The Demand For Endangered Species

In May 2019, the first IPBES report confirmed that the trade in flora and fauna is the second biggest threat to species survival and stated that up to 1 million species are potentially facing extinction. Currently, 39,000 endangered species are listed for trade restrictions under CITES; undoubtedly there will be a lot more to come.

As a species becomes rare, then sadly as a result it becomes valuable. Some of the most endangered species in the world are legally traded in the most lucrative and exclusive industries. According to Bain & Company’s Fall–Winter 2018 Luxury Goods Worldwide Market Study, the overall luxury market grew 5% in 2018, to an estimated US$1.32 trillion.

Endangered species contribute to this mindboggling value of the luxury market, including:

  • Personal luxury (clothing, accessories, Jewellery, beauty, wellbeing etc)
  • High-end furniture and housewares
  • Luxury hospitality, fine dining and gourmet food (espicially seafood)
  • The exotic pet industry (from parrots and reptiles all the way to big cats)
  • Trophy hunting and other luxury travel

As a result of this Nature Needs More was delighted to be part of a collaboration exploring the concerns associated with the current, destructive pseudo-luxury market. In November 2018, a month long exhibition was launched with a symposium. For the event, staged in Venice, Nature Needs More explored the concept – Extinction: The Vulgarity of Desire.

It is difficult to get a real sense of the massive scale of the trade in wild species, as the only data source that has sufficient breadth (the UN Comtrade database) was designed for customs use to levy duties. The CITES trade database ignores non-CITES listed species and does not contain any value data. Nevertheless, we can get at least an idea of the value of the trade in ‘raw’ products (skins, logs, fish, plants, fur etc.).

The global wildlife trade is dominated by seafood, which dwarfs all other trades with a value of around US$250 Billion pa. The images on the left show both the seafood trade and the other wildlife trade categories by trade value for the years 2010 – 2020 (for the methodology please see: After seafood, furniture made from tropical hardwood is the next biggest category, followed by TCM and then fashion (which only covers fur and exotic leather). The trade values reflect raw material values as declared at customs, not the completed retail products, which can be sold at prices several orders of magnitude above the price of say, the raw pyhton skins used in a luxury handbag. This disparity also explains the apparent decline in the fashion category, which is purely a result of falling prices for raw fur in recent years, not of a change in trade volume.

The trade in exotic pets (live birds, reptiles and ornamental fish) is worth nearly 1 billion US dollars. It should be seen together with the ‘Exhibitions’ category, which covers the trade in live mammals and is worth about the same. The live mammals trade includes pets (primates, large cats etc.), medicals research (primates) and the trade between zoos (private and public).

The scale of these trades shows how much we have commoditised nature and how our insatiable demand for these products leads to either unsustainable extraction or unsustainable captive breeding operations (like salmon farming).

In addition, questions need to be asked about the traditional Asian medicine industry that according to the IBIS World Market Research Report was valued at US$45 Billion to China alone in 2019.

There is much here to be interrogated, but we must also explore:

    1. Why luxury brands make no contribution, other than the token cost of their CITES permits if they are needed. This lucrative trade has kept its CITES regulator impoverished. CITES is so impoverished, it still uses a 1970s paper-based system to facilitate and manage the global trade in endangered species. There has been no industry contribution to modernise the CITES system for the 21st century and the growing value and volume of trade.‌
    2. The scale of investments and social psychology these luxury brands use to drive up desire. A lot of money and energy invested in to telling & selling us that we need to be seen as successful. Currently, opting out of this consumption addiction requires both a secure identity and massive willpower to NOT conform. This is evidenced by the evolving term and now legal defence of “Affluenza”, defined in 2001 (John de Graaf, David Wann, Thomas Naylor) to be:
      a painful, contagious, socially transmitted condition of overload, debt, anxiety and waste resulting from the dogged pursuit of more.

You may be asking what the desire for legal luxury has to do with the illegal wildlife trade?  During interviews with consumers of illegal wildlife starting in 2013, it became apparent that an evolution occurred in their consumer behaviour. Once they had purchased more mainstream legal manufactured luxuries, they evolved to legal rare luxury products, often associated with endangered species. And then for some illegal wildlife luxuries were next step to achieve status differentiation.

These drive up desire and while systemic change is needed in industry, while pushing for this we must also provide breathing space for some species by creating demand reduction campaigns.

Finally, it is time to look beyond consumption to gain status. It is important to ensure that future generations gain a secure identity and the confidence to opt out of this consumption addiction. This needs to be a focus given the Bain & Company’s Fall–Winter 2018 Luxury Goods Worldwide Market Study highlighted generations Y and Z accounted for 47% of luxury consumers in 2018 and for 33% of luxury purchases.

Given how quickly fashion trends travel through social media, such as Instagram, among these groups, there is a real danger that unsustainable trends are triggered, including illegal. For example , who could have predicted the illegal trade for fennec foxes in the wake of the release of Disney’s Zootopia or the recent trend for otters as pets in Japan because of ‘cuddle party’.

The final step in driving down demand for luxury wildlife and botanical products is redirecting desire away from consumption. We cannot re-direct these users to ‘legal luxury consumption’. Simply reverting to mainstream luxury products does not fulfil their desire for differentiation and would be seen as a backward step by the elite users of illegal wildlife products. Many of the target group already engage in all forms of ‘legal luxury consumption’, which is one of the reasons they have moved to ‘illegal luxury consumption’ to differentiate themselves from the broader elite group.  For this group, if we don’t provide a motivation to not consume products from nature, they will simply substitute one product for another in response to demand reduction campaigns.

This is why Nature Needs More has been researching a way of re-inventing magnificence, a concept steeped in history but subverted by luxury in recent centuries. This new magnificence could be a motivation to contribute to the natural world rather than consume its ‘products’. We accept that the motivations to contribute will be a way to provide these elites an alternative to fulfil their self-image needs and a way to ‘win’ in the social comparison stakes. Therefore, the language of magnificence will have to include elite differentiation, status and prestige, but also bring back the commons and common good, which was lost by a self-serving luxury lifestyle.