The current coding system for the wildlife trade used by customs authorities worldwide is too vague to prevent the over-exploitation of both legal and illegally-sourced species, according to new research from the University of Hong Kong (HKU) .

Led by PhD student Astrid Andersson, the research team from the Conservation Forensics Lab at HKU found that a sizeable percentage of the wildlife trade is declared under “vague, all-encompassing codes with broad descriptions.”

wildlife trade Chinese Medicine
Photo: Astrid Andersson.

“Trade in certain wildlife trade categories is conducted almost entirely with such broad codes,” it said in a press release. “This makes it nearly impossible to track trade in individual species.”

Ill-defined codes included “Fish,” “Plants” and “Tropical Wood.”

Drawing on 20 years of UN trade data trends from 1997 to 2016, the research team found that 35 per cent of the legal wildlife trade had been conducted under “overly broad” codes.

Some 83 per cent of all trade in traditional Chinese medicine and 95 per cent of the pet trade was conducted under the broad classifications.

Meanwhile, more than 20 per cent of all seafood and furniture trade in the period under study was classified as “Fish” and “Tropical Wood” respectively. Some 26 per cent of fashion stock was declared only as “Other furs.”

The research examined the trade in both protected and non-protected species under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), to provide an overall picture of the scope for over-exploitation of legally-traded wildlife.

CITES provides tracing for over 30,000 endangered species.

‘Unsustainable trade’

However many species are not being adequately traced in order to protect against unsustainable levels of trading, researchers said.

“Unsustainable trade in wildlife threatens biodiversity globally. While much international wildlife trade is legal, the scale of this trade can lead to unnoticed over-exploitation of species… because we cannot properly monitor the level of trade,” said Dr Caroline Dingle, head of the Conservation Forensics Lab and co-author of the study.

wildlife trade Hong Kong
Photo: Astrid Andersson.

“It is important to have systems in place which allow us to monitor legally traded wildlife to prevent further biodiversity declines, and to continuously adjust these systems in response to new patterns of trade.”

Andersson urged authorities to implement a more “refined” coding system to better protect against unsustainable trade in threatened species. “More detailed records would also help authorities’ and researchers’ analyze, monitor and trace traded wildlife, and preemptively identify if a species is at risk from over-exploitation,” she told HKFP.

She added that Hong Kong had an important role to play in better monitoring the wildlife trade: “Our research identifies Hong Kong as having a pivotal role in global wildlife trade as a major transit hub and re-exporter. As such, allocating resources… to customs inspections of wildlife here could have a big impact relative to investment in terms of enforcement of global wildlife trade regulations.

The average annual wildlife trade in the 20-year study period was worth US$220 billion, more than double that of trade in coffee, tea and spices combined.

Hong Kong was the second largest trader in traditional Chinese medicine, and eighth largest overall wildlife trader in 2016. The region is a major trading hub for both legal and illegal wildlife.

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Rhoda Kwan is HKFP's Assistant Editor. She has previously written for TimeOut Hong Kong and worked at Meanjin, a literary journal. She holds a double bachelor’s degree in Law and Literature from the University of Hong Kong.