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Wildlife Trade - Why Is No-one Shouting About Animal Welfare?

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Broken bones, crushed internal organs, limb loss, suffocation, dehydration, starvation, malnutrition, disease, chronic stress and fear. These are just some of the concerning injuries and conditions that are experienced by animals associated with wildlife trade.

Every day, wild animals are either killed on sight, or removed from the wild and transported either to feed human demand for traditional medicine, wild meat, and ornamentation, or for live use as pets, status symbols, entertainment, or fighting animals.

You would expect at least a passing reference would be made about the animal welfare implications of this global phenomenon from those working on this issue.

Yet a new study, published in Bioscience by researchers from the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit, at Oxford University's Zoology Department, and the World Society for the Protection of Animals, has revealed that animal welfare has been largely being neglected by academics and NGOs actors writing about this issue.

The science of animal welfare addresses social concerns about animals. Pertaining to both individual animals and wider groups, it involves a range of different aspects, such as their nutrition, environment, health, behaviour and mental state, all of which have the potential to impact on both their physical and psychological well-being.

Surprisingly, the study found that animal welfare was almost never mentioned in the wildlife trade literature published between 2006 and 2011, despite the clear potential of commercial sale to severely impact both the physical and psychological well-being of wild animals.

The severity of this impact can vary greatly (in terms of its intensity and duration and the number of animals affected) and depends on the species involved, their intended end use, and how they are restrained, transported, killed and for those kept alive, how they are kept for the rest of their lives.

However, in spite of this variation, even the staunchest of wildlife trade advocates would be hard pressed not to acknowledge that at least some degree of suffering, no matter how minor, is experienced by any wild animal that find itself a target for human consumption.

While animal welfare has hardly featured, conservation concerns have dominated the recent literature on wildlife trade. In fact, more than 70% of the articles studied referred directly to the biodiversity challenges that arise when wildlife trade is conducted in either an unsustainable or an unregulated manner.

The root causes of this apparent bias are difficult to decipher. A combination of factors may be involved including a lack of evidence about welfare impacts, a lack of interest from scientific editors or even writers' a fear of alienating their target audiences.

What is crystal clear though is that wildlife trade is a big and burgeoning business estimated to be worth billions of US dollars each year. With human populations and the economies of historically poor countries, such as China, growing rapidly, the demand (both legal and illegal) for wild animals and their body parts looks set to flourish.

Left unchecked, this increasing demand will undoubtedly equate to increased suffering for wild animals. To prevent this from happening, effective measures and well balanced recommendations grounded in robust scientific evidence are of fundamental importance.

A vital first step is to apply increased academic attention to the animal welfare impacts of trade. Perhaps then, scientists, irrespective of whether their main interest is on conservation or animal welfare, can work together to tackle the negative impacts of the juggernaut which is the global wildlife trade.

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