Pet trade prices can give early warning of wild species in danger, says Princeton study

Wildlife market prices in developing countries can be an early indicator that a species is declining, and could be used to target research and conservation projects, says a Princeton University study.

Bali myna

A team of ecologists, led by Professor David Wilcove and Berton Harris , worked with the Indonesian Institute of Sciences to analyse data from 1987 to 2013 for pet and wildlife markets in Sumatra.

They tracked fluctuations in the prices and availability of bird species such as the Tanimbar corella (Cacatua goffiniana) and pied myna (Gracupica contra), and also talked to local ornithologists and expert bird watchers to confirm the connection between rising market prices and declining wild populations.

Their findings are published in the journal Biological Conservation .

The study suggest that ecologists, conservationists and governments could use market prices as early warning signs that a species is in trouble.

Berton Harris, a postdoctoral fellow at Princeton, says market data analysis would be most effective in countries where there are large wildlife markets catering to the pet trade, but few resources for conservation monitoring fieldwork

In a Princeton news release , Harris said it would be a quick and affordable system, especially in developing tropical countries where fieldwork can require special expertise and be difficult to conduct.

Professor Wilcove said the study also highlighted the pet trade as an emerging threat facing many birds and other wildlife, with around one-third of the world’s bird species sold by the global pet trade.

“Wild birds are being vacuumed out of the forests, gardens and fields of Indonesia and we have to quickly figure out which species are in danger of extinction,” Wilcove said.

“We’ve got to change how we tackle this problem — just periodically monitoring species in the wild won’t tell us what we need to know.

“If we wait 25 or 50 years until we have comprehensive surveys of birds in the wild it will be too late for a lot of these species. Birds, in a way, are just the tip of the iceberg. We have no reason to believe that some variant of our method wouldn’t work for most species in markets around the world.”

The study found 14 birds that were popular at Sumatran pet markets were identified by local experts as declining or severely declining.

Yet only two species were officially recognized as endangered and three were listed as declining.

The researchers tested their theory by looking at two species that are critically endangered by the Indonesian pet trade — the yellow-crested cockatoo, (Cacatua sulphurea), also known as the lesser sulphur crested cockatoo, and the Bali myna (Leucopsar rothschildi).

Wild population surveys of both species enabled the researchers to study long-term market patterns, with prices steadily increasing as the birds became popular pets.  But as wild populations plummeted, prices rose even further, confirming that price was an  indicator of decreasing availability due to declining wild populations.

Berton Harris said visiting wildlife markets was “the dirty part of conservation.’

“They’re noisy and smelly. And after someone who looks like me asks about prices two or three weeks in a row, sellers just stop responding,” he said.

“These are a part of the reason that pet markets aren’t recognized as a problem — it’s hard and unpleasant to get data .People want to do fieldwork in the forest and not deal with this problem.”

About rosslynbeeby

Environment journalist & researcher, previously worked at The Age, ABC Radio Australia and Canberra Times - now independent & unmuzzled. Big interest in biodiversity & conservation research, political policy shifts, greener cities, smarter farming, climate change and toxics. Currently Australian & NZ editor for London-based research news service, Research Professional.
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