Educational Series: Animal Trafficking is Driving Species to Extinction

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When authorities in Madagascar recently responded to a complaint about an overwhelming odor coming from an abandoned house, they discovered nearly 10,000 critically endangered radiated tortoises crawling in their own feces and slowly succumbing to dehydration. The surviving tortoises were taken to a rescue facility managed by the Turtle Survival Alliance, which has valiantly stretched its scarce resources as it attempts to restore the thousands of abused reptiles to health. The incident is just one example of the rampant problems caused by the worldwide scourge of wild animal trafficking.

Although illegal wildlife trafficking has long been a problem, recent years have seen a spike in trafficking activity that is decimating countless endangered populations. Some victims of this grisly international business are well-known species like elephants, rhinoceroses, and lions. Others, like the radiated tortoise, are much less famous but no less in need of protection from poachers and international trafficking networks.

Many trafficked animals are killed for body parts, like the majestic elephants and rhinos gunned down for their tusks and horns. Or, as is the case with many endangered marine animals, they are used to make food delicacies popular in certain countries. Finally, some endangered species are illegally snatched from the wild for the pet trade, condemned to lives of captivity for which they are ill-suited.

One of the great tragedies of the trafficking crisis is the vast majority of products made from illegally killed animals serve little or no important purpose. A classic example is elephant ivory, used mainly to make expensive trinkets valued by collectors. Though the international sale of ivory from recently-killed elephants has been illegal for years, the ban proved difficult to enforce because most countries still allowed the sale of older ivory products made before the ban went into effect. In practice, it may be all but impossible to distinguish legal from illegal ivory, a situation that fuels poaching by allowing traffickers to pass their products off as legal. In the last few years, countries including the U.S., U.K., and China have taken steps to ban the sale of all ivory. While this will likely help stem the tide of elephant poaching, more governments need to join the growing international movement to eliminate the trade in elephant parts altogether.

Other animal parts are sold to fuel markets based entirely on fictional claims. Products like rhino horns and the scales of pangolins (adorable, armored mammals native to Africa and Asia) are reputed to have medicinal properties according to myths prevalent in China and some other Asian countries. As a result, two of the world’s five rhino species are critically endangered, while pangolins have become the most-trafficked mammal in the world. As the comparatively well-off middle class has grown in places like China, increasing numbers of consumers have been able to afford expensive animals “cures,” adding to demand for trafficked parts. In fact there is no evidence of medicinal properties in products made from rhinos or pangolins.

It’s easy to blame other countries for creating markets for animal traffickers. However, U.S. consumers can be equally at fault, especially when it comes to animals illegally sold into the pet trade. Trade in many species that appear in pet stores is poorly regulated, and it’s sometimes difficult or impossible to tell if an animal was bred in captivity or taken from the wild. Species like the tokay gecko and green python, both from Indonesia, are routinely (and illegally) taken from the wild and sold as pets in countries like the U.S.

If you decide to keep an exotic animal as a pet, it’s extremely important to research the species first and find out if the individuals sold in stores frequently come from the wild. If so, you should not buy it. Don’t rely solely on pet stores themselves to tell you whether an animal was bred in captivity; they may give you inaccurate information, whether deliberately or (more likely) because they themselves have been misled by their suppliers. The EcoHealth Alliance has a useful database that can help you determine if a pet species is likely to have come from an endangered wild population.

A good rule to follow is that if you don’t know for sure where an animal comes from and that it was bred in captivity under humane conditions, you should not purchase it. This also applies to products made from animal parts (of course, if you are a true animal lover, you presumably won’t want items made from needlessly killed wildlife anyway). If you witness the sale of what you believe to be illegally trafficked animals, alive or dead, you can report it using WildLeaks, a secure website for blowing the whistle on wildlife crimes.

Finally, make sure your elected representatives know you support strict, enforceable policies to protect animals from traffickers. After years of making progress toward ending the trade in endangered animal parts (the ban on most ivory being an example), the U.S. is in danger of backsliding. Outrageously, the Trump administration recently lifted a ban on importing trophies of several imperiled exotic animals–including elephants and lions–into the country. Write or call your members of Congress and state legislators, and ask them to support banning the trade in animal parts.

The keys to eliminating animal trafficking include an educated public who know how to avoid contributing to the wildlife trade; laws at all levels of government to ban practices that make trafficking possible; and a culture of enforcement, where poachers and traffickers know they will be held accountable for violating the law. By informing ourselves, making our voices heard, and reporting suspected animal crimes each one of us can contribute to ending the trafficking crisis.

Photo credit: Belinda Cave

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