The global wildlife trade is placing a growing and undeniable risk to the world’s most unique and archaic animal species and the essential roles they play in maintaining our planet’s ecosystems, according to new research led by the University of Sheffield.
This could have profound implications for the evolutionary trajectory of our planet and disrupt key ecological functions integral to the overall health of our global ecosystems.
In a study published in the journal Nature, the researchers have discovered that numerous species of birds and mammals which hold evolutionary and functional importance are falling prey to the wildlife trade across large expanses of the world.
These trades are not only causing a significant reduction in the biodiversity of our planet, but are also likely to disrupt essential ecological processes, and by extension, negatively impact human communities that rely on these ecosystems for survival.
“Thousands of species are traded globally and many of these are done so unsustainably. We urgently need to focus conservation resources towards trade hotspots, such as those in the tropics, to prevent extinctions,” said study senior author Professor David Edwards.
The urgency of the situation is starkly apparent as we stand on the precipice of losing some of the most evolutionarily and functionally distinct animals, with potential severe consequences for our planet’s ecosystems.
The research, an amalgamation of prior studies on traded birds and mammals with global evolutionary and trait datasets, aimed to map diverse aspects of trade diversity.
This included functional diversity, highlighting the vast range of traits and roles species play in ecosystems beyond just the quantity of species, and phylogenetic diversity, which represents the evolutionary history within a wildlife community.
Communities boasting higher functional and phylogenetic diversity tend to be more resilient to disturbances, suggesting the crucial need to protect these diverse ecosystems.
The research revealed disturbing trends. Hotspots of traded birds and mammals, including those that play key roles in ecosystem functioning, were largely located in the tropics – some of the most biodiverse regions on the planet.
Regions in South-East Asia and sub-Saharan Africa showed the highest levels of traded phylogenetic diversity, whereas parts of South America emerged as epicentres of traded functional diversity.
“This high level of use suggests that if trade here is unsustainable, it risks substantially altering the evolutionary history present within these communities and the functioning of these ecosystems,” said study lead author Liam Hughes.
Surprisingly, even after accounting for the greater species diversity in the tropics, these regions still emerged as global centers of traded functional and phylogenetic diversity.
Simultaneously, hotspots in North America and Europe were highlighted, where the trade could potentially impact local ecological processes, suggesting that the effects of wildlife trade aren’t confined to tropical regions alone.
Furthermore, the research found that larger species were disproportionately represented in trade. This is concerning because these species play unique roles in ecosystems.
For instance, the African Forest Elephant, an evolutionarily distinct creature, plays a critical role in creating openings in Congo forests and in seed dispersal, yet their numbers have been declining due to relentless ivory poaching.
The study urges for further investigation into our limited understanding of trade sustainability for the myriad species in trade. This should include a greater focus on the roles these species play in their ecosystems.
“Species that are evolutionarily distinct contribute more to the functioning of our ecosystems, so it’s essential for the health of ecosystems that we protect these species and ensure that they are not being exploited unsustainably,” said Hughes.
Ultimately, it is vital to understand that removing certain species for trade could cause ripple effects across entire ecosystems, much like removing bricks from a building which could result in the entire structure crumbling down.
“At present we understand frighteningly little of the scale of the issue or its wider implications for ecosystems,” said study co-author Dr. Oscar Morton.
Therefore, it is crucial that conservation resources are promptly redirected towards these major hotspots in the global wildlife trade, to prevent irreversible damage to our planet’s biodiversity and the healthy functioning of our ecosystems.