Wildlife Crime Threatens Species and Fuels Transnational Crime

An Essay by the Bush Institute's J.H. Cullum Clark and Natalie Gonnella-Platts

The large-scale worldwide illegal wildlife industry has a staggering impact on Earth’s wildlife. Sustainable solutions to defeat wildlife crime do exist and can succeed in reducing poaching and reviving animal populations.

A herd of elephants on the Maaisa Mara Game Reserve. (Shutterstock.com)

If you’ve ever seen a herd of elephants moving majestically across an African savannah, you’ll always remember the experience. Equally memorable yet horrifying is the sight of a dead animal killed by a poacher for its tusks.

The multibillion-dollar trade in illegal wildlife “products,” including elephant ivory, threatens the survival of numerous species. It also undermines human well-being and prosperity worldwide. Wildlife crime weakens social capital in communities close to animal populations, corrupts local officials and national governments, enflames long-time conflicts, short-circuits sustainable paths to economic development, and fuels transnational crime organizations also engaged in narcotics, human trafficking, terrorism, and other illicit activities.

While the population trends for elephants and other heavily trafficked species remain dire, emerging success stories in some of the planet’s most ecologically sensitive places offer encouraging lessons for how the world can defeat wildlife crime. Progress demands a two-pronged approach: bottom-up efforts to engage and empower local communities plus top-down diplomatic, financial, and technology-enabled strategies to influence conservation policies and reinforce law enforcement authorities at the national level.

Wildlife crime weakens social capital in communities close to animal populations, corrupts local officials and national governments, enflames long-time conflicts, short-circuits sustainable paths to economic development, and fuels transnational crime organizations.

The worldwide challenge

Animal populations suffered calamitous declines during the first two-thirds of the 20th century. Scientists estimate that Africa’s elephant population fell from 10 million in 1930 to less than 2 million by the 1960s as a result of habitat shrinkage and human-animal conflicts.

In 1973, America led the world in developing the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, also known as the Washington Convention. This landmark agreement established the concept of wildlife crime in international law and banned trade in certain “products,” notably from rhinoceroses and tigers.

Subsequent agreements strengthened protections for elephants and other species. Today, the Washington Convention has 183 signatory nations, including virtually every key host country in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. However, anti-trafficking efforts depend on national and local enforcement, which until recently has proven weak in too many places.

Increasing restrictions coupled with changing attitudes curtailed demand for a time, slowing population losses in the 1990s and 2000s. But increasing prosperity in Asia brought an explosive resurgence in demand since 2009, particularly in China and Southeast Asia.

Ivory sells for some $1,000 per pound in East Asia today, amounting to more than $50,000 for the tusks of a single animal. Another driver of demand is the $130 billion traditional Chinese medicine industry.

Poachers now kill approximately 20,000 African elephants per year, four times the rate in the late 1990s. Africa’s elephant population, estimated at almost 600,000 early in the early 2000s, is now below 400,000. In Tanzania, elephant numbers have fallen by 60 percent since 2009, and by more than 80 percent in certain areas such as the Selous Game Reserve. Even Asian elephants, mostly lacking tusks, have declined by more than half since 2000 because of exploding consumer interest in elephant skin for handbags and shoes.

Asian demand has had similar consequences for other prized animals. Increasingly prosperous consumers want rhino horn for medicinal uses, even though it consists of the same material as human fingernails. A rhino horn can sell for as much as $240,000 in China. As a result, poaching in sub-Saharan Africa has risen from a few dozen animals to more than 1,300 per year, and Africa’s rhino population has dwindled to about 20,000.

The pangolin is endangered due to poaching and habitat loss. (Shutterstock.com)

Consumers buy tiger parts to “treat” impotence and bile from endangered sun bears to prevent cancer. Perhaps the most poached species on the planet is the armadillo-like pangolin, which has become virtually extinct in Asia because Chinese and Vietnamese consumers value the meat as a delicacy and use its scales for boots and apparel.

International pressure on China has brought both progress and setbacks. China enacted a ban on rhino and tiger part sales in 1993 and officially banned the ivory trade in 2018. Chinese technology companies like Alibaba are now active partners in efforts to detect illicit online listings of wildlife products. On the other hand, China’s government unexpectedly announced an end to the prohibition on domestic trade in rhino and tiger products in October 2018, though it “postponed” the policy after overseas outcries.

Global Financial Integrity estimates that the worldwide illegal wildlife industry amounts to $10 billion to $23 billion today, just behind narcotics, illegal logging and mining, and human trafficking. 

Global Financial Integrity estimates that the worldwide illegal wildlife industry amounts to $10 billion to $23 billion today, just behind narcotics, illegal logging and mining, and human trafficking.

The industry operates at large scale. Poaching organizations use sophisticated weapons and communications systems, and single shipments often exceed one-to-two tons. Authorities believe the syndicate headed by China’s notorious “Ivory Queen” Yang Fenglan, recently convicted in Tanzania, has trafficked ivory from thousands of elephants. 

According to World Wildlife Fund (WWF), wildlife crime represents “the most direct threat to many of the world’s most at-risk species.” And the impact on Earth’s wildlife is staggering. WWF’s Living Planet Index, tracking population numbers across some 4,000 species, shows aggregate declines of more than 60 percent since 1970, with greater declines in Africa and Asia. Most of this catastrophe has occurred since 2000.

Highly-endangered black rhino populations have rebounded in Namibia due to the Communal Conservancy system. (Shutterstock.com)

The case for caring

The case for fighting wildlife crime begins with moral responsibility. If recent trends continue, the African elephant could face extinction in the wild within our lifetime. Future generations may face a world without rhinos, lions, or pangolins. As conservation leader Paul Oxton warns, “Only when the last of the animal horns, tusks, skin and bones have been sold will mankind realize that money can never buy back our wildlife.”

As global citizens, we have a responsibility to ensure not only the well-being of our own species but also the welfare of our planet. 

Wildlife crime erodes societies’ political and social health. In many African countries, trafficking undermines governance, culture, and the rule of law, reinforcing cycles of violence and instability. Terrorist groups play major roles in wildlife crime. Poachers affiliated with Boko Haram are thought to have slaughtered 25,000 elephants in one region of Gabon over the last decade, exploiting children to transport the illicit ivory.

In Asia, crime syndicates force girls into sexual slavery, hold young men captive aboard illegal fishing boats, and traffic simultaneously in narcotics and animal parts. Experts believe North Korean officials engage in wildlife trafficking to bolster their wealth and provide much-needed financial support for the North Korean regime.

Wildlife crime also undermines more sustainable avenues to economic development in local communities, including the eco-tourism industry.One 2016 study estimated that declining elephant densities cost African countries $25 million per year in foregone tourism revenue.

Communities near protected areas with eco-tourism activities enjoy 17 percent higher household wealth levels and 16 percent lower poverty rates than otherwise similar communities. Individual poachers, meanwhile, keep only $20 to $50 per animal – or 0.01 to 0.05 percent of retail value for a rhino – despite risking imprisonment or death.

Communities near protected areas with eco-tourism activities enjoy 17 percent higher household wealth levels and 16 percent lower poverty rates than otherwise similar communities.

A more profound economic problem is that armies of young men learn to be violent criminals instead of productive citizens. Corruption and foregone tax revenues undermine government services essential to economic development. And the trade is inherently unsustainable, as extinction of key species ends the “industry” for local gangs.

Sustainable solutions 

Recent evidence proves that two-pronged strategies combining bottom-up and top-down elements can succeed in reducing poaching and reviving animal populations. At the bottom-up level, empowering frontline communities represents one of the best opportunities for long-term gains. As former Secretary of State James Baker underscored in 2018, “If we are to protect the world’s remaining elephants, we must commit ourselves to supporting the countries where they live, and whose communities are threatened by criminal trafficking networks.” 

Namibia, for example, has built on the country’s innovative Communal Conservancy system to allow communities to create and operate local conservancies in which citizens protect and benefit from regional wildlife. Namibia’s 82 communal conservancies span 62,000 square miles and one-fifth of the population, and they generate more than $7 million per year in monetary and in-kind benefits.

Communities reinvest these revenues in education, health, and economic development initiatives, as well as anti-poaching and wildlife management programs. Because of this effort, Namibia’s elephant population has tripled, and highly-endangered desert lion and black rhino populations have rebounded as well.

An orphaned elephant being fed in Kenya. (Shutterstock.com)

Community conservation efforts have also challenged gender norms and dispelled local misconceptions about anti-poaching authorities. In South Africa and Zimbabwe, all-female ranger units are working to stop poachers while fostering positive relationships with rural villagers. South Africa’s Black Mambas, an all-female anti-poaching group, contends that guns and bullets will not win the “war on poaching.” Rather, the war will be won by building up the communities surrounding the reserves, including the education of people living in the villages. The group’s efforts have reduced poaching and snaring by 76 percent in regions of South Africa where they’re active. 

Top-down solutions rooted in political will and sustainable investment are equally vital. In Africa and Asia, lack of funding continues to challenge anti-poaching efforts. U.S. foreign assistance programs and private-sector support remain critical in the fight against wildlife crime.

President Donald Trump included wildlife trafficking as part of the Executive Order on Transnational Criminal Organizations and Preventing International Trafficking. Yet the U.S. and other stakeholders must uphold their commitments to the cause. Strengthening justice systems, enhancing good governance and law enforcement, and improving access to new technologies are needed to combat this global crisis. 

Public-private sector collaboration has proven effective. In 2005, under President George W. Bush, the U.S. State Department launched the Coalition Against Wildlife Trafficking. The initiative brought together like-minded leaders to curtail illegal exports through improving information sharing, training, and law-enforcement capacity. They also reduced consumer demand through advocacy efforts and creating awareness about wildlife trafficking.

Building on such efforts, e-commerce and social media companies have partnered with animal welfare and conservation organizations to create the Global Coalition Against Wildlife Trafficking Online.  The goal is to reduce wildlife trafficking across digital platforms by 80 percent by 2020. This effort promises to expand the fight against wildlife crime by limiting the ability of crime syndicates to look to online resources to market their “products.”

What happens around the world matters to us here at home. And that includes in curbing wildlife trafficking. By investing in local and national institutions abroad, we are investing in a better world where accountability, rule of law, and biodiversity are valued and respected. 

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