When Singapore customs authorities opened bags of tea leaves passing through their port en route to Vietnam last May, they made a startling discovery. Hidden among the tea were 1,783 ivory tusks, representing hundreds of slain Kenyan elephants. There were also four pieces of rhino horn and 22 teeth from African big cats, including cheetahs and leopards. It was the largest ivory seizure in Singapore in more than a decade but represented just a tiny fraction of the global illegal wildlife trade.
The ivory trade driving the elephant poaching crisis has led to the deaths of at least 100,000 elephants killed in just three years for their tusks. To combat the trade’s devastating effects, Save the Elephants and Wildlife Conservation Network created the Elephant Crisis Fund, which has deployed more than $5 million to stop the killing of elephants, stop the trafficking, and stop the demand for ivory. The ECF has funded partners that put rangers on the ground, identify and disrupt trafficking routes, and use celebrities in Public Service Announcements asking people to not buy ivory.
The trade doesn’t just affect well-known species like elephants. It also impacts little-known species like pangolins and saiga antelopes. The illegal wildlife trade is worth $10 billion to $20 billion every year and is often run by the same professional crime syndicates that traffic drugs and firearms. Unlike those illegal trades, trafficking wildlife products is often low-risk, with fewer penalties and less stringent enforcement.
Conservationists Fight Back
Worldwide, the conservation community has rallied to take action—including some of WCN’s partners and close associates. At this year’s Wildlife Conservation Expo, a panel composed of Jeffrey Flocken (International Fund for Animal Welfare), Dr. Iain Douglas-Hamilton (Save the Elephants), Dr. Simon Morgan (Wildlife ACT), Elena Bykova (Saiga Conservation Alliance) and Thai van Nguyen (Save Vietnam’s Wildlife) joined together to discuss the challenges of the illegal trade and what can be done to stop it. Dr. Claudio Sillero of Ethiopian Wolf Conservation Program and Oxford University served as moderator. Conservationists are fighting back by addressing three angles: killing, trafficking, and demand for wildlife products. They are working with local people to make wildlife worth more alive than dead.
Stopping the trade begins on the ground where wild animals live. Alternative incomes for potential poachers are vital. As Dr. Morgan noted, “Community development and trying to get people involved in innovative ways of benefiting from wildlife through tourism or other ventures is essential.” Support for rangers who fight back against poachers is vital.
Stemming the flow of illegal products through trafficking networks and sales of products is also important. IFAW has investigated thousands of internet postings for wildlife products. Internet auction company eBay hosted around 1,000 open posts per week for wildlife products but agreed to a global wildlife ban on all company sites. The number of wildlife products available has plummeted to only about ten per month. IFAW is now working with other sites like Etsy, China’s Alibaba, and online live auction sites on similar bans.
Addressing demand also sits at the heart of stopping the wildlife trade. Asia is the primary destination for wildlife products, but the United States is also a major market, and products also end up in Russia, the Middle East, and Europe. Rising prices for wildlife items have fueled the trade. Rhino horn is now worth more per ounce than any other product on the planet, including gold, platinum, and even cocaine. However, as Dr. Douglas-Hamilton noted, “We can change how people think and how they behave, and it can be fast.”
Hope for the Future
One of the most promising signs that this is true came when China announced that it would phase out its domestic ivory trade. The country reiterated this position in September when President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinxing promised to work together to enact nearly complete bans on the import and export of ivory in their countries. While details of the bans are being developed, the commitment of China and the United States to end the ivory trade is phenomenal news for elephants and provides hope for the many species around the world that are threatened by the illegal wildlife trade.
Photo courtesy of Frank af Petersens