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The Global Wildlife Trade: An International Disgrace

Published 01/15/09
By Adam M. Roberts, Senior Vice President

The global wildlife trade is a deadly business.

Rhinoceroses gunned down so their horns can be ground into fever-reducing pills or made into traditional dagger handles in Yemen. Mother chimpanzees slaughtered to satisfy the demand for wild animal flesh, their orphaned babies sold into the pet trade. An estimated one hundred million sharks fatally wrenched from their ocean homes each year for sport, for their teeth, or for their fins, which end up floating in a bowl of Asian soup.

The ravenous human appetite for wildlife parts and the products made from them turns gorilla hands to ashtrays, whales to canned meat, sea turtle shells to earrings, and elephant feet to umbrella stands. In the process, individual animals are mercilessly slaughtered, entire families are massacred, and increasing numbers of animal species are driven dangerously closer to extinction. This unconscionable wildlife exploitation is shameful. It is an international disgrace.

In the previous issue of Animal Issues Digest we introduced you to the commercial misuse of wildlife in the United States, often perpetrated by American citizens, such as the trade in wild birds, bear gallbladders, and furbearer skins. But the rapacious wildlife trade is truly global in scope, generating tens of billions of dollars annually for the poachers and profiteers who reduce wild animals to mere commodities.

As we begin this new year, two campaign areas demand our attention and vigorous action: elephants and lions.

Pachyderm Persecution

African elephants (Loxodonta africana) suffered a monumental population decline in the two decades leading up to the species being listed in 1989 on Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), resulting in a global prohibition on commercial ivory trade. A continent-wide population that once stood at 1.3 million had been cut in half. Painful images of elephant carcasses scattered across the African savannah, faces sliced off with chainsaws for their ivory tusks, led to a global outcry and action by CITES Parties to stop the bloody ivory trade.

But the ivory traders and well-armed poaching gangs are increasingly relentless in their pursuit of white gold and the money to be made by returning to the days of elephant killing and ivory trade. One of Africa’s most precious natural treasures is reduced to piano keys or hankos (traditional name seals in Japan).

The ivory trade issue dominates each CITES meeting as a minority of southern African nations work fiercely to resume commercial ivory sales. Beginning in 1997, Zimbabwe, Namibia, and Botswana (and later South Africa) began concerted efforts to undermine the ban — receiving permission to sell stockpiled ivory in a “one-off” sale, elephant hides and hair, and traditional Namibian jewelry called ekipas. The funds from those sales were supposed to underwrite community development projects and elephant conservation programs, but to date no specific accounting has been offered to justify the application of the money received.

Then, at the June 2007 CITES meeting in The Hague it was shamefully agreed that Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe (the four countries whose elephants had been “downlisted” to CITES Appendix II) could sell a combined 108 tons of their stockpiled ivory to CITES-approved trading partners (ultimately determined to be China and Japan) in another supposed “one-off” sale. This in exchange for a pledge by those countries not to request further ivory trade for nine years.

The auctions took place last autumn and generated an estimated $15 million (US). But the trade does not exist in a vacuum and significant fear is mounting that the most vulnerable elephant populations across Africa and Asia will be the target of increased levels of poaching. Elephant poachers will use this legal trade to launder illegal ivory across the globe.

Born Free USA united with API CEO Will Travers expressed serious concern that the misguided ivory auctions would “open the floodgates to additional illegal trade” and that “increased poaching pressure will almost certainly result in localized extinction in the near future.”

For example, Zakouma National Park in Tchad is suffering a poaching onslaught with more than 700 elephants butchered annually for their ivory. Disturbing reports from Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo indicate that in just one year more than 10% of its elephant population has been lost to gangs of ivory poachers. And what of those underfunded, unsung wildlife conservation heroes who enlist to protect wildlife? In the past decade a staggering 120 park rangers have also been killed guarding Virunga’s unique wildlife heritage. Disgraceful indeed.

There are a lot of numbers to consider. The number of elephants poached. The number of rangers killed. The amount of ivory sold. But the number that stands out for me is: 1. One elephant remains in the west African nation of Senegal. It is a startling reminder of the fragility of wildlife populations and the need to act with determination if they are to be saved.

Saving the Spirit of Elsa

One lioness, Elsa, serves as the inspiration for Born Free. But lions across Africa face dreadful persecution, just like elephants.

One hundred years ago, African lions (Panthera leo) existed in all suitable habitats in sub-Saharan Africa. Today, this species has become increasingly rare outside of protected areas and populations are highly fragmented. Lions historically ranged across Africa, southern Europe, and parts of Asia. An estimated 100,000 wild lions roamed Africa in the 1970s but as few as 30,000 may survive in the wild today.

Why? While periodic disease outbreaks may account for the deaths of hundreds of lions, a variety of human activities have contributed to the species’ dramatic decline in abundance and geographic range. Habitat has disappeared as human populations have surged; natural prey species have become increasingly scarce as a consequence of the bushmeat trade; local people have inflicted revenge attacks, angered by lion predation on livestock; trophy hunting results in the removal of at least 600 animals every year; and trade in lion products is increasingly evident with significant quantities of lion parts traded internationally including bones, claws, hair, skins, skulls, tails, and teeth.

Lion trophies are of particular concern. For example, official CITES figures from 2005 and 2006 combined show 433 lion trophies leaving Tanzania and another 914 leaving South Africa. Where are they going? In those same two years America allowed imports of 939 lion trophies with a significant number of others going into Europe, notably Germany, France, and Spain.

Despite these shocking facts African lions are currently on Appendix II of CITES, and although tens of thousands of dollars may change hands, trophy hunting is not regarded as “commercial” trade. Born Free led a campaign in 2004 to “uplist” the lion to Appendix I of the Convention, which would, at the very least, have allowed greater overall trade controls. As it stands, importing countries do not have to require proof that such deadly exploitation is harming the survival of the species. Sadly, and although strictly regulated trophy hunting would have still been possible under Appendix I, the well-funded trophy hunting industry successfully beat back our attempts to provide the species greater protection.

As a result, lion populations may now be even worse off than they were just a few years ago.

Born Free has also discovered that there is another threat to the lion in Africa, a threat not often discussed in global conservation circles: the trade in lion body parts for use in traditional African medicines.

Research recently undertaken by Born Free in Nigeria’s Yankari Game Reserve sought to assess the current use of lion products in traditional medicine and to provide an indication of the pressures exerted on what is possibly the last viable lion population in the country.

Interviews with villagers revealed a startling breadth of use: lion fat used to treat back and joint pain; lion skin and lungs used to treat whooping cough; lion veins used to treat erectile dysfunction; lion noses used to treat stomach problems; and lion livers used to treat headaches.

Lion fat was the most frequently used body part mentioned. An extraordinary 62% of respondents described using lion fat in medicine. The second most prevalent body part mentioned was skin (34%). Half of those surveyed described wearing layas (a type of talisman worn around the neck or waist) to ward off spiritual attack and in some cases offer spiritual empowerment. Skin was also reported to have healing powers with 20% of the respondents describing its use to cure whooping cough by soaking the skin in water and drinking the water.

Although much of the demand for lion parts was met by local hunters, it was quite clear that some of the supply originated from across the border in Cameroon and Niger, providing a snapshot of the international trade dimension.

The future of wild lion populations depends on the global recognition of all of the threats facing the species and the ability of organizations like Born Free USA united with API to stop the over-exploitation of lions throughout their range. And make no mistake, unless lions are properly protected now, within a few years they will follow tigers onto the critical list.

Who Decides Their Fate?

What are the trends in wildlife trade? Look at tigers. In 1900 an estimated 100,000 tigers roamed their natural habitat in the wild. Today, fewer than 5,000 remain. And history is repeating itself. The world watched idly as elephant populations were cut in half and lions turned from being the King of Beasts into a symbol of misplaced triumph by hunters.

This is serious stuff. The situation facing some animal species is critical and Born Free’s efforts stand between population viability and extinction.

The next CITES meeting is in Qatar in 2010. The question is simple: Will CITES Parties take a lead in protecting what’s left of our global wildlife heritage or will the seemingly inexorable slide toward extinction continue?

If we succeed, my daughter will then have the chance to know these wild animals firsthand. If not, then she’ll have to do with staring at images of extinct species — a reminder of what we’ve lost to our everlasting shame.


You Can Help. Join Born Free USA united with API’s efforts to save elephants, lions, and other threatened and endangered species before it’s too late. Visit www.bornfreeusa.org to find out more about the work we’re doing or contact Adam directly at adam@bornfreeusa.org; 202-445-3572 to see how you can help. And please donate whatever you can to our wildlife trade campaign today.

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