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Trafficking in Tragedy: The Toll of Illegal Wildlife Trade

By Jeff Corwin | Emmy Award–winning American wildlife biologist and conservationist | 30 November 2012
Black rhino and baby (David Keith Jones/Images of Africa Photobank/Alamy)

A black rhino hovers over her calf in Tanzania. In 2011, 448 rhinos were killed in South Africa alone — a massive increase from the 13 rhinos killed in 2007.

This article is part of the eJournal USA issue “Go Wild! Coming Together for Conservation.”

By Jeff Corwin

There’s little in life more disturbing than the aftermath of wildlife trafficking: A dead rhino flat on its side with a hole where a horn should be; a bloodied tiger whose vibrant stripes have been stolen; or an elephant that’s been stripped of its face and once-mighty trunk.

Yet this is the reprehensible reality of the wildlife black market, an industry so pervasive that Global Financial Integrity, a nonprofit that reports on transnational crime, estimates its annual profits at roughly $7.8 billion to $10 billion, behind only the black markets for weapons and illegal narcotics. Poaching­ ­— the illegal trapping, killing or taking of wildlife — is related to other forms of illegal trade. In fact, the crimes often become entangled, with smugglers branching out into animal trafficking in order to mask their drug trafficking, making enforcement even more complicated.

The killing of elephants, rhinos and tigers for their tusks, horns and pelts has reached crisis proportions in recent years. In South Africa, 448 rhinos were killed in 2011 — a massive increase from the 13 rhinos killed in 2007. Since the beginning of 2012, more than 250 elephants have been killed in Cameroon alone by heavily armed, cross-border illegal hunters. In India, a recent surge of tiger deaths has been connected with an increase in poaching and trafficking of tiger parts.

In addition to being slaughtered for their meat, animals are also killed for their body parts which are used in Asian folk medicines and for ornamental purposes. For instance, rhino horns are used to make dagger handles and fever remedies, elephant tusks for trinkets, and tiger furs for clothing and accessories.

The trading of live endangered animals and animal products — including rhinos, tigers and elephants — was outlawed by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in 1977, but the black market thrives just the same. Regardless of the enforcement practices in a given country, the trade is a global epidemic in which an animal killed in the jungles of Africa can end up in restaurants and stores in Asia.

Elephants in Crisis

For me, the heartbreak of killing animals for illegal wildlife trade is encapsulated in the image of a distraught elephant calf who refuses to abandon her slaughtered mother’s side. Though her mother is disfigured, bloated and reeking of death, a baby calf will stay by her mother’s side until she starves or is taken by lions. The calf literally can’t live without her mother.

Tactile creatures, elephants are very dependent on touch, and they’re also highly emotional animals capable of both despondency and joy. Elephants are known to celebrate the births of their young and to bury and mourn the death of their loved ones. When they come across discarded tusks of elephants maimed by poachers, they will often pick them up and carry them around.

Elephant killing and seizures of trafficked ivory have spiked in recent years to the highest levels in a decade. CITES statistician Kenneth Burman recently told National Geographic that it is “highly likely” that poachers killed at least 25,000 African elephants last year. The actual figure could be twice as high. With demand for ivory on the rise, hordes of heavily armed militiamen are killing entire herds at a time, as well as any people who get in their way.

Rhinos at Risk

Killing by poachers is decimating populations of many other animals, including the rhinoceros. Blessed — and cursed — with a horn that’s worth five times more than gold in some areas of East Asia, this animal bears the holy grail of the black market on its face as conspicuously as a hood ornament.

Three rhino species — the Sumatran, the Javan and the black rhino — are now critically endangered, and the Indian rhino is listed as threatened. The Sumatran rhino clings to survival as its numbers decline faster than those of any other extant species. Over the past 20 years, poachers have killed more than half the world’s population of Sumatran rhinos, making it the most endangered rhino on Earth.

According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the demand for rhino horn translates into at least 1,300 rhino deaths annually.

A rhino horn’s black-market value stems largely from a centuries-old belief drawn from Chinese folk medicine that it can reduce fever and other ailments. The lucrative market endures despite proof that rhino horn has no medicinal value. In 1983, in an effort to educate the public, WWF sponsored a study to investigate the purported “health benefits” of rhino horn. As expected, the study proved conclusively that it has no effect.

The president of the American College of Traditional Chinese Medicine, Lixin Huang, confirmed this finding in a recent statement aimed at dampening the demand for rhino horn. He added that the use of rhino horn as a cure for cancer “is not documented in traditional Chinese medicine, nor is it approached by the clinical research in traditional Chinese medicine.”

Although most traditional medicines aren’t harmful to animals or the environment, folk remedies that call for tiger whiskers, fat, skin and bone are threatening to wipe out another vulnerable animal: the tiger.

Tigers Teetering on the Brink

Tigers are the biggest of the “big cats” (others are lions, leopards and jaguars). Measuring up to 13 feet in length and weighing up to 660 pounds, tigers can jump almost twice their body length and swim up to 4 miles at a stretch, sometimes lugging their prey with them. A species that once roamed across all of Southern Asia and up to Russia, tigers now exist in the wild only in India, parts of Southeast Asia and Siberia.

In the early 1900s, the world’s tiger population was estimated to be greater than 100,000. Today, 97 percent of that population has been eradicated with fewer than 3,200 tigers remaining. Of the eight original tiger species, three have become extinct: the Bali tiger, the Caspian tiger and the Javan tiger. Killing tigers to feed the black market trade in tiger hide, bones and other body parts is among the primary reasons for the tiger’s rapid decline.

Not Just an Animal Issue

When poachers slaughter an animal to harvest a specific part of its body — such as a rhino’s horn, a tiger’s bones or an elephant’s tusks — the damage extends far beyond the individual animal. Wildlife trafficking can decimate a species’ population, threaten regional security, introduce health risks into human communities, and cause entire ecosystems to falter.

Wildlife protection may seem like a tall order in regions plagued by war, hunger and disease, but unchecked wildlife trafficking actually fuels violence, with poaching proceeds often being used to fund and arm criminal networks, thereby further destabilizing volatile regions.

Wildlife trafficking also threatens economic security. Many of the regions where poaching is prevalent rely heavily on tourism, particularly environmental tourism. Fewer animals to view and increased violence detract from a region’s viability as a tourist destination. Illegal trade also diverts money away from legitimate businesses and instead puts cash in the hands of criminals, stunting economic growth.

Wildlife trafficking also poses public health risks. An increasing number of human diseases — for example, SARS, avian influenza and the ebola virus — are caused by infectious agents that have been transmitted from animals to humans. By circumventing public health controls, the illegal trade of live animals or their body parts puts people’s health at risk.

Respond to Responsibility

Despite the recent rise in wildlife trafficking, there is still reason to hope.

Southern white rhinos — once nearly extinct — are now thought to be the most abundant rhino species in the world, thanks to the tireless dedication of conservationists working together to secure their population in sanctuaries and reserves across Africa. In October 2012, Chinese authorities cracked down on a massive transnational wildlife trafficking ring, seizing more than 1,000 pieces of ivory valued at more than $3.4 million and arresting several smugglers. In the United States, government authorities have pushed to create global partnerships to put an end to the illegal wildlife trade, such as the Coalition Against Wildlife Trafficking, established by the U.S. Department of State in 2005.

Saving tigers, rhinos and elephants — and many other endangered species — requires collaboration across national boundaries and borders. Individuals and organizations around the world are answering this urgent call to action to conserve wildlife. By raising awareness, devising solutions and reducing demand, small groups of people are making big impacts to stem the tide of wildlife trafficking.

“We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children,” a Native American proverb instructs. Given our planet’s current condition, we must do everything in our power to pay back future generations — with interest. We owe it to them to hand down a wealth of natural resources, including the full array of the animals we enjoy today.

Jeff Corwin is an Emmy Award–winning American wildlife biologist and conservationist best known for his work as the host and producer of numerous nature shows, including The Jeff Corwin Experience and Corwin’s Quest. He is also the author of 100 Heartbeats: The Race to Save Earth’s Most Endangered Species and Living on the Edge: Amazing Relationships in the Natural World. Currently Jeff is producer and host of Ocean Mysteries with Jeff Corwin on the ABC network. You can follow his conservation work at www.facebook.com/JeffCorwinConnect.