Wildlife crime is threatening nearly half of all Unesco world heritage sites designated for their importance to nature, according to a new report from the WWF.
The conservation organisation has warned that illegal poaching, logging, harvesting and trafficking are affecting 45% of the globe’s most important natural areas.
The threatened sites, which have been designated for their natural significance, are home to one third of the world’s remaining wild tigers and 40% of all African elephants.
Organised crime groups, smugglers and poachers are targeting the World Heritage sites and plundering iconic protected species of wild animals and plants, which can then be sold for huge profit in an illegal wildlife trade that spans the globe.
The report’s authors call for a coordinated response to the worldwide wildlife crime chain, which is threatening to wipe out endangered species such as the Javan rhinoceros.
According to the study, the global illegal wildlife trade is worth as much as $20 billion (£18.7 billion) annually, making it the fourth largest illicit market after drugs, counterfeiting and human trafficking.
The organised groups behind wildlife crime typically transport illegally-harvested species through transit countries before they reach end customers, who are more often than not based in Asian countries where consumers are willing to pay exorbitant prices for animal products that are thought to have health-boosting properties.
Shark fin soup is a delicacy often served at banquets in some Asian countries, while in others tiger penis is sold for as a virility enhancer.
Head of campaigns at WWF UK said: “Even the wildlife living in places which should benefit from the highest levels of protection are suffering at the hands of criminals.
“Not only does this threaten the survival of species, but it’s also jeopardising the future heritage of these precious places and the people whose livelihoods depend on them.
As well as endangering the existence of some species, wildlife crime is also threatening the livelihoods of people who work at World Heritage sites, which depend on their rare animals and plants to attract tourists, the report’s authors claim.
Chitwan National Park in Nepal generates annual revenue in excess of $1.2 million from wildlife tours alone, while more than 50% of Belize’s population are supported by incomes generated through reef-related tourism and fisheries.
“It is essential that the Convention on the International Trades in Endangered Species (Cites) is fully implemented and that these irreplaceable sites are fully protected,” said John Scanlon, Director General of Unesco’s World Heritage Convention.
“In doing so, we will benefit our heritage and our wildlife, provide security to people and places, and support national economies and the rural communities that depend on these sites for their livelihoods.”