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Wildlife Crime Threatens People, Too

International wildlife crime — including the illegal sale of fish, timber, plants, and wild animals used as pets, food, jewelry, ornaments, furniture, leather, medicine, and more-threatens species, promotes corruption, organized crime and disease, and undermines economic progress, experts said.

Rhinos, elephants, tigers, sharks, and pangolins — a scaly, anteater-like mammal — are particularly vulnerable to wildlife crime, speakers said at a 7 May symposium organized by the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowships program and its Biodiversity Affinity Group.

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TRAFFIC

Rhino poaching in South Africa, an activity driven by the high value of rhino horns, increased from 13 in 2007 to 1,215 in 2014, said Crawford Allan of TRAFFIC, a wildlife trade monitoring network. Between 2010 and 2012, some 100,000 African elephants were poached, and 218,000 pangolins were reported in seizures, he added. In the last century, 97 percent of all wild tigers have been wiped out. He estimated that 100 million sharks are killed for their fins every year.

Susan Lieberman of the Wildlife Conservation Society said that international wildlife trade is a $160 billion-per-year industry, but it remains unclear exactly how much of those profits relate to illegal activity. Allan said, however, that wildlife crime unquestionably has devastating impacts on animals, people, and the environment.

Increasingly, Lieberman, Allan, and other speakers said, wildlife crimes are the work of highly organized criminal syndicates. Some 1,000 rangers have been killed in 35 countries over the last decade, according to Valerie Hickey of The World Bank. Poaching and the illegal sale of wildlife also undermines ecotourism and exacerbates poverty, she noted: Every year, stolen fish cost the governments of Guinea, Sierra Leone, and New Guinea an estimated $145 million in revenue-enough to pay for 800 Ebola-treatment beds annually. Wildlife crimes are "making poor people more poor, and catalyzing tomorrow's poverty," Hickey said.

70% of Chinese consumers were unaware that ivory comes from dead elephants. When consumers were informed of the source of ivory, 82% said that they would not have bought any, if they had known.

IFAW survey

What should be done to stop wildlife crime? "The global conservation community needs to stop the killing first, through prevention, stop the trafficking, and stop the demand" — from the scene of the poaching crime, to the transit hub, to the point of sale, Lieberman said. Prevention efforts must target not only poachers but mid-level traffickers, high-level traders, and consumers of illegal goods such as elephant ivory. Rangers must be well-equipped and well-trained to patrol protected areas, she said. She added that new technologies such as the SMART (Spatial Monitoring and Reporting Tool) can help improve enforcement efforts. The seizure of poached goods is important, she added, but it is not enough. Appropriate laws, policies, and international collaborations, as well as effective prosecutions and sentences, are also essential.

Craig Hoover of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service noted that the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) has required National Ivory Action Plans (NIAPs) to help combat the illegal trade of ivory, which has increased dramatically. The plan "calls out 19 countries" where poaching, trafficking, or the purchase of illegal ivory is either a concern or an issue that needs to be monitored. In the United States, President Obama in 2013 issued an Executive Order that created a Task Force and Advisory Council to help address wildlife trafficking. Last year, the Fish & Wildlife Service set forth a near-total ban on commercial ivory trade. In addition, U.S. law-enforcement attachés have been, or are being dispatched to Thailand, Tanzania, Botswana, Peru, and China. 

Panelists on How You Can Help Combat Wildlife Crimes

  • Apply your science and technology solutions to the Wildlife Crime Tech Challenge — a partnership between the U.S. Agency for International Development, National Geographic, Smithsonian, and TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network. The partnership has called for innovative science and technology solutions to combat wildlife crime in four key issues areas: the detection of transit routes, and efforts to reduce corruption, strengthen forensic evidence, and reduce consumer demand. Winning solutions will be eligible for up to $500,000. Please share this opportunity with relevant networks.
  • Provide public comments online — The National Ocean Council Committee on Illegal, Unreported, Unregulated (IUU) Fishing and Seafood Fraud is seeking public input on principles to be used in determining seafood species “at risk.”
  • Help reduce consumer demand and stop trafficking — Don’t buy illegal wildlife products. At home, when traveling, or online. Do not purchase items containing tortoise shell, ivory, leopard fur, or other such items. For other products, check first, and when in doubt, don’t buy it.
  • Stay informed and be an activist — Keep up with the latest information through your favorite wildlife conservation organization. Write, email, or use social media to your elected representatives and let them know your views on legislation and regulatory actions, and funding for conservation.

Although wildlife crimes happen all over the world, Africa has long been a hot spot for poachers, while Asia sustains a vast market for the sale of illegally obtained wildlife products, several speakers noted. In China, groups such as the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) are working to change consumer behaviors, said Grace Gabriel, the group's Asia Regional Director. While Chinese law requires ivory processors and retailers to register with the government, IFAW's research and that of others have shown that many unlicensed businesses continue to operate illegally, and when ivory is readily available to consumers, they may assume that it is legal. Public-awareness campaigns can go a long way toward reducing the consumer demand for illegally obtained goods, Gabriel said: In a 2011 survey, 70% of Chinese consumers were unaware that ivory comes from dead elephants because the Chinese word for ivory means "elephant teeth." When consumers were informed of the source of ivory, 82% said that they would not have bought any, if they had known.

Illegal wildlife trafficking threatens public health as well as safety, said Jon Epstein of the EcoHealth Alliance, whose group has detected evidence of viruses in bush meat. At AAAS, Epstein showed a photo of a typical wildlife market where a child stood barefoot on a wet street, peering into a cage full of bats while people ate nearby. In such settings, diseases that emerge in primates, bats, pigs, chicken, cows, and other animals can easily spill over into human populations, he noted. Monkey pox, for example, entered the United States via the importation of giant African rats from Gambia. The imported rats mixed with prairie dogs, some of which were sold at pet stores.

The 7 May event was organized by three AAAS S&T Policy Fellows — Daphne Carlson Bremer, Roberto Delgado, and Catherine Workman — who are part of the AAAS Biodiversity Affinity Group, which fosters networking among leaders in the conservation community. The S&T Policy Fellowships program, dating to 1973, places outstanding scientists and engineers in executive, legislative, and Congressional branch assignments for one or two years. The program now has some 3,000 alumni working worldwide in the policy, academic, industry, and nonprofit sectors.

[Credit for associated teaser image: WCS-Indonesia]