The global rhino population has dropped from 600,000 to 50,000 in just 50 years. This is largely due to increased consumer wealth in China and Vietnam coupled with a failure to educate the public on the falseness of claims regarding medicinal and sexual benefits of rhino horn. The losers are of course the rhinos, the duped consumers and the often desperately poor poachers who risk their lives to do the dirty work of wealthy criminal traffickers.

Some consumers are not simply innocent dupes, however. Rich party goers snorting rhino horn or trying to enhance their sex lives are not particularly sympathetic victims, are they?

The decimation of exotic species is impacting not just Asia itself, but arguably Africa the most.

From the Financial Times:

The rise in illicit animal trade is not limited to rhino. There has been a worldwide rise in poaching and smuggling of endangered species, with illegal trade conservatively estimated at $7bn-$10bn a year. Demand in Asia for big cats, great apes, elephant tusks, snakes, tigers, turtles and monitor lizards is insatiable. Much of the pull comes from China, the biggest single importer, where many rare species have been prized for centuries as ingredients in traditional medicine.

White rhinos. Pic: Jim Mead (Flickr CC)

Asia may be the new market, but the West has a long tradition of guilt in terms of extinction and endangerment of species. The US is still the second largest market for the illegal pet trade and European colonists have a history of exterminating Asian wildlife, including the hunting of pandas in China. But the recent rise in demand for exotic animal parts has transformed poaching from a cruel but relatively low scale cottage industry to a billion-dollar global crisis.

Law enforcement, while crucial, can only do so much. Authorities in Gabon recently arrested an ivory trafficker believed to be responsible for the deaths of hundreds of elephants. But this is his third arrest and he’s been convicted and fined before. Apparently that was no deterrent. Poaching is just too profitable.

Moreover it is far too often the bit players in the poaching game that take the rap, while the crime bosses responsible for these global crimes remain unpunished.

From a piece in Kenya’s Daily Nation:

It has always been suspected that poaching wasn’t just a layman’s activity, but one that involves the high and mighty. Indeed, the poachers are just errand boys sent to hunt for game trophies that sell for millions of dollars in Asia, mostly China and Thailand.

The illicit trade seems to involve a network which includes KWS [Kenyan Wildlife Service] officials, clearing agents and customs officials, well connected in the security system.

Poached elephant, DRC. Pic: ENOUGH Project (Flickr CC)

A white rhino was recently shot in one of Kenya’s most secure wildlife parks, upping the total to 35 this year.

The fight against poaching is increasingly becoming a war, with more and more guns on both sides. But fighting corruption might save more lives of both people and endangered animals. Furthermore, more sincere and protracted efforts to curb demand in Asian countries would help fight the problem at its source. This is perhaps a symptom of the character of Asia’s growth. After all, more money should result in better education and healthcare, not just more disposable income to waste on bad traditional medicine and ostentatious displays of wealth.