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Conservation Challenge: Illegal wildlife trade

Ivory - credit: J A Bruson/FFI
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Written by: Rebecca Drury
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Growing demand for wildlife products and easier access to wild species is fuelling unsustainable trade and pushing many species towards extinction.

To take a few examples:

In 2014 an unprecedented 1,215 rhinos were poached in South Africa alone – 20% more than the previous year and equivalent to one rhino every seven hours.

  • Elephant poaching has more than doubled since 2007: Tanzania, for example, has reported losing 60% of its elephants – more than 85,000 animals – to poaching between 2009 and 2014
  • Over 20,000 elephants were killed across Africa in 2013 – a rate of poaching that exceeds natural birth rates and cannot be sustained.
  • It is thought that around 100 tigers have been poached for illegal trade each year this century, leaving just 3,000 tigers remaining in the wild with some subspecies such as the Sumatran tiger perilously close to extinction.
  • Tens of thousands of endangered pangolins are traded each year, earning them the unenviable title of the most traded mammal in the world.

The illegal trade in wildlife is estimated to be worth US$8-10 billion a year (excluding timber and fish). It is one of the largest sources of criminal income in the world alongside trafficking of arms, drugs and people.

The threat of extinction from illegal wildlife trade is very real. For example, in 2010 the western black rhino and was officially declared extinct with the primary cause identified as poaching.

But, despite dominating the headlines, elephants and rhinos are not the only species being wiped out at such alarming rates – they represent just the tip of the iceberg: pangolins, tigers, turtles, snakes, sharks, seahorses and many others (including plants) are also being targeted.

Fauna & Flora International (FFI) is witnessing this directly at its field sites, and is receiving a growing number of requests for help to tackle the problem.

Arms Race

Illegal trade in products such as ivory and rhino horn is now so lucrative that highly organised international criminal syndicates have become involved, and as a result the trade has become increasingly well-resourced.

Poachers are often supplied with guns and sophisticated equipment, compelling many authorities to invest in armed anti-poaching activities.

As poachers become better armed, anti-poaching teams are increasingly putting their lives at risk. In many cases, the fight against poaching is overwhelming the capacity and resources of the people trying to protect these species.

The human side of wildlife trade

Illegal wildlife trade is also a development issue. For many people, particularly those living closest to wildlife populations, wildlife products and services make direct, positive contributions to livelihoods, wellbeing and culture.

With rewards so high, incentives to get involved in illegal hunting can be very strong – especially for those whose income is low or insecure.

High-value trade can, however, marginalise local people, undermining their access to vital resources, or creating economic dependence on unsustainable use of wildlife. In some areas it also increasingly poses a security threat.

Working together

Addressing illegal wildlife trade is a global challenge that requires cooperation between source, transit and destination countries, and between local communities, NGOs and government agencies. FFI’s work is an integral component of this global effort.

For more information read our blog post, What is wildlife trade?

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Rebecca Drury

Rebecca is FFI’s Senior Technical Specialist for Wildlife Trade. With a PhD in Human Ecology, she is interested in the challenges of the relationship between human needs and the environment. Before joining FFI, Rebecca worked on these issues in Egypt, Nepal, Cambodia and Vietnam. Her work included researching the social drivers of consumer demand for wildlife products in Vietnam. At FFI, Rebecca provides technical input to, and is responsible for the strategic development of, FFI’s work to address illegal trade in wild species.

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