Wildlife trafficking ruins lives and threatens security and economies around the world.
The illicit trade in wildlife products is predicated on the deaths of defenseless iconic animal species, many of which face extinction as a result of this rapidly growing enterprise — and its effects are felt far and wide.
The scale of the problem has exploded in recent years, and policymakers are working to turn the tide before it’s too late. A bill in the U.S. House of Representatives would help clamp down on this illegal trade — and protect U.S. security in the process.
Here are a few things you probably didn’t know about wildlife trafficking.
1. Wildlife trafficking poses a threat to international security.
The killing of African elephants for ivory is linked to organized crime, and many believe it is linked to the funding of terrorist networks. Areas controlled by militants and gangs are used as staging areas for smuggling illegal ivory, and the profits from poaching are used to fund weapons purchases. In 2012, Sudanese raiders, believed to be members of the notorious Janjaweed militia, killed an estimated 300 elephants in Cameroon’s Bouba N’Djida National Park. The Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), one of Africa’s oldest, most violent, and persistent armed militias, has been linked to elephant slaughters in Garamba National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Ivory trafficking is also believed to provide funding to Al-Shabaab, a terrorist group.
Wildlife trafficking is a global problem not limited to Africa. As the head of the Elephant Trade Information System told The New York Times, Asia is the source of much of the demand for trafficked wildlife goods — and home to many organized crime syndicates responsible for trafficking of wildlife from Africa and other regions.
2. The loss of iconic species is worse than you think.
It was a story as absurd as it was sad: In April, news outlets reported that an aging northern white rhino in Kenya had been placed under 24-hour armed guard in a last-gasp bid to save the species. In 1960, there were as many as 2,300 of these animals in the wild; there are now just five. Hunted for their horns — wrongly believed to have medicinal properties — many species of rhino are at dire risk of extinction.
Elephants also confront severe threats. The animal so closely identified with Africa is being slaughtered for its ivory at the pace of nearly 100 animals a day across the continent; according to a recent study, the population of forest elephants in central Africa fell by 62% between 2002 and 2011.
Tigers, meanwhile, are sought by poachers for nearly every part of their bodies, from their pelts to their teeth — even male tigers’ penises are considered to have medicinal value. The world has lost more than 90% of wild tigers in just over a century, a number that is likely to grow.
3. Protecting these animals in the wild is extraordinarily difficult.
Animals know no borders. Even if they did, the species hunted by poachers traverse some of the most remote and inaccessible habitats on Earth. Monitoring these areas is challenging in the best of circumstances — and much trafficking activity happens outside of wildlife areas, according to experts.
In the worst of circumstances, it is a deadly enterprise. The rangers who patrol Africa’s protected areas are up against heavily-armed poachers. Between July 2013 and July 2014, 56 rangers died on duty, with poachers and militia responsible for 29 of those deaths, according to the International Ranger Federation. Often equipped with little more than a rifle, a few bullets and a machete, rangers routinely square off against poachers carrying military-style equipment such as AK-47 rifles and night vision goggles.
4. Wildlife trafficking is also killing local economies in Africa.
Poaching and trafficking of elephants and other species threatens economic growth in African countries that depend heavily on wildlife tourism as a source of jobs and income: A 2014 briefing paper from the U.N. World Tourism Organization concluded that “the loss of wildlife caused by poaching is likely to significantly impact tourism development in Africa as well as the tourism sector worldwide linked to the African market.”
How bad is it? The loss to tourism of a single elephant over its lifetime is more than US$ 1.6 million, according to a recent report from the iworry campaign of the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust. These animals are truly worth more alive than dead.
5. The U.S. is actually poised to do something about this — and you can help.
A bill in the U.S. House of Representatives — H.R. 2494, the Global Anti-Poaching Act — seeks to support global anti-poaching efforts and to strengthen the capacity of partner countries to counter wildlife trafficking. The bill strengthens wildlife enforcement networks; enables the withholding of aid to countries that fail to adhere to international agreements on the illegal species trade; makes wildlife trafficking violations subject to money laundering and racketeering prosecutions; and authorizes provision of security assistance and equipment to help African countries fight wildlife poaching and trafficking.
What can you do? If you live in the U.S., call (202) 225-3121 or email your representative and urge him or her to support the bill and become a co-sponsor.
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Bruno Vander Velde is CI’s editorial director.