The $19 billion global black market in wildlife is not only threatening the survival of elephants hunted and other endangered species. It is threatening the very stability of governments, says a just-released study (pdf) by the conservation group WWF. Rebel groups are using funds from trafficking to purchase weapons and finance civil conflicts and even terrorist cells.
John Scanlon, secretary general of Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites), said that rebel groups are literally “cashing in” on world-wide demand for elephants, tigers and rhinoceros, whose body parts are in high demand in parts of Asia for use in traditional medicine. In northern Cameroon, Chad, the Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo, 450 elephants were slaughtered last year and their ivory directly used to finance arms and bribe government officials. The number of rhinos killed for their horns (worth some $600,000) has risen from about 20 a year to an expected 600 this year.
The illegal sale of animals and plants is, says the study, the fourth largest kind of illegal trading in the world, after narcotics, counterfeiting of products and currency and the trafficking of people.
The study is based on interviews with 15 government officials and seven representatives of international organizations that deal with trafficking. But two government officials objected to answer questions about government corruption and Vietnam, which has become a central market for the illicit trade in rhino horns, refused to participate.
Organized Crime Has Entered the Illegal Wildlife Trade
Even more, the WWF report suggests that “power and sophisticated crime syndicates” are behind a huge rise in the illegal wildlife trade. The internet has also played a role as it has made illegal products available to many, many more while advanced technologies (helicopters, night vision goggles, automatic weapons) has meant that animals are more at the mercy of poachers than ever. Law enforcement and other current efforts to stop trafficking is simply inadequate, as WWF president Carter Roberts says in the Guardian:
It has been a failure. We are losing these populations in front of our eyes. It is being outgunned in terms of technology. It is being outgunned in terms of resources, and it is being outgunned, worst of all, in terms of organisation.
Just on Monday, Vietnam and South African signed an agreement to curb rhino poaching. But the U.S. bears a huge responsibility to take action as it is the second largest destination for smuggled goods made from endangered wildlife. Following the recognition that organized crime and “violent rebel groups” have entered the black market in wildlife trade, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has upgraded trafficking from a conservation issue to a national security threat in November.
The WWF study makes all too clearly how political conflicts put not only citizens but a country’s wildlife at risk. In a positive sign, Google has awarded WWF a $5 million grant for aerial drones to track poachers and endangered wildlife. But, as the Guardian observes, “the overwhelming takeaway from the report was the failure of political will in some countries to deal with trafficking.”
How can we create not only awareness but understanding about how governments around the world are letting their natural wealth — wildlife and plants unique to their countries alone — be hunted to elimination, with terrible long-term repercussions for economic stability and, ultimately, political security?
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