Organized Crime Devastates Wildlife

A slow loris in a market in Southeast Asia. Copyright Elizabeth Bennett, WCS.

Much of what I write about deals with the good work that zoo and aquarium professionals are doing in order to save wildlife and wild habitats and by and large that will continue to be the focus of this blog. Last week, however, a press release from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) in New York came across my desk that really lays out the scale of the threat that many species face in very stark terms. 

Elizabeth Bennett, vice president of species conservation at WCS, recently published a paper about how organized crime syndicates are participating in the illegal trade of wildlife – an illegal trade that is decimating populations of tigers, elephants, rhinos and a host of other iconic species.  Bennett points out that enforcement methods are falling behind these increasingly sophisticated crime networks – and this failure is rapidly pushing many species towards extinction.  The numbers are staggering. 

“We are failing to conserve some of the world’s most beloved and charismatic species,” said Bennett, who began her career in conservation more than 25 years ago in Asia.  “We are rapidly losing big, spectacular animals to an entirely new type of trade driven by criminalized syndicates. It is deeply alarming, and the world is not yet taking it seriously. When these criminal networks wipe out wildlife, conservation loses, and local people lose the wildlife on which their livelihoods often depend.”

According to the paper, from January 2006 until September 2009 a minimum of 470 African rhino were poached – this has been done largely by people with high-powered assault weapons and rifles.  Other numbers make equally depressing reading: seizures have included 24 tons of pangolins, 332 tiger bones, 283 Asiatic black bear paws, and 239 African elephant tusks.  What’s driving this increase in poaching for profit?  According to Bennett, the largest driver is increased demand for wildlife products in East Asia. 

Copyright Elizabeth Bennett, WCS.

Deeply engrained cultural beliefs in the region make a focusing on reducing demand for wildlife products a long term challenge.  Given the systematic attack on wildlife populations by crime syndicates, that is time many populations of animals don’t have. That leaves enforcement as the best solution in the short term.

For some perspective on the shortcomings of enforcement in battling this illegal trade in wildlife we can look at the rhino numbers again.  According to Bennnett’s report, of the alleged 1,521 rhino horns smuggled out of Africa between January 2006 and September of 2009, only 43 were seized by authorities before they reached their intended markets.

Copyright Elizabeth Bennett, WCS.

The numbers make for a depressing read – but they also provide a back drop that demonstrates the important work that zoos and aquariums are engaged in.  Accredited zoos and aquariums aren’t the solution in of themselves, but they are a vital partner, both in educating the public about threats to wildlife, and in the important work they do to conserve many threatened and endangered species and habitats.

Tim Lewthwaite

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