17 Oct 2018

The 2018 Illegal Wildlife Trade Conference: our pledges

It’s not just elephants and rhinos: BirdLife’s presence at this last week’s conference in London reminded the world of the birds that also need urgent help. Here are the pledges we made to protect the world’s most targeted birds, including parrots, hornbills and vultures.

The Chattering Lory is being captured from the wild in unsustainable numbers © Panu Ruangjan
The Chattering Lory is being captured from the wild in unsustainable numbers © Panu Ruangjan
By Jessica Law

Last week, BirdLife attended the Illegal Wildlife Trade Conference in London, an event set up to unite global leaders and galvanise efforts to combat this devastating practice. Because the illegal wildlife trade is big business – in fact, it is fourth most lucrative transnational crime after drugs, weapons and human trafficking. And it’s not just animals who lose out – crime rings target poverty-stricken communities, preventing them from earning sustainable livelihoods.

Many major players attended, including politicians, NGOs and UK royalty in the form of Prince William, who spoke about tackling the industry in the same way authorities tackled mafia leaders such as Al Capone. And while the focus was often on elephant ivory or rhinoceros horns, our presence reminded the conservation world that birds are equally urgent victims who also require immediate action. To support this, we submitted two pledges outlining how our work will prevent illegally traded bird species from being driven to extinction: 

Ending the illegal bird trade in Asia

Helmeted hornbills are coveted for their solid, carvable "casque" © WCS / Dewantara


In response to increasing threats to birds and other biodiversity caused by illegal wildlife trade world-wide, BirdLife International supports the principles of the 2018 London Conference declaration and pledges to contribute to global action on illegal wildlife trade in a number of key areas, in particular the escalating trade affecting birds in Asia.

The scale and impacts of the illegal wildlife trade have reached crisis levels in recent years, with the 2014 London Conference doing much to increase international awareness of this critical issue.  However, while the trade in wildlife such as elephants, rhino, tiger and pangolin has rightly risen in the public consciousness, the illegal and unsustainable trade in birds has had less attention. BirdLife International – the world’s largest nature conservation partnership, comprising 120 national NGO Partners across the globe, and the IUCN Red List Authority on birds - is working to better understand and address the direct and indirect impacts of the illegal wildlife trade in and on key bird taxa across the world.  In particular, we pledge to step up joint efforts to tackle the illegal wildlife trade relating to vultures, songbirds, hornbills and parrots, particularly in Africa and Asia.

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With regard to the illegal trade in Asian birds, the BirdLife International Partnership pledges to participate in and support national and international efforts to:

  • reduce and eventually halt trade in Helmeted Hornbills, their parts and derivatives;
  • reduce the threats to Asian songbird and parrots affected by trade, and reverse the declines in these species;
  • undertake and publish by 2020 a situation analysis of the hunting and take of wild birds in Southeast Asia, including an assessment of the driving role of trade, working with the relevant Intergovernmental Task Force*.

These commitments are needed because illegal trade in Asian birds has been a major driver of population declines in many species, driving a range of species to the brink of extinction in the wild.

The Helmeted Hornbill Rhinoplax vigil is threatened by illegal trade in its unique solid casque, which is in high demand across Asia as material for carved jewellery and ornaments. Illegal trade in a wide range of passerine (‘songbird’) and parrot species, particularly in Indonesia but also in neighbouring countries, has increased recently to such an extent that 15 species are now treated as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species mainly because of this threat. Very large numbers of migratory birds are also killed illegally in the region, and trade appears to be a driver of some of this killing.

Carved Helmeted Hornbill casques are status symbols © Kanitha Krishnasamy / TRAFFIC

BirdLife will take action to reduce bird trapping at key sites in the wild and help ensure the existence of legal and sustainable markets, raising awareness, building capacity and supporting a range of government, private and community-based approaches to demand reduction and enforcement of national and international policies and legislation.

In all cases, BirdLife will contribute to agreed international plans and strategies, in particular the IUCN SSC Helmeted Hornbill Status Review, Range-wide Conservation Strategy and Action Plan (2018-2027); recommendations and strategies of the IUCN SSC Asian Songbird Trade Specialist Group; and status reviews of Asian parrot species in trade.

* Convention on Migratory Species/East Asia-Australasia Flyway Partnership (EAAFP) Intergovernmental Task Force to Address Illegal Hunting, Taking and Trade of Migratory Birds in the EAAF

Saving African-Eurasian vultures

The White-backed Vulture is now Critically Endangered © Laszlo Csoma

BirdLife International, the IUCN Species Survival Commission Vulture Specialist Group, The Peregrine Fund and the Endangered Wildlife Trust are particularly concerned by the direct and indirect impacts of the illegal trade on vultures. Collectively, we pledge to participate in and support national and international efforts to:

  • reduce and eventually halt the trade in vultures and their body parts for belief-based use;
  • reduce and eventually halt the practice of sentinel poisoning of vultures by elephant poachers
  • reduce human-lion conflict that masks the intentional trade in lion parts where both vultures and lions are poisoned

We will continue to contribute to related international plans and strategies, in particular the Multi-species Action Plan to Conserve African-Eurasian Vultures adopted by Parties to the Convention on Migratory Species in 2017, which explicitly addresses these threats and includes actions to combat them.

These commitments are needed because African vultures are facing an extinction crisis, in part driven by illegal wildlife trade. In recent years their populations have crashed such that seven of the 11 species in Africa are now Critically Endangered or Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

The illegal trade in vultures and their body parts for belief-based use, in attempts to treat a range of physical and mental diseases, or to bring good fortune, is becoming more apparent and threatens entire vulture populations in Africa. Such practices have existed for many years, but with the rapid growth of human populations and more effective bird-harvesting methods (through highly toxic poisons) the negative impacts on vultures have grown. This threat may be integrated, and to some extent interdependent, with the bushmeat trade, which also affects vultures.

One poisoned animal carcass can kill 150 vultures © Nature Kenya

Vultures are also impacted by the wider illegal wildlife trade. Recent increases in poaching of elephants for the ivory trade have resulted in mass poisoning of African vultures. Vultures are targeted by elephant poachers who may deploy large quantities of toxic pesticides on elephant carcasses to poison them and prevent their circling alerting wildlife wardens and rangers of illegal poaching. Vultures are therefore killed simply because they play the role of sentinels, hence the term ‘sentinel poisoning’. This can however have severe consequences - more than 500 vultures have been killed in a single poisoning incident.

The rapid growth of illegal trade in lion parts is also linked to the poisoning of vultures. Lions are either poisoned intentionally for trade or the trade in their parts is an additional motivating factor behind the poisoning of lions that have attacked livestock – evidenced by the fact that they are increasingly being found at poisoning sites without paws, teeth, skin and tails. Vultures are poisoned alongside the lions as a ‘by-product’ of this practice.