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This Week in London: Uniting to End the Scourge of Illegal Wildlife Trafficking

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.

1.Forest protection authorities examine confiscated wildlife products. Photo: © WCS Vietnam
Forest protection authorities examine confiscated wildlife products © WCS Vietnam

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.

While pangolins don't usually command the same attention as larger, charismatic species like tigers and elephants, they, too, are being obliterated through the illegal wildlife trade. 5.Across the central and eastern Africa, rebel groups are targeting elephants to support their activities through the sale of precious ivory. Photo: © WCS Indonesia
While pangolins don’t usually command the same attention as larger, charismatic species like tigers and elephants, they, too, are being obliterated through the illegal wildlife trade  © WCS Indonesia

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.

Across central and eastern Africa, rebel groups are targeting elephants to support their activities through the sale of precious ivory  © Shutterstock
Across central and eastern Africa, rebel groups are targeting elephants to support their activities through the sale of precious ivory © Shutterstock

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.

Congo Institute for the Conservation of Nature (ICCN) guards, charged with the protection of the nation’s flora and fauna, on patrol in Democratic Republic of Congo. 2.Congo Institute for the Conservation of Nature (ICCN) guards, charged with the protection of the nation’s flora and fauna, on patrol in Democratic Republic of Congo. Photo: Andy Plumptre/WCS: Andy Plumptre/WCS
Congo Institute for the Conservation of Nature (ICCN) guards, charged with the protection of the nation’s flora and fauna, on patrol in Democratic Republic of Congo  © Andy Plumptre/WCS

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.

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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.

Comments

  1. Samwel Savunyu
    Arusha, Tanzania
    July 19, 1:29 pm

    Poaching, illegal traffic of wildlife is really a serious disaster of the world, it is a matter of concern to every one to say no more poaching, no more consumption of wildlife products. the survival of our wildlife creatures as well as of human beings is a matter of concern of nations, i request conservation agencies to press conditions to china which is the biggest market for the world wildlife heritage.

  2. Andrew Wyatt
    February 13, 11:17 am

    Can Private Conservation Contribute to Species Survival?

    http://andreww1blog.wordpress.com/2014/02/13/lions-and-rhinos-and-gazelles-oh-my/

  3. fran guterl
    pa., u.s.a.
    February 12, 7:42 pm

    Yes, we are all listening, with baited breath….

  4. Eileen Wyatt
    United States
    February 12, 7:38 pm

    Ultimately, it is individuals who must take action. In this case, the action is NOT to do something. Do NOT buy ivory. Period. Do NOT buy exotic animals or animal parts for any reason. The killing will continue until there is no market for it. So people must close the market before it’s too late.

  5. dj
    It doesn't matter.
    February 11, 5:39 pm

    !!!NEWS FLASH!!!

    —3 KINDS OF PEOPLE LEFT IN THE WORLD—

    1) The rich.
    2) The pseudo-rich.
    3) The absolute poor.

    ARE YOU #1???

    NOW is YOUR CHANCE to CHANGE HISTORY and SAVE ENDANGERED SPECIES BEFORE THEY BECOME EXTINCT FOREVER. BE THE HERO YOU ALWAYS DREAMED OF. YOUR KIDS WILL LOVE YOU!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!