The Truth Behind the Menace of Illegal Wildlife Trade

The vast biodiversity found on Earth is the foundation for the working of its ecosystem, without which mankind would not exist. Animals, birds, insects and micro-organisms have a profound impact on the functioning of various systems and elevate the quality of life of humans. Man has always been highly dependent on animals for his livelihood, yet continues to overexploit them at rates detrimental to both nature and humans alike.

On 6 May 2019, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) released its landmark report, the IPBES Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. The report shed light on the accelerating rate of extinction of animal species over the years and highlighted the role of human activities in driving over one million species to critical endangerment and extinction. The consequences of such a mass extinction would be devasting and would tip the balance of the ecosystem permanently.

Natural habitat destruction to cater to the increasing needs of humans remains the top contributor to speeding the extinction rate of biodiversity. A close second is the rampant illegal wildlife trade.

In simple terms, wildlife trade refers to the trade of products derived from animals or plants for various human uses. Not all wildlife trade is illegal and threatening to the environment. Legal and sustainable wildlife trade involves deriving products from wild plants and animals and has numerous benefits in terms of providing income and employment to people, contributing to sustainability goals, improving infrastructure and fulfilling the needs of humans. However, legal trade and its benefits are grossly overshadowed by the illegal wildlife trade.

Illegal wildlife trade is said to be the biggest direct threat to the survival of countless species, some already on the brink of extinction. As per World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) reports, illegal animal trade is one of the fastest growing illegal businesses, estimated at over US$19 billion per year, making it the fourth largest illegal trade following drugs, arms and human trafficking.

The most threatened and widely trafficked animals for their products include pangolins, tigers, elephants, rhinos, turtle, bears, etc. The pangolin is the most trafficked mammal on this planet. Driven by the demand for the medicinal and supposed magical properties of their scales and for their meat, the quantity of pangolins trafficked has witnessed a dramatic increase over the past decade, especially from countries in Africa and Asia. More than one million pangolins have been reported being traded in the last 10 years, pushing the species to the critically endangered category.

A prominent illegal trade that has captured the attention of organisations and people around the world is the widespread illegal elephant trade. The number of African elephants being killed for their tusks to serve the illegal ivory market is staggeringly large. WWF statistics indicate that an African elephant is killed almost every 15 minutes, and with lack of immediate intervention, the species could go extinct within a decade.

Extensive poaching and trade of tigers is an unprecedented crisis which is gaining rapid importance worldwide. An animal hunted for almost all its body parts for medicinal properties, ornamental products and as a status symbol, today less than 4000 tigers exist around the world. This is a significant decrease when compared to a tiger population of over one million less than a century ago.

The perpetuated myth around the healing properties of a rhino’s horn has led to dramatic increase in the illegal rhino trade. The number of rhinos poached for their horns witnessed a 7700% increase since 2007 in just South Africa. This number is only growing, fuelled by the demand predominantly in the Asian countries.

While illegal wildlife trade is spread over the entire world, it is concentrated in Asian countries like China, Vietnam, India as well as African countries. China continues to be the leading trafficking country as well as the highest consumer for these animal consumer products. China’s controversial decisions, like their reversal of the 25-year ban on rhino horn and tiger bone trade, and inaction against wildlife crimes have constantly come under criticism. Hubs in East and Southern Africa and Southeast Asia, markets in Mexico, Indonesia and New Guinea are also hotspots for wildlife trade. Stimulated by the increasing demand and high prices of animal products, the huge profit margins for the traffickers provide them with an incentive to find loopholes within the already insufficient and badly implemented laws to illegally acquire animal products.

Reports have shown that numerous anti-state organisations fund their terrorism through illegal poaching. The available laws are neither stringent enough nor well implemented (due to problems like faulty structure, governance, corruption, etc.) to deter poaching and criminals often go free due to poor prosecution and leniency.

The explosion of illegal trade over the world and growing awareness has led to significant efforts to control this menace. Organisations like the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and TRAFFIC, a wildlife monitoring network, work with other conservational associations to protect and rehabilitate trafficked animals and educate people on the dangers of illegal trade. In 1975, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) came into effect, drafted by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. CITES, an international agreement amongst governments, works towards ensuring the survival of animals. Illegal trade of certain animals like elephants, tigers, rhinos, etc and sale of animal products is now banned in numerous countries and tightening of laws, proper enforcement and stricter punishments are now becoming priorities for nations. The number of elephants and tigers are gradually increasing over the years due to the persistent efforts of these organisations.

Stricter laws, education and awareness will pave the way for a sustainable future where illegal wildlife trade can not only be controlled, but eliminated entirely.

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