The Illegal Wildlife Trade

There are a number of dangers and risks that animals face in the fight to survive. Between struggles for food, space, shelter and breeding partners it’s difficult enough to live in the wild. This, some say, is what has led to evolution in species; adaptation to their living conditions and the hardships they face on a day-to-day basis. But there’s one thing that animals are generally ill-equipped to combat against and that is being hunted by humans.

It’s well-known that dodos were hunted to extinction, to the extent that it’s entered into common parlance in sayings such as “dead as a dodo”. The passive, flightless animals were just not prepared to deal with humans, having never seen them before. They were completely extinct within 100 years of being discovered, despite it being widely documented that they didn’t even taste very nice! Other species have been unwittingly wiped out due to unregulated hunting while some, such as Tasmanian Tigers, Great Auks and Falkland Wolves, were systematically exterminated because they presented a threat to farming and Zanzibar Leopards were specifically targeted because of a traditional belief that they were in the service of witches. Many more species, such as the once-common Passenger Pigeon and Caribbean Monk Seal were hunted for meat, while the Atlas Bear was hunted for sport and to be used for executions.

One of the biggest threats to the survival of a species is poorly governed hunting practices. Whether for food, sport or trade of the parts, few species are safe from being hunted for one reason or another. Many countries have placed restrictions on hunting, implementing hunting seasons for different animals, requiring licences for hunters and their weapons, limits to the number of kills permitted and blanket bans on the hunting of endangered species. Unfortunately, all of the evidence points to these measures being insufficient, with illegal trade in parts such as tiger skeletons and ivory being widespread.

In fact, the ivory trade is one of the biggest causes of elephant mortality. While ivory is known to be traded from other animals like walruses and narwhals the hunting of elephants is far more prevalent; despite strict measures being in place, and laws against poaching for ivory, between 30,000 and 50,000 animals are slaughtered by poachers every year purely for this purpose. This signifies a 2% population decrease each year from ivory poaching alone. That amounts to more than 45 times the human population of the Scilly Isles in the past three years. Legal auctions of stockpiled ivory, far from easing the problem, have exacerbated it by increasing the demand, particularly in Japan and in China where artistic ivory carvings are a status symbol and culturally desirable. Some people blame confusions in the law and lack of education for the crisis, despite the practice regularly being featured in the news and a number of high-profile anti-ivory campaigns, including one by the WWF featuring famous footballers, also highlighting the plight of rhinos. One thing that is not up for debate is that the fatalities are unforgivably high and greater measures must be brought into place to prevent further massacres.

As well as status symbols and carvings, animals are often hunted for their value as ingredients in traditional medicines, particularly in Chinese herbal medicine. Among the hundreds of animals whose parts are considered medically valuable, and therefore profitable to poachers and illegal traders, are Sea Turtles, Sun Bears, Water Buffalo, Tigers, Zebras, Elephants, Alligators and Rhinos. In fact, rhino hunting almost forced the five surviving species of rhino into extinction until, in the 90s, China took rhino off their approved list of ingredients for medicines. As a result the number of rhino across the subspecies actually climbed for a short time until in 2011 a Vietnamese Prime Minister was said to have been cured of terminal liver cancer by taking rhino horn. The demand for it went through the roof and the rhino was in trouble once again, with wild rhinos all over the world at risk of being hunted for use in medicines that have been scientifically debunked. 40% of practitioners use alternatives but the rest still use rhino horn, despite only 27% claiming it’s essential to their work. In fact, there has been a great deal of research into sourcing ingredients from more sustainable species, with approved substitutions for the valuable parts of plenty of endangered animals. Unfortunately this has done little to stop the demand for the “real deal”.

Arguably, one of the most tragic reasons that animals have been completely eradicated from the face of the Earth is for aesthetic reasons, whether for clothing, decoration or status. While it is true that humans have been using animal products for these purposes for thousands of years, it could certainly be argued that technological advances in the manufacture of man-made fibres has made the use of many animal-derived fabrics unnecessary.

While the fur trade is widely condemned, in particular with PETA’s infamous “I’d rather go Naked” campaign, the fur trade shows no signs of abating. Some furs are worn for ceremonial reasons within certain cultures and religions. Tristan Dickerson at Panthera found a way to create realistic and affordable faux furs for these practises and earlier this year the Zulu Shembe, or Nazareth Baptist, Church accepted the replicas and it’s estimated that 70% of the church members will be wearing the fake within the next two years. It is hoped that, ultimately, the whole regalia will be able to be made of faux furs, from the leopard skin capes to the monkey-tail loincloths. It’s a small step but when numbers are so critically low every leopard saved is a victory.

Animals are also hunted for sport all over the world and certain countries are even allowed to sell permits to hunt endangered species like Black Rhinos. It’s recently hit the news after teen model Axelle Despiegelaere allegedly lost support from L’Oréal and faced a massive social media backlash over a photo she posted online of herself with an animal she has just shot.

In some parts of the world endangered species are still being hunted, not for clothing, but for food. In Afghanistan the Markhor, a beautiful, if unusual-looking, goat that lives in the mountains is hunted for its meat, while in Africa all sorts of primates are eaten, from smaller chimps all the way up to great big gorillas. In fact, because we are so genetically similar to these animals, diseases such as HIV and Ebola have been linked to the consumption of their flesh. In 2008 a restaurant in Arizona actually served lion burgers to celebrate the World Cup in South Africa. You might think that humans eating endangered species is limited to countries where food is scarce, but did you know there are three types of tuna featured on the WWF list of endangered and near-endangered species?

Policing this illegal trade in animals and their parts is an international concern, but there’s plenty we can do as individuals. If you ever have suspicions about animals and their treatment, speak to the authorities and your local RSPCA branch who should be able to help.