The illegal wildlife trade is worth $23 billion annually. It causes both human and animal suffering, and is pushing species to the brink.
This week, leaders from 80 nations came together at London's Illegal Wildlife Trade Conference, announcing that wildlife trafficking is a crime that should be given the same weight as human trafficking and drug smuggling.
“It is time to treat the illegal wildlife trade as the serious, organised crime that it is,” said Prince William, the Duke of Cambridge, as he opened the conference on Wednesday. “It is carried out by ruthless, cross-border criminal networks. It is fueled by corruption. It damages economic growth and sustainable development.”
Many countries rely on wildlife tourism as a source of income and jobs. If animals continue to be poached from their natural habitats, the draw for tourists will lessen, and economies will be affected in turn. In Africa, the tourism industry is currently worth billions.
Wildlife crime is often linked to other illegal activity and large criminal syndicates, so by working to tackle it, it might be possible to apprehend perpetrators of other serious crimes. At the conference, a new initiative called the Wildlife Financial Taskforce was announced, which involves 30 global banks and financial organizations using cases of money laundering to identify criminals involved in wildlife trafficking.
“The criminals who slaughter our magnificent elephants, lions, and tigers, who empty our oceans and forests, they even sometimes use their ill-gotten gains to fund rebels and terrorist groups,” Gabon’s President Ali Bongo Ondimba told the conference. “This is a critical issue for Africa and an issue that we, the international community, have thus far failed to take seriously enough.”
In the past decade, more than 7,000 rhinos have been poached for their horns, with over 1,000 killed last year. In 2007, this statistic was just 13. The horns are shipped to Asia, where they can sell for tens of thousands of dollars for use in traditional medicine. Other sought-after animal parts include tiger pelts, bear claws, reptile skins, and ivory.
Many black-market animal parts are literally worth more than their weight in gold. Luckily, some progress is being made – the value of ivory has dropped by 75 percent in recent decades.
But it isn’t just the parts of dead animals that sell. Many living animals are illegally taken from the wild and sold as pets on the black market. Just recently, Nepalese police identified a chimp-smuggling operation, where baby chimps were being captured in Africa to be sold as pets in the Middle East and Asia.
And while poaching ends in the deaths and suffering of countless animals, it kills people too. Rangers working to protect wildlife risk their lives every day – over 800 have been killed in the line of duty since 2009. At the conference, it was announced that the UK government will provide military training to wildlife rangers working to prevent poaching in Africa.
Sometimes those that poach do so because financially, they have no other choice. “We need to work to find a way to empower people living around protected areas to benefit legally from wildlife and become invested in their survival,” Dr Jo Shaw of WWF International told The Independent earlier this year.
So, what can you do to tackle wildlife trafficking? While catching criminal gangs and enforcing harsher punishments is in the hands of governments, the issue of wildlife crime is very evident on social media. Instagram is rife with “adorable” photos of slow lorises and selfies with baby sloths. Don’t like or share these images, or take holiday selfies with captive exotic animals, the creatures you’re looking at have been snatched from the wild.