By James Kinney
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, feeding a black market estimated to be worth about $19 billion a year ranks among the most serious, s 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 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 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 against poaching. At least 1,000 rangers were killed in 35 different countries over the past decade, according to the International Ranger Federation. Border guards and other law enforcement officers are also at risk.
People who live near protected areas can be intimidated into silence or cooperation by local poachers and traffickers – or, driven by poverty poach themselves. 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.
Experts agree that wildlife crime often occurs hand in hand with other offenses, such as fraud corruption and money laundering.
In these ways, illegal wildlife trade diverts money away from legitimate businesses and puts cash in the hands of criminals, which retards economic growth.
The decimation of wildlife robs communities of a potential source of income through wildlife tourism and associated businesses undermining 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, creating an environment for the spread of zoonotic disease to humans.
A growing body of evidence indicates 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), , Sudanese government troops, and rebel groups.
At its bloody heart, 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 a form of commercial rapaciousness and greed that is degrading the ecosystems we all rely on..
The capture, killing, dismemberment, and sale of wild animals has major negative impacts on life on earth – impacts that extend far beyond cruelty to individual animals or the extinction of species. Wildlife crimes, destroy biodiversity, encourage 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. Most experts now agree that more elephants are being killed than are being born in many states. If this continues elephant populations will be wiped out. This is particularly urgent in Central Africa.
The world’s five species of rhinos are similarly at risk. At the start of the 20th century there were 500,000 rhinos across Africa and Asia. There may be as few as 29,000 today.
Over the recent decades, the implications of rising 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 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 have cracked down on questionable and illegal wildlife offers. This progress has largely followed the release of investigative reports,
As governments and businesses become more aware of the dangers of wildlife crime and the criminal use of online platforms for illegal trade, they are more likely to increase monitoring, enforcement and coordination among platform owners and law enforcement agencies. Ending online wildlife trade will not prevent poaching or wildlife trafficking overall, but it will block an unregulated growing, market open 24/7.
Many national governments and the law enforcement community are beginning to turn talk into action. Some have already dedicated significant attention and resources to fight poaching and 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, 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, 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.
James Kinney is Program Officer for IFAW’s Wildlife Trade and Elephant programs