The Illegal trafficking of wildlife is estimated annually to be worth between US$7 – $23 billion and rivals illegal drug sales. Endangered animals are being hunted to extinction by armed gangs at the behest of international crime syndicates. We are outraged when we see reports out of Africa, of elephants being killed, their tusks torn from their heads; rhinos being shot, their horns cut off with chain saws, while still alive; and giraffes killed for their tails. The following post looks at stories from Africa, Asia and beneath the sea. And reports on the solutions being suggested. but will they be enough and in time to save the world’s endangered wildlife?
Update: Global leaders are gathering on Oct. 11 and 12, in London for for an International Conference on the Illegal Wildlife Trade. The focus of the conference will be the eradication of the trade in illegal wildlife and the protection of the most iconic species that are now threatened with extinction. Follow #endwildlifecrime on social media for latest news and information.
Rhinos in South Africa
A decision handed down by South Africa’s Highest Court, removes the ban on the domestic sale of Rhino Horn. The decision was the result of a legal battle between the Department of Environmental Affairs and two rhino owners, who farm rhinos as livestock and harvest their horns. John Hume is the owner of the world’s largest rhino farm with more than 1,000 rhinos. Hume sued the government in 2009 to overturn the ban. Hume claims that commercially harvested horns will help to protect wild rhinos. However the legal decision opens many questions, Foreigners will now be allowed to export a maximum of two horns for “personal purposes.” Environmentalists believe that legalizing this trade will open a door for illegal trade to China. See the entire story in EcoWatch.
Rangers on the Front Lines
Make no mistake, this is not just a crime against animals, as serious as that is. More than 1,000 rangers have paid with their lives over the last decade. That’s two rangers killed each week for ten years. In South Africa, there is one poacher arrested each day just for rhino related crimes.(photo – ozkanozmen)
Rangers are dedicated but outgunned and out maneuvered by sophisticated gangs of poachers equipped with automatic weapons, better vehicles and even helicopters. All financed by international criminal cartels benefiting from the enormous profits that illicit animal products can bring on the world’s black market.
Mountain Gorillas in the Cross-Hairs
Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo has been a battle ground between nine armies, and numerous rebel bands over the last 15 years. Virunga is also one of the few remaining sanctuaries of the Mountain Gorilla.
In 2007 a massive silver-back was killed by members of an illegal charcoal-harvesting syndicate. The rangers and local villagers that reverently, carried his body out of the jungle were captured in a photo taken by Brent Stirton. The emotional image was published world-wide and focused attention on the plight of the threatened Mountain Gorillas. See the full story in National Geographic’ “The Battle for Africa’s Oldest National Park.”
Were you aware that there are less than 3,200 wild tigers left in the world, because 1,425 are known to have been killed by poachers between 2000 and 2012.
What Is the Most Trafficked Animal?
We have seen what is happening to elephants, rhinos and tigers but did you know what animal is most poached: its’s the Pangolin!
The Pangolin is an anteater, about the size of a raccoon, it has been likened to an artichoke with legs. Its body is covered with a suit of armor; thorny, over lapping, scales, actually quite cute, but definitely, not cuddly. The Pangolin is a shy, nocturnal animal that curls into a tight ball when scared. But all that armor does not protect the Pangolin from poachers. It is estimated that more than one million Pangolins have been trafficked over the last decade.
All eight species of pangolin were originally found in large areas of Asia and Africa. Today the Asian pangolin is endangered and the Chinese pangolin is essentially wiped out. Consequently the trade has turned to Africa. (photo – Jefri Tarigan)
The scales of the pangolin are what is most prized, becoming an ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine. But, today the meat is considered a delicacy by the growing, more affluent class in China and Vietnam. Eating a pangolin has become a way of celebrating a successful business deal.
Being Underwater Offers No Protection
We are aware of the marine species that have been threatened by illegal fishing. The taste for shark fin soup has caused the deaths of millions of sharks, but there are other products that have received less notice.
The demand for manta gills has risen dramatically over the last decade. The gills can sell for up to $500 per kilogram. And are used in soup with the supposed benefits of boosting the immune system, curing cancer, chickenpox, and of course for fertility issues.
None of these purported medical benefits are supported by science, nor have they ever been mentioned as a treatment in traditional Chinese medical texts, but the facts have not slowed down the slaughter of these magnificent creatures. See Scientific American.
Vaquita Nears Extinction
I hope you have been keeping up with our posts on the precipitous decline in the number of Vaquitas, the world’s smallest porpoise and most endangered marine mammal. It is now estimated that there are no more than 30 Vaquitas still swimming the waters of the northern Sea of Cortez in Mexico. Vaquitas are unfortunately entangled in gill nets intended to catch a fish called the Totoaba, that is also endangered. (photo – vaquita marina)
The Totoaba is sought after for its swim bladder which can sell for up to US$20,000 per kilo on the Chinese black market, for use in traditional Chinese Medicine! See our post on international attempts to save the Vaquita. also: Vaquita Nears Extinction, Can They be Saved?
The seahorse is believed to cure a wide spectrum of diseases and ailments, here are just a few things that you will benefit from by boiling up a bit of dried seahorse: asthma, incontinence, insomnia, broken bones, thyroid disorders, heart disease, skin infections abdominal pain, impotence (of course impotence) and to facilitate childbirth. (photo – speak up for the voiceless)
So we are on the brink of losing seahorses because someone thinks that drinking a soup or applying a plaster of dried seahorse is going to mend a broken bone. Yes, education is really, really important.
Little Shop of Wildlife Horrors
What if you could wander through a “warehouse” of macabre, stuffed animals: caimans fashioned to hold ashtrays; elephant footstools; guitar-strumming turtles or python-skin boots from the jungles of Latin America. Well, just outside of Denver, CO you can,,, at the National Wildlife Property Repository, part of the US Fish and Wildlife Service.
This is where over one million prohibited wildlife products, collected by US Customs officials at entry points around the country, are stored. Security is tight, although the guitar-stumming turtles would not bring a high bid, other items would. In 2013 the repository pulverized 5.4 tonnes of illegal elephant ivory, to draw international attention to the epidemic of illegal wildlife poaching. Interestingly, most of the items in the repository come not from Africa but from Latin America.
The staff at the repository think of it not as a morgue but a place of learning where school groups are welcome to see the collection and learn about endangered wildlife. Another part of this information offensive, are displays created for airports to raise awareness in travelers who otherwise might be tempted to bring home strumming turtles. Take your own tour through the repository by seeing the entire story at Hakim Magazine.
So How Do You Combat Illegal Trafficking of Wildlife?
In addition to interrupting the killing we need to interrupt the demand for these products and that means putting pressures on the governments of China and Vietnam. Because the largest trail in the illegal trafficking of wildlife ends there.
Getting Governments On Board
There are laws designed to protect endangered animals. In the U.S. there is the Endangered Species Act, plus, trade in animals can be made illegal under the terms of CITES, the multilateral treaty to protect endangered animals. But these laws have been in force without halting the wildlife slaughter.
Individual governments have expanded their efforts to interdict illegal animal products from crossing their borders. China has passed laws that carry jail time for consumers who knowingly purchase animal products that were poached. (photo – doubtfulnews.com)
China Bans Ivory Carving
Estimates of 70% of African ivory is destined for China where it has traditionally been carved into sculptures and jewelry. Luxury items that are in even more demand as China’s economy expands to include a larger middle class. To feed this industry China imported stock piles of “legal” ivory into the market, hoping to deter the market for “illegal” or poached ivory. However with the slaughter of Africa’s elephants accelerating that strategy clearly was not working. (photo – Dean Conger, Getty)
As a consequence of continued international condemnation, China decided to completely close down its ivory carving industry and prohibit the sale of ivory by the end of 2017.
“This is a game changer for Africa’s elephants” says Aili Kang, Asia executive director at the Wildlife Conservation Society. See these related stories in How Stuff Works, although this article in the Guardian isn’t convinced.
The Chinese government has also sent mixed signals to its citizens. On the one hand they ban the hunting of wild tigers and black bears. On the other, they sanction farms that breed these species in captivity, on the theory that they reduce poaching. Unfortunately, by ensuring the supply of animal parts they perpetuate the end market for these parts. Tiger breeding is normally operated as “wildlife parks” that can legally sell animal parts, a loophole that undermines any ban on the illegal trade of tiger parts. (photo – Sinopix)
Educating People: What Is At Stake!
This is where a lot of the problem is. In Southeast Asia, especially Vietnam and China there are historic precedents for using animal parts in traditional medicine. This consumption has boomed right along with the economy that creates a market for status purchases, like our poor Pangolin eaten to celebrate business success, likewise shark-fin soup is a traditional status symbol served at weddings. (photo – Pangolins AP)
Breaking News: Vietnam is one of the leading destinations for illegally, poached and endangered wildlife products, especially rhino horn. So when paintings of endangered animals started to appear on the walls of buildings in downtown Ho Chi Minh City this was a very welcome sign that the government was beginning to take action. The colorful street art is part of a campaign to raise awareness and inform people on the importance of protecting endangered species. the campaign started in 2013 and includes other important issues, such as climate change. See the entire article in EcoWatch. (photo – Michael Tatarski, Mongabay)
Traditional Chinese Medicine
All five species of rhinoceros have been hunted to the brink of extinction for their horns. As described by the 16th century Chinese pharmacist Li Shi Chen, when ground into a powder and dissolved in boiling water it is used to treat fever, snakebite, hallucinations, carbuncles and devil possession, to name just a few, although not as an aphrodisiac. Ground rhino horn can be more valuable than gold. See PBS.org
It seems that there are plenty of options for aphrodisiacs, for example tiger penis is a really big one, prized for its power to empower. The poor tiger really gets sliced and diced; its eyeballs are used for easing malaria and cataracts; its blood is believed to build willpower; its bones are an anti-inflammatory for treating arthritis. Even its fecal matter is a remedy for hemorrhoids and alcoholism. (photo – Mongabay News)
$350 Per Pangolin Plate
Each poor Pangolin can yield up to 500g of scales, that will sell for over $350, and are used to reduce pus. Can there be that much pus in China?? At local restaurants Pangolin meat can cost over $350 per dish.
Lixin Huang, the president of the American College of Traditional Chinese Medicine believes that the use of endangered species in medicine is diminishing, due to public education campaigns. “education needs to be really strong because they still hold their own beliefs from the old ways,” she said. (photo – Mongabay News)
Recent research has indicated how much this education is needed. One Chinese poll found an amazing lack of public awareness about endangered species. Seven of ten respondents apparently did not know that ivory comes from dead elephants.
“A lot of the consumers don’t realize what they did was wrong,”
Grace Gabriel of the International Fund for Animal Welfare said. “They say, ‘If I didn’t kill it, if it’s on the market, then what’s wrong with me buying it?’ There’s no stigma attached with wildlife consumption.”
Wealth driven conspicuous consumption can take some very dark twists. Gang members in southern Guangdong province were arrested for buying and slaughtering tigers. While their wealthy customers paid extra to watch the slaughter, considering it sport. Gladiators anyone?
Signs of Progress?
There are some signs that China is coming around. A recent campaign targeting auction houses focused on the sale of ivory, rhino horn and tiger bone, forcing these items to be removed and keeping $322 million in contraband off of the market. And E-commerce sites now monitor and block the sale of endangered animals. Find out more at Vice News.
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