Washington - The humphead wrasse and the pig-nosed turtle may not sound like the world's most desirable animals, but in fact they are among the most wanted species internationally. The Asian turtle and fish are so sought-after in some parts of the world that the two species have joined the ranks of wildlife at risk from international trade.
As delegates from 166 countries prepare to head to Bangkok next month for the meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), World Wildlife Fund released its biennial list of 10 of the world's most in-demand species bought, sold, smuggled, killed or captured for the global marketplace.
"Our list this year reflects the varied nature of the modern wildlife trade," said Ginette Hemley, vice president for species conservation at World Wildlife Fund. "As well-known species have become overexploited for trade, more-obscure species are increasingly targeted. So lesser-known wildlife like the humphead wrasse - a fascinating coral reef fish whose fleshy lips have spawned a dining trend - join the magnificent tiger and Asian elephant on the list of most wanted species in trade."
This year's 10 most wanted species, based on threats from unsustainable trade and consumer demand, are:
- Tiger (Panthera tigris): In the past century, the tiger's numbers have been reduced by an estimated 95 percent - with perhaps fewer than 5,000 left in the wild. Among their biggest threats are poaching for tiger parts for use in traditional Chinese medicines and poaching of the tiger's prey species. Tiger bone, used as a pain reliever in traditional medicine, is highly prized on the black market, as are tiger skins.
- Humphead Wrasse (Cheilinus undulatus): This bulbous-headed reef fish could be straight out of "Finding Nemo." It's usually bright blue, with large lips that are a delicacy fetching hundreds of dollars a plate in East Asia. The wrasse is caught and traded live to be displayed in restaurant tanks for diners to select from; demand has grown steadily in recent years. Because the species is naturally rare and slow to reproduce, its population suffers greatly from excessive capture.
- Great White Shark (Carcharodon carcharias): The largest predator among sharks, it is caught for its jaws, teeth, leather and fins, which collect high prices and are in demand worldwide. Incidental capture in fishing gear poses a double threat to the great whites because the few animals that survive accidental netting or hooking are often killed anyway, for the amount of money made from selling their parts.
- Ramin (Gonystylus spp.): This tropical hardwood from Indonesia and Malaysia is used to make mass-produced pool cues, moldings, doors and picture frames. Logging is often illegal, driven by significant global market demand. Ramin grows largely in peat swamp forests, which are increasingly targeted by illegal loggers in search of the valuable wood, putting at risk the endangered tigers, orang utans and other species that live there as well.
- Pig-Nosed Turtle (Carettochelys insculpta): Even with its bizarre, protruding snout, this giant freshwater turtle - found in Papua New Guinea, Indonesia and Australia - is a popular collectors' item worldwide and its population is suffering from high demand for the pet trade. In addition to juvenile turtles being snatched for trade, the turtles' nests are robbed of their eggs, which are eaten.
- Yellow-Crested Cockatoo (Cacatua sulphurea): This exotic-looking parrot, found in Indonesia, is very popular in the international pet trade. The birds are taken from the wild at unsustainable levels to supply the market and the population has been reduced to fewer than 10,000. Already listed on CITES as requiring carefully regulated trade, Indonesia has proposed banning all international commercial trade because the cockatoo is so threatened.
- Asian Elephant (Elephas maximus): Poaching of elephants for ivory and meat remains a serious problem in many Asian countries, as does habitat loss. The population of Asian elephants stands at between 35,000 and 50,000 in the wild, perhaps a tenth of the population of African elephants.
- Irrawaddy Dolphin (Orcaella brevirostris): The biggest threat to this extremely rare Asian dolphin is entanglement in fishing nets and injury from explosives used for dynamite fishing. There is also demand for the dolphin for display in zoos and aquariums, but the species is so endangered that even limited trade is detrimental to its survival.
- Leaf-tailed Gecko (Uroplatus spp.): All 10 species of the leaf-tailed gecko are found only in Madagascar. Even though they can avoid predators by virtually disappearing into trees due to their bark-like appearance and leaf-shaped tails, these lizards have not been able to avoid being captured and sold at alarming rates for the international pet trade. Leaf-tailed gecko species are also threatened by habitat loss and fragmentation.
- Asian Yew Trees (Taxus chinensis, T. cuspidata, T. fuana, T. sumatrana): Yew trees across Asia are unsustainably harvested for their bark and needles, which contain a chemical used in the cancer medication Taxol. If the harvest continues at its current rate, the species may no longer be available for widespread use as a helpful medicine.
Several of these species - the tiger and Asian elephant, for example - have remained on WWF's "most wanted" list over the past decade, indicating little progress in stopping illegal trade and other threats to their survival. Other species, such as ramin and great white shark, have moved onto the list because of a dramatic increase in demand for their products on global markets.
Considered the world's most important wildlife conservation agreement, CITES is the only global treaty regulating trade in threatened animals and plants. Delegates from the United States and other countries around the world will meet in Bangkok from Oct. 2 to 14.
"As the world's species face continued habitat loss and poaching, CITES is filling a key role in protecting wildlife in trade," said Simon Habel, director of TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network of WWF and IUCN-The World Conservation Union. "Since CITES went into effect in 1975, more than 30,000 plants and animals have been protected by the convention."