Human beings are killers. Not just toward each other, though we do that of course, every hour of every day. We’re killers of those other species of life that share this planet with us. Some we kill for food, like domesticated animals, or the wild fish and game we harvest from the waters and the forest. Others we kill by as a by-product of modern life, taking their habitat through deforestation or pollution. But many, too many, we simply kill for their parts. Or perhaps murder is the better word.
The threat of wildlife trafficking is on my mind, as the biennial meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) continues over the next two weeks in Bangkok. Born 40 years ago, CITES sets the global controls for trade in wildlife, with a focus — at its best — of slowing the slaughter and trafficking of endangered species. For years there was real progress being made in the field. After low points during the 1980s, nations under CITES began to successfully crack down on the illicit ivory trade, which drove the wide-scale poaching of rhinos and elephants in Africa. Between 1973 and 2012, the population of the white rhino in Africa rose from 2,000 to over 19,000 and other endangered species made comebacks, thanks to international sanctions on ivory trade and tougher prosecution on the ground in Africa.
But those advances — and the endangered species — are at risk. Last year poaching levels in Africa were at their highest since international monitors began keeping detailed records in 2002. In 2011 a record amount of illegal ivory was seized worldwide: 38.8 tons, equal to the tusks that would be found on more than 4,000 dead elephants. According to CITES’ own numbers, an estimated 25,000 elephants were poached across Africa in 2011, and in South Africa alone 668 rhinos were killed by poachers last year. And the wildlife trade is having a serious impact on biodiversity as well. According to a new study published in the open journal PLOS ONE, in central Africa an astounding 62% of all forest elephants — slightly smaller than the better-known African savannah elephant — have been killed for their ivory over the past decade. “The analysis confirms what conservationists have feared: the rapid trend toward extinction — potentially within the next decade — of the forest elephant,” Samantha Strindberg of the Wildlife Conservation Society, one of the lead authors of the PLOS ONE study, said in a statement. The forest elephant — and other species — are being hunted to death.
The resurgence of poaching is driven by two connected factors. One is the tremendous increase in the demand for ivory and other animals products, especially in Asia and particularly in China. That demand isn’t new — ivory has long been used in Asia for art and in traditional medicine. In Vietnam, for instance, ground rhino horn has become popular as a cure in cancer. (Needless to say, it doesn’t work.) What’s changed, though, is economic growth — more money in places like China mean more consumers willing to spend more money to buy ivory in all its forms.
That makes ivory all the more valuable, and when an interdicted product — like illegal drugs — becomes more valuable, criminal gangs get very interested. That is what’s happened with poaching, as Africa-based, Asian-run crime syndicates get into the wildlife-trafficking business. It’s perfect from their perspective — wildlife trafficking still has a low risk of detection and persecution, and what penalties do exist tend to be much lighter than those that accompany drug convictions. Wildlife officers in African countries are poor and outgunned, which makes them that much easier to bribe or, in some sad cases, simply kill. That sharp increase in ivory seizures in recent years is a sign of just how involved big gangs are getting in the trade — only professional criminals with continent-spanning networks could move hundreds of pounds of tusks at a time.
Over the weekend, New York Times reporter Thomas Fuller profiled one such crime boss: the Laotian Vixay Keosavang, who one investigator called the “Pablo Escobar of wildlife trafficking”:
The case is especially frustrating to those outside Laos, who say Mr. Vixay appears untouchable as long as he remains in his home country, where, they say, officials have refused to do a thorough investigation despite the reams of evidence presented to them. And without stopping him, wildlife officials and investigators say, they have little hope of breaking down a business empire that they say connects the African savanna to the Asian jungles and ultimately to customers of ivory and traditional medicines in Vietnam and China.
If wildlife trafficking is increasingly coming to resemble the international drug trade, than we may need enforcement that borrows more from drug laws than from environmental regulations. Writing in the Guardian, CITES secretary-general John Scanlon called for a doubling down on the war against poaching:
It is time to treat wildlife crime as serious crime and to deploy the techniques used to combat illicit trade in narcotics, such as undercover operations and “controlled deliveries” – meaning contraband is not seized but tracked to its destination.
This will enable the masterminds in this illegal trade to be identified, prosecuted and convicted. Bringing this destructive activity to an end will require harsh penalties, including making sure these criminals do not profit from their crimes. These enforcement measures need to be coupled with well-targeted public awareness campaigns to help suppress demand for illegal goods.
Of course, the international war on drugs has been anything but an unalloyed success. If the demand is high enough for an illegal product — be it heroin or ground-up rhino horn — there will be criminals willing to take the risks to supply that demand. The best hope for slowing the illegal wildlife trade may well be in Asia, through convincing young Chinese or Thais that their demand for animal products is leading directly to the extinction of endangered species. There’s some hope — over the weekend Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra vowed for the first time to work toward ending her country’s trade in ivory. (The looming threat of sanctions probably helped.) And China has made moves to limit shark-fin soup, which may help reduce the appalling numbers of sharks killed each year by humans. But we need to do much, much more. And until we do, we’ll still have blood on our hands.