Monica Medina is senior director for international ocean policy at the National Geographic Society and Johan Bergenas is deputy director of the Managing Across Boundaries Initiative at the Stimson Center.
Poaching has a long history in the United States and abroad, with armed conflicts dating back to the Oyster Wars of the 1800s. But the illegal wildlife trade has skyrocketed in recent years, and the threat of species loss looms large. The trade has changed as it’s grown, and misconceptions about who is perpetuating it and why abound. As Earth Day approaches, let’s dispel some myths about wildlife trafficking.
1. Elephants are at greatest risk.
Ever since a shocking National Geographic cover story in 2012 raised awareness about the plight of elephants in Africa, the animals have become a cause celebre, with luminaries such as Hillary Clinton, the prince of Wales and basketball star Yao Ming working to save them. Today, according to the World Wildlife Fund, there are fewer than 725,000 elephants left worldwide (other estimates put the figure as low as 472,000) because of humans’ insatiable appetite for ivory.
But many other iconic creatures are even closer to being extinct. Tigers, targeted by poachers and sold for use in traditional Chinese medicines, are down to only 3,200 in the wild. A century ago, they numbered more than 100,000 worldwide.
The remaining 25,000 rhinos in Africa are ruthlessly pursued for their horns, which some people falsely believe hold healing value against such ailments as rheumatism. On the black market, a pound of rhino horn — despite being made of the same material as human fingernails and hair — fetches a pricegreater than that of gold or cocaine.
Giraffes are undergoing what experts call a “silent extinction.” The number of giraffes in Africa has decreased by 40 percent in the past 15 years, to fewer than 80,000.
And species are suffering under the surface of our oceans, too. Despite the increasing number of nations that ban shark-finning, approximately 100 million sharks are killed annually, many for that purpose. In Asia, shark fins are a delicacy used in soup: The fins are worth more than 250 times the value of the shark’s meat. Elephants get most of the attention, but species loss is widespread and even more severe among other animals.
2. Poaching is just an environmental issue.
The cost of poaching to the animal world and ecosystem is dear, and the issue tends to fall under the purview of animal welfare groups. But humans are also victimized by the illegal wildlife trade. In the past 10 years, more than 1,000 park rangers have been killed worldwide while defending animals in the wild. By their own estimation, rangers often don’t stand a chance against well-armed poachers.
A U.N. reportfound links between illegal fishing and human trafficking. A recent Associated Press investigation followed the plight of 40 fishermen, mostly from Burma, who had been sold into slavery on a fishing vessel that landed its catch in Indonesia. Given the global reach of the industry, that fish could easily end up being sold to unwitting consumers in the United States. Some of these human rights abuses have been documented; for example, in Thailand, the world’s third-largest exporter of seafood. But thousands more unknown workers from impoverished nations — some of whom, according to the United Nations, are children — are sold into slavery at sea.
3. Poachers are locals trying to get by.
Poverty and poaching have long been linked, and researchers have correlated high rates of infant mortality in certain regions with high levels of elephant poaching. Indeed, some poachers are victims of poverty — “people trying to live,” as one convicted poacher explained. But as the illegal wildlife trade has exploded, flora and fauna have become the fourth-most-traded illegal commodities in the world, behind narcotics, weapons and humans. And as the business has grown, so has the sophistication of poachers and their networks. The perpetrators are increasingly militarized and connected to transnational organized-crime syndicates. One U.S. government official has described the poaching networks as “the most hard-core criminals that exist today. They are the same people who trade in humans, drugs, arms, and blood diamonds.”
There are also direct links between wildlife trafficking and the financing of terrorists, including the Sudanese Janjaweed and militias in Congo and the Central African Republic. In 2013, the U.N. secretary general issued a report highlighting the connection between accused war criminal Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army and elephant poaching in Central Africa. Additionally, emerging reports tell of the potential involvement of the terrorist groups Boko Haram and al-Shababin the illegal wildlife trade. According to U.N. estimates, the annual income from ivory sales for militias in all of sub-Saharan Africa is $4 million to $12 million.
Because of these links to transnational organized crime and terrorist organizations, the State Departmentdescribes wildlife trafficking as an “acute security threat.”
4. Asia is the problem.
Blame for the wildlife trade often falls on China and Southeast Asia, where demand for ivory and other animal parts is famously high. But while China is the world’s largest market for the illegal wildlife trade, the other leading markets are found not in Asia, but in the United States and Europe.
In 2012, state and federal authorities seized $2 million worth of ivory from jewelers in New York City. The Empire State’s vast market for illegal wildlife products led its legislature to pass a law last year upping the penalties for buying and selling those goods. In Europe, too, the trade takes place in all corners of the continent. Last month, three Swedes were arrested in Stockholm trying to sell a rhino horn on the black market.
The prevailing narrative is that countries like Vietnam and Thailand are unable to enforce laws against wildlife crime, or to detect illegal wildlife products coming through their ports and across their borders. But those are challenges even for the richest country in the world. Despite the Obama administration’s calls to step up enforcement at home, overwhelmed U.S. port inspectors have been unable to keep up with the illegal wildlife trade.
Chinese buying practices must change to curb the trade in Asia, but change must also take place in the West.
5. Drones are the answer.
Several high-profile initiatives have embraced unmanned aerial vehicles to combat poaching. In 2012, Google gave the World Wildlife Fund a $5 million grant to use drones and other technologies in Asia and Africa.
The novelty of drones draws a lot of attention, but a more grounded approach to policing is better. Most park rangers today use cellphones, electrical fences and simple techniques such as checking for footprints to fend off intruders. Drones may be hip, but they alone cannot effectively help rangers on the front lines of the battle. It’s difficult to develop drones that are light and strong enough to navigate Africa’s landscape, with sufficiently long battery life, and the costs may be prohibitive for conservatories.
More sustainable solutions might include unmanned ground sensor systems, such as radar, and a control, command and communication system, such as a smartphone-based application that allows rangers and commanders to receive and provide real-time information from the bush. Such a system aimed at wildlife security is being developed by Linkoping University in Sweden, and a pilot project is underway in Kenya. Radar and stationary sensors give early warnings of intrusion and track the trespassers over time, giving the commanders a new capacity in mitigating poaching.