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Wildlife Trafficking: Beyond Elephants and Ivory

By Susan Lieberman

In the wildlife trafficking policy debate in the U.S., the majority of attention to date has been on the ivory and horn of Africa’s elephants and rhinos. Given the devastating losses those species have suffered this is perhaps not surprising. That attention has engaged diverse parties from around the globe, including the Obama Administration, African elephant range states, the EU, and conservation NGOs like the Wildlife Conservation Society, for whom I work. WCS’s 96 Elephants campaign has attracted some 170 partners to raise awareness of this critical issue.

However, elephants and rhinos are not the only species threatened by illegal international trade. Numerous other species of mammals, birds, reptiles, and others are also subject to trafficking, and they too need increased attention and political and financial support. In testimony I submitted to a meeting of the President’s Advisory Council on Wildlife Trafficking, I detailed some of the species whose illegal trade is under the radar but still are suffering the effects of wildlife trafficking.

Between 2000 and 2013, more than 27,000 seizures of tiger derivatives have been reported to CITES, mainly originating in China and Vietnam. Photo: ©WCS Russia.
Between 2000 and 2013, more than 27,000 seizures of tiger derivatives were reported to CITES, mainly originating in China and Vietnam. Photo: ©WCS Russia.

The final remaining tigersonly about 3,000 remain in the wild globally — are now threatened by illegal killing for their bones and other body parts. Between 2000 and 2013, more than 27,000 seizures of tiger derivatives were reported to CITES, mainly originating in China and Vietnam. Tiger skins are the most commonly reported seizures item from other range states, followed by bones.

All eight species of pangolin, which occur across tropical South and Southeast Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, are listed by IUCN on its Red List of Threatened Species as threatened with extinction, as well as on the Appendices of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora(CITES). They are traded for their scales for traditional medicine. Their meat, which is also believed to have medicinal properties, is also eaten as a high-status item. In the last decade alone, it is believed that more than one million pangolins have been removed from the wild, with the vast majority entering international trade, much of which is illegal.

In the last decade alone, it is believed that more than one million pangolins have been removed from the wild, with the vast majority entering international trade. Photo: Ruslan Rugoals (CC).
In the last decade alone, it is believed that more than one million pangolins have been removed from the wild, with the vast majority entering international trade. Photo: Ruslan Rugoals (CC).

More than 50 percent of the approximately 330 species of tortoises and freshwater turtles are listed on the IUCN Red List  as threatened, with international trade as the primary threat. They are traded primary as food and as pets, and much of this trade is illegal. This illegality includes both animals that are trafficked and those that are traded using what appear to be legal permits when in fact the animals have been taken from the wild and falsely identified as captive bred.

Turtles for sale at a wildlife market in south China. PHOTO CREDIT: © Liana Joseph.
Turtles for sale at a wildlife market in south China. Photo: © Liana Joseph.

Many species of birds are threatened by illegal capture and trade for the pet trade. The straw-headed bulbul, a Southeast Asian bird that was locally abundant across much of its range until as recently as two decades ago, is now thought to be extinct in Thailand and Java, and virtually extinct on Sumatra. Huge demand for the African gray parrot has caused the species to lose almost half of its population in recent years due to extremely high capture rates with associated mortality due to harsh trapping conditions and poor handling of captive birds.

Between 1975 and 2005, 1.3 million African grey parrots were reported to be legally exported from Africa, and actual numbers removed from the forests of Central and West Africa are likely at least double that due to unreported trade and high mortality in capture and transport. Central American populations of the Scarlet Macaw in Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico, and Belize have been reduced to isolated sub-populations of fewer than 1,000 wild individuals in total—due to illegal trade in this endangered highly attractive bird.

Two African Grey parrots for sale in the infamous "Bird Markets" of Jakarta. Photo: Steve Zack ©WCS.
Two African Grey parrots for sale in the infamous “Bird Markets” of Jakarta. Photo: Steve Zack ©WCS.

Unlike that of elephants, rhinos, and tigers, the global trade in sharks and rays is still largely legal, while also being largely unregulated and unreported. The world’s sharks and rays are being depleted worldwide as a result of over-fishing, much of it driven by international market demand for meat, shark fins, cartilage, oil, manta and devil ray gill plates, and other products. The United States, European Union, China, and many countries around the world play an important role in the over-exploitation and over-consumption of these fishes, and much more needs to be done to reverse their decline, which has brought a full 25 percent of these species to risk of extinction.

All of these species have unique ecological roles and their massive losses from their habitats have unknown repercussions in terms of biodiversity, ecosystem functions, and local livelihoods. However, it is challenging for enforcement agencies to identify the different species and to know what is and is not protected. Yet the species mentioned above, such as pangolins, the African grey parrot, and freshwater turtles, are important and deserve the focus and attention of the U.S. government in its efforts to combat the scourge of wildlife trafficking.

The world’s sharks and rays are being depleted worldwide, with a full 25% of these species at risk of extinction. Photo: Stacy Jupiter ©WCS
The world’s sharks and rays are being depleted worldwide, with a full 25 percent of these species at risk of extinction. Photo: Stacy Jupiter ©WCS

To address the crisis facing these species we must adopt the same three-prong strategy that has been employed to slow the slaughter of elephants and rhinos: stop the killing, the stop the trafficking, and stop the demand

We need more support for their conservation in the wild, including research on cost-effective techniques for surveying species and detecting them in transit. Law enforcement also needs tools to identify them and their parts in trade rapidly and cheaply, through Smartphone apps or DNA bar-coding. Finally, there is a need for far greater awareness of the threat that consumption and purchase of such species poses to their survival, as well as comprehensive programs to change attitudes and behavior and reduce demand.

To be maximally effective in conserving the world’s species threatened by wildlife trafficking, implementation by the U.S. Government of the Administration’s laudable National Strategy to Combat Wildlife Trafficking should fully include these other species that are so often off the radar.

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Dr. Susan Lieberman is Vice President for International Policy at the Wildlife Conservation Society and serves on President Obama’s Advisory Council on Wildlife Trafficking.

Comments

  1. Marylouise
    yicfPidE
    July 18, 4:29 am

    Aritelcs like this just make me want to visit your website even more.

  2. Emilie Martel
    New York, USA/Ottawa, Canada
    March 16, 2015, 9:43 am

    Thank you for continuing to shed light on this horrendous blight on our collective responsibility. Great article which I will be sharing on my FB page this week. Currently filming a documentary exposing trafficking in the Amazon. It would be an honour to have you like our page at http://facebook.com/wildlifecaptive

  3. Debra Smessaert
    Prophetstown IL
    February 15, 2015, 3:44 pm

    Please STOP killing for the Ivory. All animals have the right to life and to be free. Each and every animal is a vital part of Our Ecosystem running smoothly. Thank you, Sincerely, Debra Smessaert. #RAINBOWWARRIORS. We must #BETHEVOICEFORALLANIMALS

  4. Janis Schmidt
    Warwick, ND, USA
    October 26, 2014, 12:30 am

    I hope you are not relying on the US to do something. They are too busy dropping bombs on Iraq, Syria, and god knows who else. US is also dropping tax payer dollars in Ukraine, billions!!!! and god knows elsewhere, all to prop up the US puppet machine in Kiev so they can position themselves to bomb Russia. You should know this without me having to tell you. Whereas Putin has taken a great interest in protecting wildlife, esp. tigers. He has increased their habitat, and upped the sentence for anyone killing or poaching endangered species. He has increased the number of people working for the protection of wildlife. Why not give Putin a call?

  5. Raquel García
    Almere, The Netherlands
    October 23, 2014, 6:52 am

    What a great and necessary article. We would like to add our two cents by also calling for increased attention for Barbary macaques (Macaca sylvanus), the only primate species north of the Sahara desert and the only macaque species outside Asia. Barbary macaques are seriously threatened by illegal trade, which has Europe as the main destination market.

    Infants are being captured for the pet trade at a rate that surpasses population replacement. At least one expert estimates that trafficking alone (not considering other severe threats such as habitat destruction) could wipe out the main population in as little as 15-20 years.

    AAP Rescue Centre is leading the efforts to achieve a higher level of protection and better enforcement of current regulations, which are proving largely useless. Barbary macaques have been included in the comments submitted by Species Survival Network, of which we are a member, to the US Wildlife Trafficking Council, and we hope to see some action in that direction.

    You can read our recent press release here: http://www.aap.nl/english/news/news/aap-alerts-barbary-macaques-in-danger-of-extinction.html

    Again thank you for raising this very important issue of forgotten species!

    Regards from the Netherlands!

  6. Lee Pirozzi
    Charleston, SC
    October 22, 2014, 8:21 pm

    My first painting – at age 13 – was of a tiger – the tongue was blood red: my father critiqued it: the tongue would be flesh colored: NO – depending on the diet and the moment of the image – the tongue may have been RED – I would take on this cause – if intelligence surrounds it – to save them – contact me

  7. Susan Lieberman
    United States
    October 22, 2014, 3:51 pm

    Thank you PEGAS for your comment. It is not the case that great apes are being forgotten–but the focus of the piece was on species for whom the greatest threat is poaching and trafficking. Although illegal trade in great apes is a problem, experts do not believe that it is the primary threat to the survival of great apes, either in Africa or Asia. Hunting of apes for bushmeat in Africa (sometimes but not usually involving international trade), and destruction of habitat of apes in both Africa and Asia are by far the most pressing problems to be dealt with. But thank you again for the comment.

  8. JA Malone
    Toronto Canada
    October 22, 2014, 12:09 pm

    The impact of wildlife trafficking over many decades has reached crisis level, and for certain many of species are affected. And we must include legal trade to supply zoos. As with climate change, we are doing a great deal of talking but still not much action. CITIES is immobilized by politics between member countries, and mostly fence sits. Yet massive and united global effort is urgently required to reverse this march of species towards extinction. If it does not happen and soon, there is no question we will be marching right along with them.

  9. PEGAS
    Kenya
    October 22, 2014, 9:11 am

    As usual, great apes are forgotten. Our closest biological relatives are being trafficked in creasing numbers to China, Russia, Egypt, SE Asia and elsewhere to perform in circuses, attract customers to commercial zoos or be status items in private zoos. As intelligent, social creatures they suffer horribly. Let’s begin to recognize them…

  10. Fliv Juegos
    Continit
    October 22, 2014, 5:55 am

    Law enforcement also needs tools to identify them and their parts in trade rapidly and cheaply Fliv Juegos