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Wildlife trade creating ’empty forest syndrome’ across the globe

China and USA largest importers of illegal wildlife goods

For many endangered species it is not the lack of suitable habitat that has imperiled them, but hunting. In a talk at a Smithsonian Symposium on tropical forests, Elizabeth Bennett of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) outlined the perils for many species of the booming and illegal wildlife trade. She described pristine forests, which although providing perfect habitat for species, stood empty and quiet, drained by hunting for bushmeat, traditional medicine, the pet trade, and trophies.

“Hunting has long been known as a primary cause of wildlife species depletion in tropical forests,” Bennett said. But in the last few decades the problem has increased exponentially. Bennett noted that between 1992 and 2002 trade in wildlife increased 75 percent and shows no sign of abating. Several trends had allowed such rapid growth in the wildlife trade: continuing rise in population, steady decrease in forests with remaining forests more accessible than ever, and the use of modern weapons in hunting. For example, in Cambodia hunters have begun using land mines to kill tigers.

Due to their slow breeding process, tapirs are especially vulnerable to over-hunting.

Most important, Bennett emphasized, was the commercialization and globalization of the wildlife trade. Increasing demand for endangered species from countries like China has led to more people trekking into their forests for incomes. In addition, increasing wealth has allowed many more consumers to afford illegal items made from endangered species on the black market.

To give a picture of the scale of this underground trade, Bennett pointed a number of examples: in Ho Chi Minh City there are an estimated 1500 restaurants selling wildlife meat; in Jakarta, Indonesia, the Pramuka market sells 1.5 million sold birds annually; a recent seizure of two shipments of pangolins enroute to China 14 tons of scaly anteater from Sumatra and 23 tons from Vietnam. The shipment contained an estimated 7,000 animals — no species can survive an onslaught like this for long. This has been borne out by Vietnam where 12 species of large animals have gone either gone extinct or are on the verge of doing so due largely to the wildlife trade.

The problem has become global. In Cameroon, so many of the large animals are gone that hunters have begun using rodent traps to catch the smaller mammals that remain. The island of Bioko has seen a loss of 90 percent of its biomass due to hunting, National Geographic covered the problem in its August issue of last year. Surveys of 100 sites in the Amazon show animal populations have diminished by 83 to 91 percent. Even reserves offer little protection; the island of Sulawesi’s reserves have experienced a 75 percent decline in black macaques, 90 percent decline in anoas, and a 95 percent decline of the bear cuscus.

Red Howler Monkey killed for food.

China is the world’s largest importer wildlife products, including an insatiable demand for turtles, ivory, tigers, pangolins, and many other species used for food or medicine. Perhaps surprisingly the USA is the second largest importer—according to Bennett many tons of bushmeat arrives to the US from Africa every month and the US is large destination for the illegal pet trade.

Most of the species targeted by hunters are not able to recover fast enough to sustain the levels at which they are hunted. In tropical forests mammals are few and far between and their scarcity makes them vulnerable. Primates are “very vulnerable to overhunting” due to a slow breeding process, as are other species like elephants and tapirs, says Bennett. Animals that live in groups, like birds and primates, are also vulnerable since one population can be wiped out by a single hunter.

“The implications of all this for loss of ecosystem function are still not fully understood, although many studies show that tropical forests depleted of large vertebrates experience reduced seed dispersal, altered patterns of tree recruitment and shifts in the relative abundances of species,” Bennett told the media. “The loss of top predators and other ‘keystone species’ has a disproportionate impact on ecosystems and can result in dramatic biodiversity changes.”

The disappearance of these species is also causing indigenous people to become “further marginalized” Bennett said. Having depended on these species as a vital protein source for centuries, indigenous groups can no longer sustainably hunt prey because the species have become so depleted.

When the forests are emptied, exploitation continues. Hunters either choose another species to hunt or proceed to another area to exploit. Bennett described the wildlife trade as boom and bust trade: a pristine area is a boom region until it is over exploited and goes bust when trade is forced elsewhere.

Despite the devastation trade is having on species, ecosystems, and local people, there is little political will and weak governance on the issue in most countries, says Bennett. Most reserves are too understaffed to have a noticeable impact on the trade, while staff members often receive little training and support to accomplish daunting jobs.

Bennett painted a bleak picture during her speech of the plight of targeted species, but assured the audience that much could still be done. In Cameroon WCS have established programs in an area granted a logging concession. Such areas are notorious for wildlife trade. Logging thins out the forest providing easy access for hunters and “logging companies frequently regard wild meat as a free subsidy to feed their workers.” WCS has controlled the trade in Cameroon through education, development of alternative sources of protein, and law enforcement. Perhaps most effectively, WCS has worked with the railway in Cameroon to create regular inspections for animal products. The trade has lessened greatly since its main mode of transit is now under scrutiny.

“We actually know how to manage this,” Bennett concluded. “What we need to do is apply this more rapidly and widely across tropical world.”

Previous articles

Illegal wildlife trade devastating Asia’s pangolins
Last week the IUCN changed the status of the Malayan and the Chinese pangolins from near-threatened to endangered. These notoriously shy and scaly mammals, resembling anteaters with armored plates, have become the victim of a booming illegal wildlife trade in Southeast Asia.

Commercial hunting may be the biggest threat to tropical rainforests
Commercial hunting is decimating wildlife populations across the tropics and may be one of the gravest threats presently facing rainforests, reports a series of studies published in the May issue of the journal Biotropica. The research reveals that large-scale loss of wildlife is already affecting forest health and regeneration.

Bushmeat from African apes sold in American markets
Bushmeat from wild primates in Africa is ending up on plates in North America and western Europe according to an article published in the current issue of New Scientist.

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