ALMOST half of World Heritage Sites designated for their importance to nature are threatened by the illegal wildlife trade, a report from a leading conservation charity has warned.

WWF said poaching, illegal logging and fishing and trafficking of rare species are plaguing 45 per cent of the world’s most precious natural areas.

From Tanzania’s Serengeti to Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands, rare and endangered species are threatened by the illegal wildlife trade, which is estimated to be worth £15 billion globally, according to the report.

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Poaching of species such as elephants, rhinos and tigers has been reported in at least 43 World Heritage sites, while illegal logging of valuable plants such as rosewood and ebony has been reported in 26 designated places.

Illegal fishing has been seen in 18 of the world’s 39 marine and coastal World Heritage sites.

Harvesting species protected under international law – from snow leopards to scaly anteaters or pangolins – is also a significant problem and occurs in around 50 per cent of African, Asian and Latin American sites, the report warned.

Natural World Heritage sites are home to a third of the world’s remaining tigers and 40 per cent of all African elephants, and in some areas are the last refuge for critically endangered species such as the Javan rhino.

Loss of species and habitat through illegal activity such as logging also threatens the services World Heritage sites provide to local people, from tourism jobs to clean water.

Deforestation has an impact on the planet as a whole by increasing carbon emissions.

Chris Gee, head of campaigns at WWF-UK, said: “Even the wildlife living in places which should benefit from the highest levels of protection are suffering at the hands of criminals.

“Not only does this threaten the survival of species, but it’s also jeopardising the future heritage of these precious places and the people whose livelihoods depend on them.”

He called for a united front from the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) and the World Heritage Convention to tackle the illegal wildlife trade.

And he said: “Next year London will host the fourth Illegal Wildlife Trade Conference, the UK Government must bolster efforts to support the end of this devastating trade.

“Now is not the time to drop the ball on this issue. These findings show that for the future of many of our most endangered species it’s a matter of life and death.”

Inger Andersen, director general of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), said: “Illegal wildlife trafficking robs the world of its natural heritage, threatens local communities and hampers global efforts to reduce poverty.

“This report is a sobering reminder of just how far this type of organised crime can reach, extending even into the supposed safety of World Heritage sites.This is a global challenge that can only be tacked through collective, international action.”

A World Heritage Site is a landmark or area which has been officially recognised by the United Nations (UN), specifically by the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

Sites are selected on the basis of having cultural, historical, scientific or some other form of significance.

They are also legally protected by international treaties.