By Dr. Susan Lieberman
Much of the world’s wildlife is in crisis and one of the primary threats to many species is poaching and the illegal trafficking of their parts and products. This wildlife crime has escalated dramatically in recent years for multiple reasons, some of which have increasingly drawn press attention.
The international trade in parts and products of wild animals is worth more than $150 billion per year. Yes, billions. International illegal wildlife trade is considered by some experts to be the fourth largest illegal trade in the world (after drugs, weapons, and human trafficking). It involves animals and plants used for collectibles, food, pets, ornaments, curios, leathers, medicines, and cosmetics. It includes tens of millions of wild mammals, reptiles, birds, fish, and other species.
But there is hope, and this story does not have to have a sad ending. Several meetings are taking place this week in London as part of a global initiative called United for Wildlife. This coalition of the world’s top conservation organizations, working with the Royal Foundation of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry, has convened a major international symposium on wildlife trafficking to identify solutions to this crisis.
The UK Government and Prince Charles are likewise gathering a group of high level government officials following the symposium to seek a way forward. Solutions will focus on: site-based efforts to stop the poaching on the ground; anti-trafficking and enforcement efforts; and the need to change consumer behavior, including ending consumer demand for ivory and other products.
These meetings come at a critical moment. I have worked on the issue of international wildlife trade for more than 25 years. Never in that time has the level of poaching, illegal trade, and involvement of crime syndicates and corrupt officials been worse than it is today.
Not all trade is inherently harmful to wild populations. It can even be economically and biologically sustainable. In ideal cases, trade in wildlife benefits local communities by providing livelihoods and incentives for conservation while helping to ensure healthy ecosystems and wildlife populations.
But in all too many cases, the forces of greed and corruption take over, as poaching and illegal trade to feed growing markets soar. That is what is happening today across large parts of Africa and Asia. It is local people and wildlife that suffer.
Indeed, the recent trend in poaching does not fit the traditional picture of poor villagers killing an occasional animal to feed their families. Today we see organized syndicates, middlemen, and smugglers working hand in hand with corrupt officials, networks, and profiteers around the world as thousands of elephants, rhinos, and other species are slaughtered to fill the seemingly insatiable demand for ivory in Asia –particularly in China, where growing incomes have enabled more people to afford high status, intricately-carved trinkets.
The current wave of poaching in many countries is carried out by sophisticated and well-organized criminal networks. They use helicopters, night-vision equipment, tranquilizers, and silencers to kill animals at night, avoiding law enforcement patrols. This trade is driven by – and stimulates – both corruption and arms proliferation.
Whether in Shanghai, Bangkok, or New York City, ivory markets must be closed if we are to stop these practices once and for all.
There is only so much that conservation organizations can do; ultimately, it is our governments that must take action—whether in countries that are home to these species, or in transit and consumer countries. President Obama issued an Executive Order last year that established an inter-agency Task Force and Advisory Council on Wildlife Trafficking, and the U.S. strategy on wildlife trafficking is to be issued soon.
There is a clear choice at this week’s summit and beyond: world leaders can accept business-as-usual, issue a weak statement calling for everyone to collaborate, and go home and continue to bemoan the ever-escalating poaching and trafficking. Or they can show courage and leadership, and use the summit and other opportunities to publicly commit to strong, meaningful action—to crack down on poaching, trafficking, corruption, and consumption.
We are all watching.
Dr. Susan Lieberman is Executive Director for Conservation Policy at the Wildlife Conservation Society and sits on U.S. President Barack Obama’s Advisory Council on Wildlife Trafficking.