Illegal trade in wildlife is a billion-dollar black market costing the world untold losses as animals, many from endangered and/or threatened species, are hunted and killed. Tigers are hunted for their genitals and rhinoceroses for their horns for use in traditional Asian medicine; rare monkeys, bears, parrots and many other valuable and beautiful creatures are captured, drugged and smuggled around the world. Conservation organizations have sought to work with governments to increase law enforcement and criminal penalties for poaching wildlife but to say progress is slow is an understatement.
Certainly it is depressing, and can leave us with a sense of hopelessness, to hear one account after another about endangered wildlife cruelly killed. But three recent reports show that, while it is certainly an uphill battle, the fight to preserve wildlife is resulting in some small victories.
1) A narwhal tusk smuggling ring is busted in Maine.
Two Americans have been charged with smuggling narwhal tusks from the Canadian Arctic into Maine in what seems to be a “decades-long racket,” says the Smithsonian. Two Canadians have apparently been smuggling the tusks (which are actually an enlarged canine tooth found only in male narwhals) to two Americans, Andrew Zarauskas and Jay Conrad, who have allegedly sent some 150 narwhal tusks off via FedEx. Zarauskas and Conrad are to be arraigned this week.
While it not illegal to hunt narwhals in Canada (which lists them as “near-threatened”), it is against the law to ship their tusks to the U.S. and sell them.
Narwhals dwell “in the cracks of dense pack ice for much of the year,” says the Smithsonian. They are difficult for researchers to track and study as they hurry quickly away from motorboats and helicopters. All the more reason, says Grist, that it is “sort of infuriating that horn-smugglers managed to catch them when legitimate scientists can’t.”
2. Hong Kong makes the third mass seizure of ivory in three months.
At then end of last week, Hong Kong officials seized a $1.4 million cache of ivory. Authorities discovered 779 pieces of ivory weighing a total of 2,916 pounds in a shipping container that had passed through Malaysia after leaving Kenya. It’s a supply chain that has become all too common as the seemingly insatiable demand for ivory in China and Thailand (for sculptures and adornments) has led to the poaching of elephants at record levels including the recent killing of an entire family of eleven elephants in Kenya.
Hong Kong police have not yet arrested anyone after forty sacks of ivory were found inside five wooden crates in a container that was said to be carrying architectural stones.
A single pound of ivory can fetch prices of $1,000. In both October and November of last year, a total of three illegal shipments of ivory totaling in the millions were seized in Hong Kong.
3) Thousands of shark fins found drying on an industrial building roof in Hong Kong.
Gary Stokes, the coordinator for the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society in Hong Kong and a photographer, was recently able to take photographs of thousands and thousands of shark fins drying on the roof of an industrial building in Hong Kong over the course of three days. You can see more photos via Stokes’s blog, a truly sickening sight when you think about how many sharks were bloodoed and killed for their fins.
Soup made with shark fins is a traditional delicacy in Chinese cuisine and has been much in demand as the country’s middle class has grown. Serving bowls of shark fin soup at weddings and other events is a status symbol, though one that has fallen increasingly out of favor in Hong Kong and certainly among those of Chinese descent in the U.S.
Indeed, China itself announced last year that shark fin soup would no longer be served at state banquets. But this remains a window-dressing move so long as the Chinese and Hong Kong governments shy away from implementing aggressive policies to stop the eating, hunting and selling of shark fins.
It is probably too much to ask. But let’s work in this new year so that conservation effort victories can not only be about seizing animal parts bound for the black market but about saving the animals themselves.
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