If you live in a developed country, you might think the illegal trade in wildlife is a faraway problem with little bearing on your daily life and the fate of the world.
You would be wrong.
By virtually any measure, global wildlife crime, which is feeding a black market estimated to be worth about US$19 billion a year (not including illegal fish and timber), ranks among the most serious, dangerous and damaging of international crimes, along with human trafficking, drug running and illegal arms sales.
Its tentacles reach from source countries where animals are captured and killed to transit countries through which live animals and their parts are smuggled to end-user countries where people buy ivory trinkets, rhino horn potions, tiger bone wine, bush meat, pelts and other wildlife contraband.
Along the way, the networks that provide these illegal wildlife products sow death, corruption, insecurity and poverty for the many and huge profits for a few.
Death is all too common on the front lines of the battle to stop poaching: at least 1,000 rangers were killed in 35 different countries over the past decade, according to Sean Willmore, president of the International Ranger Federation. Border guards and other law enforcement officers are also at risk if they happen upon an illegal wildlife shipment and a violent or desperate criminal.
People who live near protected areas can be intimidated into silence or cooperation by local poachers and traffickers – or are driven to poach themselves because of their poverty. They may see no alternative for survival but to kill elephants and sell their ivory to consolidators, to hunt bush meat for the table and to sell in cities, or to harvest the high-value parts of wild species, such as elephants, tigers and rhinos, for sale in the illegal market.
Most experts agree that wildlife crime often occurs hand in hand with other offenses, such as fraud (fake import/export certificates), corruption (bribes paid to officials and/or business people) and money laundering (moving cash from wildlife crime into legitimate enterprises).
In these ways, illegal wildlife trade diverts money away from legitimate businesses and puts cash in the hands of criminals, which can retard or prevent local and national economic growth.
In addition, the decimation of wildlife meflks populations through poaching robs local communities of a potential source of income through wildlife tourism and associated businesses. Wildlife crime, therefore, undermines national and global efforts to alleviate poverty.
Wildlife trafficking can also pose a threat to public health when people and animals are in close contact in crowded, unsanitary conditions. The lack of basic hygiene can create an environment for the spread of zoonotic disease to humans along the trade chains from sources to end-users.
A growing body of evidence indicates yet another source of national and global insecurity related to wildlife crime: the involvement of armed insurgent groups and militants of various political and religious stripes. Ivory poaching is conducted on a significant scale in Central and West Africa by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), Janjaweed militias, Sudanese government troops, and rebel groups in other regions. Some insurgent groups are reportedly involved at some level with tiger poaching and other wildlife crimes in south and southeast Asia.
At its bloody heart, global wildlife crime is violence – against nature and humans. It is theft on a grand scale – of animal lives, natural resources, traditional ways of life and our children’s global heritage. And it is a form of commercial rapaciousness and greed that is degrading the ecosystems we all rely on for basic survival.
The capture, killing, dismemberment, smuggling and sale of wild animals have major negative impacts on life on Earth – impacts that extend far beyond cruelty to individual animals or the extinction of species. Global wildlife crime, taken as a whole, destroys biodiversity, encourages corruption and disrespect for the rule of law, finances international crime syndicates and some armed insurgencies, and destabilizes entire nations and regions.
Elephant poaching in many areas has overtaken natural population growth. In simple terms, most experts now agree that more elephants are being killed than are being born in many range states. Obviously, if this continues, local elephant populations will be wiped out. This seems to be particularly urgent in Central Africa. The world’s five species of rhinos are similarly at risk, largely from poaching for their horns. At the beginning of the 20th century, it is estimated that there were 500,000 rhinos across Africa and Asia. There may be as few as 29,000 today.
Over the past decade or so, the serious implications of rising global wildlife crime, increased elephant, rhino and tiger poaching and the overall theft of natural resources for private profit have been documented by non-governmental organizations involved in animal welfare and conservation.
For instance, the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) released a report on global wildlife crime, updated in 2013. Among its conclusions: “Until recently, the major arguments for working to combat the illegal wildlife trade have focussed on the resource itself: protecting against extinction, preventing the spread of animal-borne diseases, stopping animal cruelty, supporting wildlife tourism, protecting biodiversity, and sustaining rural economies and livelihoods. In the post 9/11 world, however, illegal wildlife trade is no longer only a conservation or animal welfare issue. It is a national and global security issue and must be addressed accordingly.”
The Internet has become a major pipeline for illegal and legally dubious trade in ivory and other wildlife products from endangered wild animals. To combat this trend, eBay introduced a global ban on ivory sales in January 2009. In China, several websites – Taobao, Alibaba and Tencent – have cracked down on questionable and illegal wildlife offers. This progress has largely followed the release of investigative reports, and other online platforms have since adopted similar bans.
As governments and businesses become more aware of the dangers of wildlife crime in general and the criminal use of online platforms as an outlet for illegal wildlife trade, they are more likely to increase monitoring, enforcement and coordination among platform owners and law enforcement agencies across national boundaries. Ending online wildlife trade will not prevent poaching or wildlife trafficking overall, but it will block an important, and growing, market that is largely unregulated and is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week around the world.
Thankfully, many national governments and the law enforcement community are beginning to turn talk into action. Some nations have already dedicated significant attention and resources to fight poaching and cross-border smuggling.
The best way to address this crisis is: Curbing consumer demand; reducing illegal wildlife trade on the Internet; encouraging the adoption of effective policies and legislation; and building wildlife law enforcement capacity through the training of customs officials, park rangers and other frontline staff, improving enforcement networks and increasing interagency cooperation.
Curbing demand is one of the keys to winning the battle against wildlife trafficking, but changing consumer behavior is a long-term prospect. In the meantime, to reduce wildlife suffering and death, to prevent the extinction of endangered species such as tigers, rhinos and elephants and to protect the people who suffer the consequences of this illegal trade – it is critically important to stop poaching and prevent smuggling wherever it is occurring.
Ending international wildlife trafficking is a task far beyond the resources of a single NGO, enforcement agency or nation. It is a global problem that can only be solved through the determined, concerted, long-term efforts that flow from local communities, national governments, regional law enforcement bodies and international agencies.
Consider the worldwide stakes: species survival, ecosystem integrity, the rule of law, national security, human lives and the natural heritage we all share. It is not too late to end the scourge of illegal wildlife trade, but it is urgent.
This article is part of a syndication agreement between The Mark News and The City Paper.
About the author: James Kinney is Program Officer for IFAW’s Wildlife Trade and Elephant programs.