration of World Environment Day, here are eight ways consumer purchases affect the wildlife industry. The World Wildlife Fund encourages consumers to eat local and question where products come from in order to avoid further endangering wild animals.

Bernd Wuestneck/AP/File
An orangutan baby lounges by a rope at a zoo in Rostock, Germany. Orangutans are further endangered by the palm oil trade as the orangutans' natural habitat is cut down to make room for palm oil plantations.

On Sunday, June 5, the global community celebrates the 43rd annual World Environment Day (WED), a day dedicated to mobilizing people from around the world to create positive and lasting change for the health of our planet.

The WED 2016 theme is Go Wild for Life, and it aims to increase awareness of the environmental, social, economic, and security dangers posed by the global illegal trade in wildlife. Unsustainable wildlife trade is the second-largest direct threat to species survival, after habitat loss, according to WWF. WWF also finds that illegal wildlife trade has reached an unprecedented level, and is the most urgent threat to the world’s elephants, rhinos, and tigers.

Wildlife trade is the selling or exchanging of wild animal and plant species, both legal and illegal, for use as pets, food products, animal skins, medicinal ingredients, and timber. According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC, even legal wildlife trade can be unsustainable when it jeopardizes the survival of entire species. Many species traded are already endangered or close to extinction, and transporting is often inhumane and environmentally damaging. Illegal wildlife trading can disrupt the livelihoods of local populations who depend on wild animals and plants for food, fuel, traditional medicine, and income generation.  

TRAFFIC estimates the global trade in wildlife involves hundreds of millions of wildlife from tens of thousands of species. While countries around the world have taken measures to address wildlife crime through stronger policies, awareness campaigns, and investments in conservation work and law enforcement, WED 2016 calls for increased efforts from all global citizens. The Go Wild for Life campaign, along with its collaborators, presses for tougher laws, stricter enforcement, and greater awareness in the average consumer to reduce demand for irresponsibly procured wildlife.

This WED, become more informed and conscious consumers.  Here are some important facts on how our food choices may be affecting the unsustainable wildlife industry.

1. The scaly pangolin native to Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa is now the most illegally traded mammal in the world, mostly for its meat and its scales that are used in traditional Asian medicine. Despite prohibitions under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), intensive pangolin poaching has obliterated pangolin populations in parts of Asia. Due to high demand, and declining numbers in Asia, the African species are now increasingly targeted. All eight species in the world are threatened or Critically Endangered.

2. Sea turtles are illegally hunted for their meat, eggs, and shells. According to the Buyer Beware guide produced by TRAFFIC North America and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS), all sea turtle species are endangered, and international trade in any of their products is prohibited. Go Wild for Life encourages consumers to help by supporting organizations that are working to protect these creatures and the livelihoods of local communities that help in their conservation.

3. Wild meat can be an important part of diet in many rural areas around the world. According to TRAFFIC, an increasing commercial demand is driving the overexploitation of a growing number of vertebrate species. Humane Society International (HSI) advises avoiding any food items that seem exotic. These items can include the meat of elephants, gorillas, chimpanzees, and hippos.

4. Washington D.C.-based organization Defenders of Wildlife finds that between 2004 and 2013, FWS confiscated over 36,000 kilograms of illegal wildlife and 7,111 illegal animals. Exotic meat from queen conch, iguana and sea turtles, and eggs from sea turtles and other species were found to be in the highest demand from all wildlife products among consumers in the United States.

According to Defenders’ international policy analyst Rosa Indenbaum, “The U.S. market for illegal wildlife is vast and varied, but undoubtedly at the top of the list is meat.”

5. High demand for shark fin soup has led to illegal and unsustainable fishing, pushing a quarter of the world’s shark species to extinction, according to the U.S. Wildlife Trafficking Alliance. The Freeland Foundation reports an estimated 100 million sharks are killed each year, mostly for the soup, which is also harmful for health due to high mercury levels found in the fish. The global Fin Free campaign is leading the initiative to educate the public on the issue.

6. Frog legs are a delicacy in many countries around the world, but unscrupulous frog trading internationally has today led to systematic declines in frog populations worldwide.

Defenders’ Alejandra Goyenechea says, “Billions of frogs are traded internationally each year for human consumption, and that industry is responsible for depleting wild populations, spreading deadly disease, and allowing invasive species to destroy the health of native ecosystems.”

7. According to FWS, many sturgeon species numbers have dramatically declined due to habitat destruction, and also intensive harvesting to satisfy caviar demand. Sturgeon is especially at risk from overexploitation because they take 8 to 12 years to reach sexual maturity, and young ones tend to have a high mortality rate. All sturgeon caviar is regulated under CITES (permits may be needed in some cases), and some species are entirely prohibited.

8. Native to Indonesia and Malaysia, orangutans are threatened by the booming palm oil industry. When forests are cleared to make way for palm oil plantations, the apes are displaced from their natural habitat, and become vulnerable to being picked up for illegal trade. Under CITES, international commercial trade in orangutans is prohibited.

Go Wild for Life and FWS urge consumers to be mindful of purchasing goods sourced from sustainable forestry practices. Several food items and other products contain palm oil. They ask buyers to become informed about where the palm oil in a product comes from, and whether it was produced sustainably.

To bring an end to biodiversity depletion, and illegal or reckless wildlife trading practices, WED 2016, WWF, and their partners call on every global consumer to become more conscious consumers by:

Questioning where products came from, how they were produced, and what environmental or social impact they may be leaving behind;

Spreading awareness on the global illicit trade, and encouraging others to get educated before making purchases;

Pushing local policymakers to enforce stronger regulations against unsustainable wildlife business, and supporting organizations and governments that do so already;

Learning about, and supporting sustainable supply chains. WWF encourages buying wildlife goods certified by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) and the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC);

And buying locally as often as possible, at home or while traveling.

The wildlife trade, according to WWF, is driven by the end-consumer, thus bestowing much power on the consumer to help eradicate harmful wildlife trade. To learn more about the WED 2016 campaign, please visit the website.

This article first appeared at Food Tank.

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