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Poaching, illegal fishing and deforestation are threatening more than quarter of UNESCO’s World Heritage sites, according to a report by the WWF  (World Wide Fund for Nature) — and the consequences are not just environmental.

The report states that 18 out of the 50 threatened sites are in Latin American countries such as Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Honduras, Panama and Peru. It also says the number could be higher because the illegal extraction of species in the region — a business with annual profits of almost US$ 2 billion — is not as well studied as it is in Africa or Asia.

“Many vaquitas fall into nets that are illegally placed for [fishing] totoaba and Asian demand represents a huge incentive for totoaba overfishing.”

Andrés Cisneros Montemayor, resource economist, University of British Columbia.

In 2016, WWF reported that biodiversity declined 60 per cent on average between 1970 and 2012, and that illegal trade was one of the main engines of species loss.

The new report, published in April, warns that if this trend continues, a new wave of extinctions will begin, especially since many of these World Heritage Sites are shelters for endangered plants and animals.

This is the case already in the islands and protected areas of the Gulf of California, in Mexico, which harbour the remaining population of 30 marine vaquitas. Illegal fishing for totoaba, a fish species protected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES), is the main cause of the vaquita’s decline.

“Many vaquitas fall into nets that are illegally placed for [fishing] totoaba", says Andrés Cisneros Montemayor, resource economist at the University of British Columbia, Canada. "And Asian demand represents a huge incentive for totoaba overfishing. As long as it continues, this problem will not end". But besides the environmental impact of illegal species extraction, these activities also harm the people living in affected regions. In Belize, for example, illegal fishing combined with pollution and uncontrolled coastal development have damaged the marine-protected areas and reef system on which some 200,000 people depend — almost half of Belizeans.

Nadia Bood, a marine biologist at WWF-Belize, warns that populations of some fish, lobsters and molluscs have declined dramatically in recent years, leaving local fishermen and traders with less stock to sell. “It's a constant battle” she says. “Unless NGOs, society and government work together, we will not see a major change”.

This piece was originally published by the Latin America and Caribbean desk.