Illegal harvesting and trading of wildlife have become major threats to global biodiversity and public health 1–3. Although China is widely recognized as an important destination for wildlife illegally obtained abroad 4, little attention has been given to illegal hunting within its borders. Here we extracted 9,256 convictions for illegal hunting from a nationwide database of trial verdicts in China spanning January 2014 to March 2020. These convictions involved illegal hunting of 21% (n = 673) of China’s amphibian, reptile, bird and mammal species, including 25% of imperilled species in these groups. Sample-based extrapolation indicates that many more species were taken illegally during this period. Larger body mass and range size (for all groups), and proximity to urban markets (for amphibians and birds) increase the probability of a species appearing in the convictions database. Convictions pertained overwhelmingly to illegal hunting for commercial purposes and involved all major habitats across China. A small number of convictions represented most of the animals taken, indicating the existence of large commercial poaching operations. Prefectures closer to urban markets show higher densities of convictions and more individual animals taken. Our results suggest that illegal hunting is a major, overlooked threat to biodiversity throughout China.
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