South Africa has a stable government that makes wildlife protection a high priority. But even in that country, there’s been a dramatic surge in poaching, particularly for rhinos.
A decade ago, fewer than 100 rhinos were killed in a year. Last year, it was more than 1,000, says Dan Ashe, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
“When you’re talking about something that is more valuable than gold, and it is easily accessible, you’re going to create the atmosphere where people are going to take advantage of that,” he says.
Wildlife conservation groups from around the world are meeting in London this week to search for more effective ways to slow the trade in rhino horns, elephant tusks and other illegal wildlife products.
Britain’s Prince Charles and his son Prince William helped convene this symposium, which has taken on added urgency as rhinos and elephants have been slaughtered at higher rates.
One pound of rhino horn now sells for tens of thousands of dollars, and that kind of money attracts poaching gangs that can afford high-tech weapons, silencers and night-vision equipment.
In many cases, the people who traffic these products are the same people who sell illegal drugs, weapons and even humans. But the consequences for selling wildlife products are far less severe, notes Jonathan Bailey, director of conservation programs at the Zoological Society of London.
“If you compare it to things like human trafficking, drugs [or the] arms trade, the illegal wildlife trade isn’t seen as a serious crime, so these syndicates are getting away with doing it at a very low risk,” Bailey says.
There are many steps to addressing the problem. One approach involves changing laws, to make wildlife poaching a more serious crime.
Another strategy involves giving animals more physical protection on the ground.
A third step is to reduce demand for wildlife products. That trend line is also moving in the wrong direction, says Bailey.
“What we’re seeing now is a massive increase in demand. But this isn’t really for traditional medicine. This is more [for] the growing middle class or upper class in Asia,” says Bailey. “It’s being used for things like cancer cures or even mixed with cocaine and snorted. … All sorts of crazy things that do absolutely nothing for anybody. It’s just about status.”
The world’s leading countries have been slow to respond to this problem, but that’s starting to change.
In November, the U.S. pulverized its stockpile of confiscated elephant tusks, dumping tons of ivory into an industrial grinder, where was crushed to splinters. Soon after the U.S. took that step, other countries followed suit.
John Robinson is with the Wildlife Conservation Society.
“The Chinese government recently destroyed six tons of ivory,” Robinson says. “That was followed by a destruction of almost the entire ivory stockpile in Hong Kong, which was … about 25 tons.”
Many people are comparing this struggle to the war on drugs, or on human trafficking.
But there’s one important difference. The world can fight the illegal drug trade forever. If the illegal wildlife trade continues, the fight will someday be over, because there will be none left.