Wildlife trafficking is a brutal, cruel industry controlled by very powerful international crime syndicates. In financial terms, the global scale of illegal trade in wild creatures and their body parts, as well as plants, is, by its secretive nature, difficult to assess. Estimates, however, range between US $7 billion and $23 billion a year. It is a huge part of the clandestine world of organized crime, outstripped only by trafficking in drugs, humans, and weapons. It is ugly, ruthless, totally indifferent to suffering, and all but unstoppable, with the big men behind the smuggling mantled in anonymity and seemingly beyond the reach of law enforcement authorities.
The international body charged with regulating this wildlife trade is CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora). Notwithstanding their efforts, however, the extent of illegal trade is escalating at an unprecedented rate. And this is not only causing serious setbacks to decades of conservation work but is pushing many species to the point of crisis and dire threat to their very existence.
The drivers behind illegal trade are numerous. Endemic poverty in range states means that small sums of cash easily recruit poachers in income-starved communities who see very little value in wildlife. The rapid burgeoning of wealth in end-market countries, particularly in Asia, means more and more people can afford commodities such as ivory and rhino horn that carry huge lifestyle status.
That the current levels of illegal trade are unsustainable and immensely harmful to the survival prospects of the species involved, goes without saying. But what of the trade in wildlife species as a whole? Is that any more sustainable? The answer is almost certainly not. In fact, the illegal trade, for all its justifiably high profile in the media, is but the tip of the iceberg.
As the TRAFFIC organization notes: “The legal trade in wildlife products involves thousands of different fauna and flora species, provides a source of income for millions of producers, raw materials for businesses and local collectors, and a staggering array of goods for hundreds of millions of consumers. It plays an undeniably fundamental role in regional, national, and international economies.”
The market for exotic animals and plants is not a new one. The world’s wildlife has been traded freely and without sanction or restriction throughout the ages. Even now, in terms of international law, millions of animals and plants across thousands and thousands of species are “mined” from the wild every year and sold on as pets, food, medicine, timber, garden plants, tourist tat, and in many other guises. And the size of this “legitimate” industry? As an indication, permits for around 900,000 legal shipments of protected wildlife products are issued annually with an estimated worth of some US $300 billion.
Of course, the damage being done to wildlife populations around the world cannot be laid exclusively at the door of trade, whether legal or otherwise. But such exploitation goes hand in hand with all the other human activities that impact the lives of wild animals—our reforming of natural landscapes for our villages, towns, and cities for our industries, and for farming the food that we need for our own species’ survival.
In the process, we have cast aside any concern for wild animals and their habitats. Their wellbeing is unimportant confronted with our needs. By and large, environmental law and policy reflect this. WWF’s Living Planet Reportreveals it in no uncertain terms. “Earth is losing biodiversity at a rate seen only during mass extinctions.” One of its takeaway headlines cries, “and in less than 50 years, we’ve seen an overall decline of 60% in population sizes of vertebrate species.”
Covid-19 and its ramifications are giving us a timely reminder of the need to re-imagine our relationship with nature. And not just on a fundamental philosophical level, but a practical one, too. For all the damage we have wrought on nature, we still derive ecosystem services from it to the tune of US $125 trillion every year. That is just a few trillion shy of the world’s total GDP.
Perhaps there is a new way under the banner of compassionate conservation, a new paradigm in which nature has a “voice” in environmental policy.
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