Warning: Graphic image in this article
Despite all efforts by governments and activist groups, the trade in illegal wildlife is as strong as ever. The growth of the wealthy and middle classes in Asia — especially in nominally socialist, but in reality ultra-capitalist China and Vietnam — has insured the lucrative nature of the trafficking of endangered animal parts. What were once unaffordable luxuries have now become obtainable status symbols. Coveted, but patently bogus, traditional medicines that use rhino horn, tiger penis and bear bile are sold for big bucks to the desperate and ignorant.
On the one hand you can’t really blame someone who is dying of cancer for trying some powdered rhino horn, especially if they come from a culture that instills faith in such remedies. But you can call for education on the matter. And you can certainly blame and shame some crass rich millionaire who serves tiger tonic wine in order to impress people at business meetings. You can also blame governments who pass laws banning the trade, but then endanger those same animals by building on their habitats.
The UN now estimates that the international trade in illegal wildlife is worth $213 billion US. And it’s not just damaging wildlife and offering up bogus remedies; poaching is fuelling anti-state militias in Africa.
Elephant poaching provides income for militants in African nations including Congo and the Central African Republic. The illegal trade in ivory is a key source of revenue for the Lord’s Resistance Army which operates around Congo, Central African Republic and South Sudan, while the Janjaweed based in Sudan along with other “horse gangs” in that country, Chad and Niger also benefit from the sales.
It is estimated that up to 25,000 elephants are killed each year for their tusks and that elephant numbers have dropped by 62% between 2002 and 2011. Tigers are being farmed in China, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam while wild tigers are still getting poached in India, the country that is doing the most to protect the species. Poachers in South Africa (home to 73% of the world’s wild population) have killed more rhinos this year than ever before.
So what is being done?
Activism and education is key. If properly educated, the young generation is more modern and less interested in traditional expressions of status or ineffective folk remedies. Retired Chinese basketball megastar Yao Ming has been working for years in the fight against wildlife trafficking. Recently the governments of the US and China have renewed cooperation efforts to curb the illegal trade.
China and U.S. have reached agreement on tougher control of ivory and to treat organized wildlife crime as a felony. They also acknowledged operation Cobra, a strike against international wildlife crime organized by China, the U.S. and a number of other countries.
Wildlife trafficking isn’t just a problem for Asia and Africa either. In the UK, popular comedian Ricky Gervais has called for the public to hand in any wildlife products they may have in their possession. Gervais’ statements lend support to a drive by the London Metropolitan police to raise awareness of trafficking. It goes hand in hand with the philosophy that once objects like ivory or big cat skins become unacceptable things to have in one’s home, demand will decrease. It is also believed that some people may possess wildlife products that they don’t even want, but are unsure of how to get rid of them.
Unlike the results of powdered rhino horn or tiger wine, the fight against the illegal wildlife trade is long and hard — and that’s an innuendo I’m ashamed to have made. However, anyone who has purchased an endangered animal part should be far more ashamed than that.