On October 4th people are marching in cities around the globe to make their voices heard about the increase in wildlife crime. The march is primarily against the shocking poaching of elephants and rhinos, but also of other species such as tigers, lions and pangolins which are also being killed for their body parts.
This “Global March for Elephants and Rhinos” is taking place in 134 cities on six continents including Nairobi, Hong Kong, Rio, New York City and Paris. Its aim is to raise public awareness of the rising tide of poaching in Africa and the illegal wildlife trade and the impacts this is having on biodiversity and on people, and to lobby the governments of the countries that are most complicit in this illegal trade to take action to end this well-organised international crime scourge.
The illegal wildlife trade, similarly to the illegal arms and drugs trades, is now recognised as a major source of revenue fuelling armed conflict and causing great social upheaval in many less developed countries, undermining development gains and efforts.
Thus wildlife crime is not only about animals, it endangers the lives of rural communities, and the rangers working to protect these species, it robs countries of their valuable natural resources, limiting their ability to improve their nature based economies and provide jobs and income for their people. This is an issue which affects people living in Africa as well as those in the East but also in Europe and Norway. As wildlife species and numbers continue to decline worldwide – with Europe having lost almost all large species, Africa is still home to an amazing variety of biodiversity, and we all have a responsibility to ensure their survival.
Dramatic loss of biodiversity
The WWF Living Planet Report, released earlier this week, found that we have lost over 50 percent of our wildlife globally in just the past 40 years. This includes the recent extinction of the Northern White Rhino, the Western Black Rhino and the Asiatic mainland Javan Rhino. Most other rhino populations are facing dramatic decline through wildlife crime, in South Africa alone more than 770 rhinos have been poached since the beginning of the year.
Elephant populations across Africa are also being decimated by increased poaching. In Tanzania’s Selous Game Reserve, where elephants numbered over 100,000 in the mid-1970s, and reportedly still over 70,000 animals as recently as 2007, numbers have plummeted to only 13,000 animals. Central Africa’s elephant populations have been decimated, with forest elephants in the Congo Basin reportedly declining by 76 percent since 2002.
Illegal rhino horn trade has reached the highest levels since the early 1990s, and illegal trade in ivory increased by nearly 300 percent from 1998 to 2011, according to the new report “Illegal trade in ivory and rhino horn: an assessment to improve law enforcement” by WWF partner TRAFFIC.
Demand-driven organized crime
Wildlife crime is more than only the actual poaching which takes place. Poaching is driven primarily by the demand for wildlife parts mainly in the East, in China, Thailand and Vietnam. In China and Thailand, elephant ivory is made into jewellery and other decorative items, while wealthy consumers in Vietnam mistakenly believe that rhino horn can cure hangovers and detoxify the body. Tourists however are also culpable of this crime – buying souvenirs made of wildlife parts, such as jewellery, trinkets, ivory carvings, accessories and “medicines” made from endangered wildlife or plants.
And between the poacher and the consumer are the well-organised networks of criminal traffickers – those that buy from the poachers and illegally transport the wildlife parts, circumventing international customs regulations and controls, to the people in the East who then sell it on to the end users. Thus illegal wildlife crime involves many people: poor rural people poaching for cash, sophisticated crime networks and wealthy consumers spanning Africa and the East, but also with European connections.
Measures against the illegal trade
Ending this organized crime needs to be addressed at multiple levels:
- Political will is required from the governments involved in the source, transit and consumer countries to end the illegal trade. Improved information gathering, effective policing, more stringent legislation to combat and deter criminal activities and better enforcement of laws associated with wildlife crime, as well as much stronger sentences for those caught poaching and trafficking are required. Governments need to act against corrupt officials, who allow and even facilitate this crime. There needs to be better collaboration between countries on ending poaching and the trafficking of wildlife parts, and countries need to take steps to comply with international treaties to which they are signatories, such as CITES (he Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.
- There needs to be enough trained and well equipped rangers in poaching hot spots to prevent poaching.
- The people who live with these animals and bear the negative consequences such as destroyed crops, predated livestock, and even being killed, must be actively involved in wildlife management and conservation decisions, and must be able to get benefits of this management, such as from tourism revenues. Unless the people living with wildlife want that wildlife to remain, unless they derive some benefit – be it spiritual, or economic – from that wildlife, it will be impossible to end poaching. Therefore WWF works closely with rural communities to enable them to live with and benefit from wildlife.
- Critically, reducing the demand for these products in the countries which consume the products is required. This can be done through identification of champions such as sports celebrities, through education and doing awareness campaigns, such as the one WWF, TRAFFIC and PSI have recently launched in Vietnam, aimed at persuading Vietnamese men that they don’t need rhino horn to bolster their self-esteem.
- And lastly, civil society – in Norway and elsewhere – needs to keep this issue in the spotlight, and bring pressure to bear on governments to act against illegal wildlife crime. Otherwise how many more species will go extinct in our lifetimes?
About the author:
Melissa de Kock is a Senior Advisor at WWF-Norway. Having begun her career in media and communications, she has worked in conservation and development since 2003, focussing on community based natural resource management, transboundary conservation initiatives and climate change adaptation in southern and east Africa. Melissa has postgraduate qualifications in development studies, environmental management and responsible tourism.