The utilisation of the wetland near communities in Thailand's Northeast.

50,000 wild species found to benefit billions of people

Overexploitation, illegal and unregulated trade in wild species, as well as other critical drivers including climate change_all  pose challenges to their sustainable use in the future that could in turn put billions of the poor at more risk

The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) has launched its latest report that looks into the use of wild species and reliance on these species worldwide. It has found that billions of people use up to 50,000 wild species for various purposes, ranging from food, fuel, and medicines, to recreation and inspiration. Out of these, up to 10,000 are for food.

The IPBES Assessment Report on the Sustainable Use of Wild Species is the result of four years of work by 85 leading experts from the natural and social sciences, holders of indigenous and local knowledge, as well as 200 contributing authors, drawing on more than 6,200 sources. Its summary was approved this week by representatives of the 139 member States of IPBES in Bonn, Germany. 

According to the report’s lead authors, the assessment was specifically requested by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) and will inform decisions about trade in wild species at the 19th World Wildlife Conference in Panama in November. It also comes ahead of the meeting of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) later this year to forge a new global biodiversity framework for the next decade amid an accelerating biodiversity crisis, under which a million wild species are facing extinction.

The report classifies “practices” in the use of wild species into five categories. They include fishing, gathering, logging, terrestrial animal harvesting and hunting, and non-extractive practices. For each practice, it examined specific “uses” such as for food and feed, materials, medicine, energy, recreation, ceremony, learning and decoration, spanning over the past 20 years. In most cases, the report has found that the use of wild species has increased. However, sustainability of use has varied, such as in gathering for medicine and logging for materials and energy. 

The report said that the use of wild species is an important source of income for millions of people worldwide. Wild tree species account for two-thirds of global industrial roundwood whereas trade in wild plants, algae and fungi is a billion-dollar industry, and non-extractive uses of wild species are big business. Tourism based on observing wild species before the Covid-19 pandemic prompted protected areas globally to have received eight billion visitors and generated US$ 600 billion every year, it added.

More critically, 70% of the world’s poor are directly dependent on wild species. One in five people relies on wild plants, algae, and fungi for their food and income, while 2.4 billion people rely on fuel wood for cooking.

“But the regular use of wild species is extremely important not only in the Global South. From the fish that we eat, to medicines, cosmetics, decoration and recreation, wild species’ use is much more prevalent than most people realise,” said Dr. Marla R. Emery, Co-Chair of the assessment.

“Rural people in developing countries are most at risk from unsustainable use, with lack of complementary alternatives often forcing them to further exploit wild species already at risk,” said another Co-Chair, Dr. Jean-Marc Fromentin.

The wetland in Thailand’s Northeast, which is seasonally flooded and provides rich food sources for locals there.

The challenges against sustainable use of wild species

Prof. John Donaldson, another Co-Chair of the assessment, said overexploitation is one of the main threats to the survival of many land-based and aquatic species in the wild. Addressing the causes of unsustainable use and reversing these trends wherever possible, will result in better outcomes for wild species and the people who depend on them, he said.

The report notes that the survival of around 12% of wild tree species is threatened by unsustainable logging. Meanwhile, the unsustainable gathering is one of the main threats for several plant groups; notably cacti, cycads and orchids, and unsustainable hunting has been identified as a threat for 1,341 wild mammal species, with declines in large-bodied species that have low natural rates of increase also linked to hunting pressure. 

The report notes on global trade in wild species, saying it has expanded substantially in volume, value and trade networks over the past four decades. Such trade can provide important income for exporting countries and harvesters while diversifying sources of supply as well as decoupling the consumption of wild species from their places of origin, without effective regulation across supply chains, however, the trade generally increases pressures on wild species, leading to unsustainable use and sometimes to wild population collapses, as seen in the case shark fin trade, the report further notes.

Illegal use and illegal trade in wild species, in addition, often lead to unsustainable use. The report finds that illegal trade in wild species represents the third-largest class of all illegal trade, with estimated annual values of up to US$ 199 billion. Timber and fish make up the largest volumes and value of illegal trade in wild species, it notes.

Last but not least, other critical drivers including land and seascape changes, climate change, pollution and invasive alien species can impact the abundance and distribution of wild species, and can increase stress and challenges among the human communities that use them, the report notes.

A variety of fish from the wetland in Thailand’s Northeast.

Future scenarios

The report has examined a range of possible future scenarios for the use of wild species and confirmed that climate change, increasing demand, and technological advances are likely to present significant challenges to sustainable use in the future.

The report has identified actions for each practice that would help to address these challenges. For instance, in fishing, this would include fixing current inefficiencies, reducing illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, suppressing harmful financial subsidies, supporting small-scale fisheries, adapting to changes in oceanic productivity due to climate change, and proactively creating effective transboundary institutions.

In logging, this would entail management and certification of forests for multiple uses, technological innovations to reduce waste in the manufacturing of wood products, and economic and political initiatives that recognize the rights of indigenous peoples and local communities, including land tenure. 

In most future scenarios that enable the sustainable use of wild species, the report has found that transformative changes share common characteristics such as integration of plural value systems, equitable distribution of costs and benefits, changes in social values, cultural norms and preferences, and effective institutions and governance systems.

“The world is dynamic, and sustainable use of wild species requires constant negotiation and adaptive management. It also requires a common vision of sustainable use and transformative change in human-nature relationships,” the report underlines.

In Numbers (Source: The IPBES Assessment Report on the Sustainable Use of Wild Species)

+/-50,000: wild species used for food, energy, medicine, material and other purposes through fishing, gathering, logging and terrestrial animal harvesting globally; 31,100 species of wild plants, of which 7,400 are trees; 1,500 species of fungi; 1,700 species of wild land-based invertebrates; 7,500 species of wild amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals; and +/-7,500 species of wild fish and aquatic invertebrates

 >10,000: wild species harvested for human food, making sustainable use of wild species critical for food security and improving nutrition in rural and urban areas worldwide

At least 34%: species that are sustainably used, based on the assessment of 10,098 species from 10 taxonomic groups on the IUCN Red List

+/-29%: of about 10,000 near-threatened and threatened species from 10 taxonomic groups, for which unsustainable harvest contributes to an elevated risk of extinction

1,341: wild mammal species threatened by unsustainable hunting, including 669 species already assessed as threatened

40: years during which global trade of wild species has increased substantially

38,700: species listed by 2021 under CITES and subjected to regulation by Parties (with trade in the majority of listed species deemed by Parties to be sustainable)

101: countries with legislation and institutions to fully implement CITES; with a further 43 that can partially implement it

US$ 69-199 billion: the annual value of illegal trade in wild species (especially timber and fish), representing the world’s third-largest class of illegal trade

>50%: trade in fish, birds, amphibians and plants derived from farmed sources as a result of a shift from the use of wild species

90 million: tons of wild fish caught annually in recent decades, of which about two-thirds go to human food (and the rest as feed for aquaculture and livestock)

34%: marine wild fish stocks that are overfished (with 66% fished within biologically sustainable levels, but this global picture displays strong heterogeneities)

99%: species of sharks and rays officially declared taken incidentally as by-catch, but valuable and often retained for food, causing steep declines since the 1970s in shark species, especially in tropical and subtropical coastal shelf waters

449: species of sharks and rays classified as threatened (37.5% of 1,199 species recently assessed), mostly due to unsustainable fishing

50%: of all wood consumed globally is logged for energy, 90% in Africa. The use of fuel wood is declining in most regions but increasing in sub-Saharan Africa

2.4 billion: people (approximately one-third of humanity) that rely on fuel wood for cooking; 880 million log firewood or produce charcoal, particularly in developing countries

+/-70%: of the world’s poor directly dependent on wild species and on businesses fostered by them

Source: IPBES