Wildlife: silent victims of globalisation

With an estimated turnover of between $10bn and $20bn a year, wildlife smuggling is a lucrative business. And Asia's stronger links with Africa and demand for animal products have led to a rise in the trade. Now it threatens the survival of both the African elephant and the rhino. Simon Wilson investigates.

Asia's stronger links with Africa and demand for animal products have led to a rise in wildlife smuggling, and threaten the survival of both the elephant and the rhino, says Simon Wilson.

Why trade in wildlife?

Lower profile than drugs or weapons, the smuggling of wildlife and animal products is a lucrative global trade. And it is not hard to see what attracts criminal gangs to it: a mix of high profits and lower risk. Compared with tackling drug running or international terrorism, wildlife crime is a low priority for hard-pressed national police forces. And even when they are caught, smugglers often face little more than a fine or short jail term, according to Traffic, a pressure group that monitors the wildlife trade. Moreover, in countries with weak judiciaries or widespread corruption, suspects find it easy to stall their cases indefinitely, or buy their way out of trouble.

How big is the business?

It's obviously hard to put a reliable figure on the overall size of an illicit trade. But most estimates cited by NGOs and Interpol put the figure between $10bn and $20bn a year. Some of this trade is bushmeat. In Africa, animals including giraffes, gorillas, buffaloes and antelopes are caught by poachers using snares that typically mean animals die slowly and in great pain. Large quantities of the meat is sold in street markets in big cities; some is even exported to Western Europe and the United States. But food is not the only form of wildlife smuggling. Areas such as medicine and luxury goods are equally important.

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Which animals are under threat?

South Africa has seen a huge surge in rhino poaching by criminal syndicates to meet insatiable demand in east and south-east Asia. Despite being made of keratin, the same protein found in human fingernails and hair, powdered rhino horn has been used for centuries in traditional Asian medicine to treat fevers and malaria. A century ago, hundreds of thousands of these animals roamed Africa; today there are only about 4,000 black rhinos and 17,000 white ones left. Rhino horn is now so valuable that Vietnamese embassy staff have been caught trying to smuggle it. And gangs have taken to flying into reserves by helicopter to kill the animals, hack off their horns and escape. Meanwhile, elephants are again suffering as a result of the flourishing trade in ivory, following the 'ivory wars' of the 1980s, when poaching more than halved Africa's elephant population to just over 600,000.

What's being done to help?

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) imposed a complete ban on ivory sales in 1989, dramatically cutting poaching. At the time, conservationists greeted the ban as a major victory. But the implementation of this has not been consistent. At the last meeting of Cites in 2007, four countries were allowed to carry out a supposedly one-off sale of 105 tons of stockpiled ivory (following a similar 'one-off' of 50 tons in 1997). The idea was to give four hard-pressed nations a break (Zimbabwe, South Africa, Namibia and Botswana) by letting them get rid of tusks previously confiscated from poachers and taken from animals who had died of natural causes. Countries including Britain argued that the one-off sale would satisfy demand and cut poaching, and Cites agreed

Did it work?

On the contrary: the sale has led to a further surge in killing of elephants, as smugglers use the legal trade as a cover to launder their illicit ivory. At the same time, Cites' decision to allow the 2007 sale, and approve China and Japan as legitimate trade partners, has put a rocket under the already strong demand for ivory in east Asia. China, in particular, prizes ivory highly for use in jewellery, carvings, chess sets, chopsticks, and personal seals and it is big business. According to figures cited recently by The Sunday Telegraph, one kilogram of ivory fetches about $40 in Kenya, but $1,500 in east Asia. So a small pair of tusks weighing 10kg would earn a poacher $400 a colossal sum to a casual worker in that country. And a big bull, carrying some 100kg of ivory, might bring in up to $150,000.

How bleak is the situation?

The decision at the Cites meeting in Doha, Qatar, last month to prevent Tanzania from selling its ivory stockpile, worth $20m, was widely greeted as a step in the right direction. But it is unlikely to be enough: even without a new 'one-off' sale, the trade in ivory is once again deeply entrenched. Following the most recent surge, Tanzania is the largest ivory trader in Africa, with Dar es Salaam as its major transit point. Overall, it is estimated that between 8% and 10% of Africa's elephants are now being killed each year to meet Chinese demand. For example, in Kenya, a country that keeps accurate data and has some of the best wildlife protection in Africa, 220 elephants were killed by poachers last year, up five-fold on the figure in 2007. Overall, there are estimated to be less than 500,000 elephants left on that continent.

How the internet helps smugglers

Smugglers of everything from exotic birds and monkeys to rare products, such as tiger-bone wine and pelts from protected species, are all benefiting from the rise of the internet and its ability to link buyers and sellers. Delegates at last month's Cites meeting voted to ban the trade in the Kaiser's Spotted Newt, seen as a textbook example of how a species can be decimated by illicit internet trading. According to Paul Todd of the International Fund for Animal Welfare, "the internet is becoming the dominant factor overall in the global trade in protected species".

Simon Wilson’s first career was in book publishing, as an economics editor at Routledge, and as a publisher of non-fiction at Random House, specialising in popular business and management books. While there, he published Customers.com, a bestselling classic of the early days of e-commerce, and The Money or Your Life: Reuniting Work and Joy, an inspirational book that helped inspire its publisher towards a post-corporate, portfolio life.   

Since 2001, he has been a writer for MoneyWeek, a financial copywriter, and a long-time contributing editor at The Week. Simon also works as an actor and corporate trainer; current and past clients include investment banks, the Bank of England, the UK government, several Magic Circle law firms and all of the Big Four accountancy firms. He has a degree in languages (German and Spanish) and social and political sciences from the University of Cambridge.