Another Inconvenient Truth

A continuing global failure to crack down on a booming trade in body parts from endangered animals could soon cause some species – including rhinos and tigers — to “wink out” of existence, a conservation advocate warns. But a couple of recent developments, including a recent United Nations decision to make combating wildlife crime a core concern, and a “potentially powerful” new International Consortium on Combating Wildlife Crime (ICCWC) – could spur needed action.

“In spite of significant recent advances in understanding how to conserve species, we are failing to conserve some of the most beloved and charismatic, with severe population losses, shrinking ranges and extinctions of subspecies,” Elizabeth Bennett of the Wildlife Conservation Society in Bronx, New York write in Oryx: The International Journal of Conservation. The Sumatran rhinoceros, for instance, “is almost certainly now extinct in Thailand and probably in Peninsular Malaysia,” she writes, and “even formerly seemingly-secure populations are now at risk: South Africa lost almost 230 rhinoceroses to poaching during January–October 2010, one every 30 hours.”

The main reason for the killing, she notes, “is hunting for illegal trade in highly valuable body parts. Such trade is increasingly controlled by organized criminal syndicates with sophisticated smuggling methods and modes of operation.” The smugglers bribe officials, and hide goods in secret compartments in cargo containers carrying legal products. And they are often working for criminal networks that feed demand in wealthy Asian nations, with webs “radiating out across Asia and Africa ultimately link to the markets of East Asia. “The traders are also light on their feet, frequently changing routes and modes of operation as enforcement commences in any one place,” she notes.

And the contraband can be extensive: Last year, for instance, officials seized 239 African elephant tusks at Bangkok International Airport, and in 2007 Russian authorities seized 332 tiger bones, two tiger skulls, 531 saiga antelope horns and 283 Asiatic black bear paws near the Chinese border.

Unfortunately, Bennett writes, “the legislation and methods of addressing illegal wildlife trade in many countries were not developed to tackle this type of organized crime,” which can include things like web sites touting the sale of illegal wildlife products. And enforcement of conservation laws is too often lax or not taken seriously. “To save these species this trade must be treated as serious crime,” she writes, arguing that “we have taken our eye off the ball… Where enforcement is thorough, and with sufficient resources and personnel, it works… But such programs are lamentably rare and resources applied to combating such crime generally grossly inadequate.”

What’s needed now is “a total change in the way that wildlife crime is treated by governments and wider society,” she concludes. That means hiring more investigators and providing better training and equipment. And it means taking advantage of the international agreement on wildlife crime to strengthen global partnerships. “Unless we start taking wildlife crime seriously and allocating the commitment and resources appropriate to tackling sophisticated, well-funded, globally-linked criminal operations,” Bennett predicts that “populations of some of the most beloved but economically prized charismatic species will continue to wink out across their range and, appallingly soon, altogether.” David Malakoff | June 24, 2011

Source: Bennett, E. (2011). Another inconvenient truth: the failure of enforcement systems to save charismatic species. Oryx, 1-4 DOI: 10.1017/S003060531000178X

Image © Chris Kruger |



  • Daniel Francis June 29, 2011 at 11:12 pm

    Unfortunately most of this trade heads into China, who care not a jot for the health of the planet. Natural resources are being plundered worldwide particularly in Africa and South America by the Chinese to fuel their economy. Animal parts fuel their highly lucrative medicine market that is built on lies and ignorance purely for profit, lets face it one of the main organisations investing in this trade in China is also an arms dealer – highly ethical then!!

    Our Governments do little because all they are interested in is growth in the economy and China is good for trade – if it was down to the Chinese all wildlife would be in a cage ready to be farmed and the whole planet covered in tarmac.

    What can we do? Boycott everything made in China, its tough but check the label, if its made in China DO NOT BUY IT…


  • Julia June 30, 2011 at 7:13 am

    Another important factor to consider in battling illegal wildlife trade is the cultural significance and perception of rare wildlife body parts in Asia and other places where parts are valued for their medicinal or spiritual uses. As long as people believe those wildlife body parts serve invaluable functions spiritually and/or medically, there will be a demand for that illegal trade. Izilwane, an online conservation magazine, talks about the vital intersections between human perception of their relationships with other species and conservation. Check it out!


  • anton bakker July 1, 2011 at 2:41 am

    the actual figure for Rinp kild in South Africa in 2010 is 330. That is neerly one Rino per day. This year 141 Rino has been ilegaly kild (not consedering the pregnat cows) that is sofar 1.2 Rino per day


  • For Tomorrow July 20, 2011 at 4:45 pm

    Finally, officials are taking organized illegal wildlife trade at least a little seriously. It is a major problem that reels in startlingly close to the amount of money that illegal drug trafficking does. Without stopping the root of the problem (organized wildlife related crime) the problem will persist. Awareness is SO important in this aspect because most people don’t even know that the situation exists.


  • paula kahumbu July 26, 2011 at 8:56 pm

    I just witnessed the burning of 5 tons of contraband ivory from Zambia and Malawi in Kenya that was seized in Singapore in 2002. The scary thing was that this ivory came from government stockpiles that had been raided! Secondly, it was headed for China and Japan, both countries are authorized by CITES to trade in ivory because they can “control the illegal trade”. This was the 19th shipment from southern Africa. The solution demands that Africa invests in high tech enforcement to save species that are in demand in China and Japan. It is garbage that the revenues raised from legal sales through CITES ‘help’ to conserve these charismatic species. In fact, the legal trade triggers demand and leads to unmanageable illegal trade. With China’s growing status in Africa, we know that regardless of penalties in Africa, Chinese nationals are getting off scot free. The solution is not greater enforcement – that is just driving up an arms race that African countries simply can’t win. So long as there is a demand for trade in those countries elephants and rhino’s will continue to die. The solution is to destroy the trade, remove China and Japan as trading partners for ivory, destroy the supply, and kill the demand by changing cultures in China and Japan. We all know that these two countries can do it but they simply don’t have the will.


  • Kill Trade to save endangered species – Baraza July 26, 2011 at 9:26 pm

    […] an article titled “Another inconvenient truth” (a convenient title I must admit), Elizabeth Bennet states that “A continuing global failure […]


Leave a Comment