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World Wildlife Fund estimates that each year, at least 20,000 African elephants are illegally killed for their tusks. A decade-long resurgence in demand for elephant ivory, particularly in parts of Asia, has fueled this rampant poaching epidemic.

Just hearing the term “wildlife trade” brings to mind heart-wrenching photos of elephants who have been stripped of their tusks or pictures of rhinos without their horns.

Actually, the definition of “wildlife trade” is more benign; it denotes any sale or exchange of wild animal and plant resources by people. In fact, a huge proportion of our economy and way of life—whether we’re discussing culture (fashion, furniture or ornaments), construction, food or medicine—is entirely reliant upon wildlife products.

Wildlife trade involves hundreds of millions of wild plants and animals from tens of thousands of species, provides a source of income for millions of people, equips thousands of businesses with raw materials and supplies a staggering array of goods for hundreds of millions of consumers. It plays an undeniably fundamental role in local, regional, national and international economies. But that also places wildlife trade at the heart of the tension that exists between biodiversity conservation and human development.

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In Africa, black rhino numbers have doubled over the past two decades, but the total population is still a fraction of the estimated 100,000 that existed in the early part of the 20th century.

Here is where the illegal wildlife trade enters, the part that’s ridden with crimes and that overshadows the legal part.

Now, an international group of activists, conservation biologists, enforcers, practitioners and other actors have built on the manifesto titled World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity, sponsored by the Union of Concerned Scientists—a nonprofit, science advocacy organization based in the United States—and signed by about 1,700 leading scientists in 1992. The group proposes some actions to overcome the challenges faced when tackling the illegal or unsustainable wildlife trade (IUWT). They also highlight the urgent need for more cooperation between disciplines and factions to curb its negative consequences.

It’s what’s needed, now.

Looking at the big picture

According to TRAFFIC, a United Kingdom-registered charity and a leading nongovernmental organization working on wildlife trade in the context of biodiversity conservation and sustainable development, the illegal wildlife trade is devastating species all over the world, as poachers, traffickers and highly organized criminal syndicates ruthlessly pursue profit at any cost to meet consumer demand.

Historically, pangolins were poached primarily for bushmeat. Over the last decade, however, the price fetched for scales, skins and the whole animal has resulted in decimated populations. ©flowcomm, flickr

For example, African elephants are arguably the most well-known species to be heavily impacted by illegal trade and wildlife crimes, given that approximately 90 percent have been decimated within the last century. And an estimated 1 million pangolins have been poached in the last decade, making them the most trafficked mammals in the world. These shy animals are poached in Asia and Africa for their scales and body parts, which are consumed for nourishment, as a symbol of wealth or used within traditional medicines.

Wild tiger populations have plummeted due to the illegal wildlife trade, habitat loss, human-wildlife conflict and poaching. Once common across Asia, these magnificent big cats now number approximately 3,800 in the wild. Both African species of rhino, too, are threatened with extinction in the wild after years of ruthless poaching for their keratin horns.

South African abalone (Haliotis midae) is the most heavily exported species in aquaculture anywhere in the world. Ninety-five percent of it is sent to Hong Kong, where it is it consumed as a delicacy or re-exported.

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According to World Wildlife Fund, across their range, tigers face unrelenting pressures from habitat loss, poaching and retaliatory killings. Save Wild Tigers states that 97 percent of the world’s wild tiger population was wiped out over the last century.

Recent TRAFFIC surveys have revealed that approximately 65 percent of South Africa’s abalone exports are harvested illegally and that drug cartels and organized criminal syndicates are involved in an illegal trade that is harming both local communities and abalone populations.

Surprisingly, timber is the most widely traded wildlife commodity worldwide, a significant amount of which—10 to 30 percent—is harvested and traded illegally. Of particular concern are the threats facing tropical timbers, such as various species of rosewood. In some nations, including Cameroon and Madagascar, overexploitation of precious timber is occurring at alarming rates, with forest clearance destroying biodiversity and threatening the livelihoods of local people.

Viewing through a wider scope

Besides the target species themselves, however, the illegal wildlife trade often also affects other species with which the target species interact in their native or introduced range. Ultimately, the ecosystem services on which other species, including our own, depend are negatively impacted. In fact, other species can be the main losers in the process. Invasive alien species, connection with corruption and crime networks, environmental injustice, negative repercussions on local and global economies and zoonotic diseases (such as COVID-19) are some of the many other unfavorable consequences of wildlife trade that are not well managed or regulated.

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For the past 30 years, soaring demand from East Asia has fueled massive poaching of South African abalone, reducing the mollusk’s population to a fraction of its former abundance.

Therefore, say the international group of scientists, curbing the illegal or unsustainable wildlife trade needs the engagement of different disciplines, such as economics, computer science, criminology, social marketing and sociology. Law enforcement alone is not enough to stop such activity. It’s essential that its human dimension—the cultural roots and drivers of wildlife consumption, and cultural and social nuances—is considered in all phases of developing conservation strategies so that they are more likely to succeed.

There are already many technologies and tools available for analyzing, monitoring and tracing the illegal or unsustainable wildlife trade. Strategies to curb it depend on accurate and reliable knowledge about biodiversity, generated by scientists and other experts—including citizen scientists—combined with collaboration with local communities, as well as with international and local nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).

Creating three bullet lists

Here are three lists that the international group recently devised that build on the original World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity manifesto:

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In China, rosewood has become highly fashionable for making ornamental furniture—a throwback to the imperial dynasties—and is a status symbol among the country’s newly rich.

The risks of the illegal or unsustainable wildlife trade:

• It is one of the five major drivers of biodiversity loss and extinction on the global scale.

• Species loss may cause a cascade of effects on other, dependent species and their ecosystems.

• It facilitates invasions by species from other regions and the diseases they may carry.

• It supplies live animal markets, facilitating outbreaks of zoonotic and vector-borne diseases that can lead to global pandemics.

• IUWT, including illegal logging, affects climate regulation, pollination of crops and other ecosystem services.

• Criminal networks are deeply involved in wildlife trafficking, which fuels corruption in other areas, such as transit.

• IUWT and associated criminal activities, including tax evasion and money laundering, can affect the global economy. Locally, it can impact community economies that depend upon wildlife or on the ecosystem services wildlife provides.

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Madagascar has one of the highest deforestation rates in the world, having lost around 23 percent of its forest cover since 2000. Most forest clearance takes place to make way for local subsistence agriculture.

To reduce or eliminate IUWT—as a conservationist, an enforcement officer or a policy maker—we should:

• Endeavor to understand the cultural and social aspects of the demand for wildlife and design nuanced strategies to curb them.

• Listen to, engage with and facilitate leadership by local communities that depend on wildlife trade.

• Ask for better regulation and surveillance of online wildlife commerce.

• Make technologies and other resources to curb illegal wildlife trade accessible to all.

• Ensure that the legislation of our country protects wildlife from illegal activities and guarantees the sustainability of wildlife trade.

• Support scientific research, and use it as the framework for conservation actions and policies.

• Create an international network of professionals with expertise in related fields, including biology, forensics and trade regulation.

Wildlife rangers are field enforcement officers, forest guardians, game wardens and watchers. Their work encompasses many varied duties, yet one thread unites them all: they are the heroes of the conservation world. ©Rod Waddington, flickr

To reduce or eliminate IUWT—as a consumer—we should:

• Demand political will and funding for initiatives that can curb IUWT. Promote initiatives designed to ensure that wildlife trade is sustainable.

• Raise awareness about IUWT. Education is the key factor to change consumers’ behaviors.

• Choose sustainably sourced, legally obtained products. Don’t buy illegal/unsustainable wildlife or its products in markets, online, in tourist centers or elsewhere.

• Don’t support tourist attractions or volunteer opportunities that offer human-wildlife interactions.

• Don’t like or share social media posts depicting unnatural human-wildlife interactions.

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Never buy illegal or unsustainable wildlife or its products, such as those made from elephant ivory.

Connecting the dots

We tend to think of the illegal wildlife trade as something that happens far away; and while sad, there’s not much we can do about it. But the wildlife trade is more present in your daily life than you probably imagine. The timber that was used to make the table where your family has dinner every night just may be a product of the wildlife trade—hopefully of the legal and sustainable kind.

We can’t afford a collective apathy toward IUWT. There are just too many connections between ecological and human health.

Let’s strengthen them, together.

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,

Candy