Cultural conflict threatens wildlife

This week the World Wildlife Fund, a non-governmental conservation group, released a report on illicit trade in protected species called the Wildlife Crime Scorecard. The document shows which nations are doing the poorest job of combatting illegal trade in endangered wildlife products.

Unfortunately, the demand for these products has risen sharply in places like China and other Asian markets. In Africa, tens of thousands of elephants are being slaughtered each year to meet this demand. Both rhinos (whose horns and various other parts are also popular in China and Vietnam) and tigers are also aggressively poached.

Recently, the World Wildlife Fund examined how the world’s nations are working to stop this illegal trade. For many nations in Africa, Asia and the Pacific rim, the news is grim. Once flourishing species are being hunted to extinction.

Fortunately, most countries on Earth are members of a group that goes by the acronym, CITES — Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. This group is an international agreement between governments that aims to ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival.

CITES is a voluntary international agreement to which states (countries) adhere. States that have agreed to be bound by the convention are known as parties. Although CITES is legally binding on the parties, it does not take the place of national laws. Rather it provides a framework to be respected by each party, which has to adopt its own domestic legislation to ensure that CITES is implemented at the national level.

Like commerce in other realms, the internet has become a tool of illegal animal trade. CITES has been especially vigilant in tracking online activity in this area, giving special attention to China.

A CITES press release states: “Although all of the monitored websites have imposed a ban on ivory and a “no endangered species and their products” policy, a total of 1,973 wildlife products from over 30 species were found on these websites, 75 % of which were ivory products… many other endangered species were for sale on these websites. Wildlife items found to be illegally traded via the Internet were from over 30 locations, the majority of which were large cities and provinces such as Beijing, Guangzhou, Shanghai and Jiangsu Province. This geographical profile correlates with investigations made in the local markets located in those cities and provinces.”

Elephants have been at the epicenter of poaching activity for decades. The PBS production, Nature, reports that elephants face problems not only from external demand for their ivory, but as a consequence of their proximity to burgeoning human populations, “Even though it is illegal to kill an elephant in Africa, people continue to slaughter the mammoth beasts — if not for ivory, then for revenge.”

In recent years, roaming elephant herds have begun butting up against sprawling human populations all over sub-Saharan Africa. While Masai herdsmen coexist with elephants by leaving their livestock unfenced and letting the animals walk through their land, farmers who try to barricade their crops from migrating wildlife only invite conflict.

As Nature observes, “To a farmer, an elephant can be an irritating five-ton garden pest — or an active danger to his life. If a hungry beast destroys the season’s crop, the culprit (or sometimes just the nearest elephant, guilty or not) may be hunted down and forced to pay the price of the damage with its life.”

While this issue holds no easy solutions, it is driven by one unifying sentiment: Nobody wants to see elephants or other endangered wildlife become extinct. In some instances, the only cure is to change the cultural traditions that support demand for these products. Other resolutions will need to be more directly economic. We only hope that the elephants and others can hold out until humans get it together.