Another Inconvenient Truth

A continuing global failure to crack down on a booming trade in body parts from endangered animals could soon cause some species – including rhinos and tigers — to “wink out” of existence, a conservation advocate warns. But a couple of recent developments, including a recent United Nations decision to make combating wildlife crime a core concern, and a “potentially powerful” new International Consortium on Combating Wildlife Crime (ICCWC) – could spur needed action.

“In spite of significant recent advances in understanding how to conserve species, we are failing to conserve some of the most beloved and charismatic, with severe population losses, shrinking ranges and extinctions of subspecies,” Elizabeth Bennett of the Wildlife Conservation Society in Bronx, New York write in Oryx: The International Journal of Conservation. The Sumatran rhinoceros, for instance, “is almost certainly now extinct in Thailand and probably in Peninsular Malaysia,” she writes, and “even formerly seemingly-secure populations are now at risk: South Africa lost almost 230 rhinoceroses to poaching during January–October 2010, one every 30 hours.”

The main reason for the killing, she notes, “is hunting for illegal trade in highly valuable body parts. Such trade is increasingly controlled by organized criminal syndicates with sophisticated smuggling methods and modes of operation.” The smugglers bribe officials, and hide goods in secret compartments in cargo containers carrying legal products. And they are often working for criminal networks that feed demand in wealthy Asian nations, with webs “radiating out across Asia and Africa ultimately link to the markets of East Asia. “The traders are also light on their feet, frequently changing routes and modes of operation as enforcement commences in any one place,” she notes.

And the contraband can be extensive: Last year, for instance, officials seized 239 African elephant tusks at Bangkok International Airport, and in 2007 Russian authorities seized 332 tiger bones, two tiger skulls, 531 saiga antelope horns and 283 Asiatic black bear paws near the Chinese border.

Unfortunately, Bennett writes, “the legislation and methods of addressing illegal wildlife trade in many countries were not developed to tackle this type of organized crime,” which can include things like web sites touting the sale of illegal wildlife products. And enforcement of conservation laws is too often lax or not taken seriously. “To save these species this trade must be treated as serious crime,” she writes, arguing that “we have taken our eye off the ball… Where enforcement is thorough, and with sufficient resources and personnel, it works… But such programs are lamentably rare and resources applied to combating such crime generally grossly inadequate.”

What’s needed now is “a total change in the way that wildlife crime is treated by governments and wider society,” she concludes. That means hiring more investigators and providing better training and equipment. And it means taking advantage of the international agreement on wildlife crime to strengthen global partnerships. “Unless we start taking wildlife crime seriously and allocating the commitment and resources appropriate to tackling sophisticated, well-funded, globally-linked criminal operations,” Bennett predicts that “populations of some of the most beloved but economically prized charismatic species will continue to wink out across their range and, appallingly soon, altogether.” David Malakoff | June 24, 2011

Source: Bennett, E. (2011). Another inconvenient truth: the failure of enforcement systems to save charismatic species. Oryx, 1-4 DOI: 10.1017/S003060531000178X

Image © Chris Kruger |