Warning: some photos may be disturbing or graphic.
In a single night in March, a band of heavily-armed, horse-riding poachers slaughtered 89 elephants in southern Chad, thirty of which were pregnant females. The carnage was the worst poaching incident of the year, but even this slaughter paled in comparison to the 650 elephants killed in a Cameroon park in 2012. Elephant poaching is hitting new records as experts say some 30,000 elephants are being killed every year for their ivory tusks. But the illegal wildlife trade—estimated at $19 billion—is not just decimating elephants, but also rhinos, big cats, great apes, and thousands of lesser-known species like pangolins and slow lorises. This growing carnage recently led to representatives of over 40 zoos and dozens of wildlife programs to call on governments around the world to take immediate action on long-neglected wildlife crime.
Meeting in Des Moines earlier this month at the Zoos and Aquariums Committing to Conservation Conference (ZACC), over 200 conservationists—representing zoos, aquariums, and field work around the world—raised an alarm over the booming wildlife trade. Participants called on governments to commit more ambitious and coordinated action against poachers and smugglers, including beefed up law enforcement and tougher penalties. In addition, they called for more consumer-awareness campaigns about the trade.
“The illegal wildlife trade has become a critical threat to global biodiversity. The demand for wildlife in the form of exotic pets, traditional medicine, and bushmeat is supported by a vast criminal network stretching around the globe linking poachers and consumers,” said Quyen Vu, founder and director of Education for Nature Vietnam (ENV), who attended the conference. ENV fights wildlife crime across Vietnam, which has become a major consumer nation for many illicit wildlife products.
Dr. Linda Kerley examines confiscated Amur tiger skins in Primorye, Russia, in 1996. Photo by: (c) D. Miquelle, WCS Russia.
While the ZACC conference applauded a recent $10 million commitment by the U.S. government for anti-poaching efforts in Africa, the organization said that this should be seen as a starting point.
“The number of animals for sale in markets out scales their ability to reproduce. The illegal trade is a tragic waste of animal life and meets no human needs, and in fact undermines the future well-being of humankind,” said Anna Nekaris with Oxford Brookes University and founder and director of the Little Fireface Project based in Indonesia. Nekaris works with slow lorises, which are increasingly imperiled by an illegal pet trade that often involves killing whole family groups for a single infant. In addition, these little-known primates are killed en masse for traditional medicine.
Conservationists at the meeting noted that the illegal wildlife trade was rarely for subsistence anyone, but rather had become a global industry run by organized criminals; increasingly poachers are heavily-armed, equipped with the latest technologies, and linked to corrupt officials. Experts say these criminals are often also involved with human trafficking, illegal logging, drugs, and weapons. Money from selling illegal wildlife is often used to sew civil conflict and even support terrorism.
This chimp was confiscated in Burundi from an illegal wildlife seller and sent to CSWCT (Ngamba Island), A PASA sanctuary in Uganda. Photo by: JGI/PASA.
“The worldwide demand for elephant ivory has destabilized entire regions of [the Democratic Republic of Congo],” explains John Lukas, president of the Okapi Conservation Project, Epulu, Democratic Republic of Congo. “The sale of illegal ivory funds armed militias that terrorize human and wildlife communities alike in pursuit of power and wealth.”
Last year, elephant poachers stormed the Okapi Conservation Project’s headquarters in Epulu, killing six people and fourteen captive okapis. In addition to plundering the headquarters and village, the poachers kidnapped several women who were eventually returned. Meanwhile, the Guardian has reported that the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) is trading elephant ivory for weapons.
The wildlife trade has also expanded to the oceans where demand for shark fins has decimated some species. In 2010 experts estimated that 97 million sharks were killed for their fins. Now, smugglers are targeting manta rays for the supposed health benefits of their gill plates.
Traditional Asian medicine is taking its toll on a number of charismatic species, including tigers and rhinos. In the last century, tiger populations have fallen by 95 percent, in part due to relentless poaching for tiger parts. Today, there are more captive tigers in the U.S. than in the wild worldwide. Although scientific studies have shown that rhino horn has no medicinal benefit (and is akin to eating one’s fingernails), poaching has recently pushed two rhino subspecies to extinction: the Vietnamese rhino and the western black rhino. Rhino populations are under daily attack, especially in South Africa where this year two rhinos are killed everyday.
Javan slow loris, the most endangered of the loris species, for sale in Java. Photo by: Wawan Tarniwan.
“We are on the verge of losing the last representatives of the world’s iconic species such as rhinos, tigers and elephants. These animals have shared the planet with us since the dawn of humankind, and they are in danger of going extinct in the next 50 years,” Marc Ancrenaz with the organizations Hutan and the Kinabatangan Orangutan Conservation Program in the Malaysian state of Sabah. “Stronger enforcement of existing laws and increased efforts on the ground are urgently needed to halt this tragedy.”
Beyond the more well-known species, millions of reptiles, amphibians, birds, and small mammals are vanishing into bushmeat markets, the illegal pet trade, and the traditional medicine industry. Hunting has taken such a toll in some tropical forests, especially in Southeast Asia, that experts have begun to dub some areas as “empty forests.”
“It is time to unite globally to take urgent action before the magnificent diversity of the planet is lost along with its roots that are embedded within human cultures,” added Quyen Vu.
Baby otter being sold as an exotic pet in Jakarta, Indonesia. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.
Andrei Yurchenko of Inspection Tiger, a federal Russian anti-poaching team, examines the carcass of a female Amur tiger found in Khasan County, Russia. This animal was captured in a tiger snare, likely for for the wildlife trade, and when the snare was never checked she died and rotted there. Photo by: Inspection Tiger.
An emaciated chained chimp who was rescued in Angola by JGI Chimpanzee Eden (South Africa). The chimp has since made a full recovery. Photo by: JGI Chimp Eden/PASA.
Songbirds for sale as meat in market in Lao PDR. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.
Wild cat furs sold in China. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.
Dried lizard on a stick sold in a Chinese market. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.
(07/23/2013) Demand for scales, meat, and even fetuses of pangolins have pushed all eight species of this unique mammalian order—Pholidota—toward extinction, according to the world’s first ever pangolin conference with the International Union for Conservation of Nature – Species Survival Commission (IUCN-SSC) Pangolin Specialist Group. Meeting in Singapore earlier this month, 40 conservationists from 14 countries discussed the plight of these little-known scaly mammals and how to turn around their global decline.
(07/22/2013) Found in Central America’s largest forest, the Maya Biosphere Reserve, the Guatemalan organization Arcas has rescued and rehabilitated thousands of animals since its inception in 1989. Unlike many wildlife rescue centers worldwide, Arcas focuses on rehabilitating every animal for eventually release back into the wild. This means intensive training for each species, including food gathering and predator avoidance. A new short video by Arcas highlights the group’s decades-long work.
(07/03/2013) Barack Obama launched a new initiative against wildlife trafficking on Monday, using his executive authority to take action against an illegal trade that is fueling rebel wars and now threatens the survival of elephants and rhinoceroses. The initiative, announced as the president visited Tanzania on the final stop of his African tour, was the second time in a week Obama has used an executive order to advance environmental policy, after announcing a sweeping new climate change plan.
(07/01/2013) Forensic-dating could end a major loophole in the current global ban on ivory, according to a new paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). Scientists have developed a method to determine the age of ivory, allowing traders to tell the difference between ivory taken before the ban in 1989, which is still legal, and recently-poached ivory.
(06/27/2013) During one night in March, horse-riding poachers slaughtered 89 elephants in Chad, including over 30 pregnant mothers. Now officials say they have caught the ringleader behind the mass-killing: Hassan Idriss, also known as Gargaf.
(06/24/2013) At least 60 big cats have been killed within national protected areas in Brazil during the past two years according to a recent survey published in mongabay.com’s open access journal Tropical Conservation Science. The report, which focuses on jaguar (Panthera onca) and puma (Puma concolor) populations, within Brazilian protected areas shows that reserve management and use restrictions impact the level of big cat hunting.
(06/24/2013) A comprehensive survey of the wildlife sold in the markets of Tuensang has resulted in a stunning record of the wildlife trade in the state of Nagaland in northeast India, as reported in a new study published in mongabay.com’s open-access journal Tropical Conservation Science. Once a week, researchers with the Sálim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History and the Near Chang Baptist group entered the Tuensang market and carried out intensive surveys and interviews of vendors selling wild birds or mammals.
(06/10/2013) In a chilly rain on Sunday, in a town just a few kilometers beyond the edge of a protected Sumatran rainforest, a young orangutan sat perched on a piece of plywood and grabbed the metal wires of his tiny cage.
He has sat in that cage for six months and, like dozens of other species on display in this ‘zoo’ in the town of Kadang in Aceh, he has a price tag. This packed assembly is an acknowledged front for illegal trafficking in wildlife.
(06/05/2013) The Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) is using lucrative elephant poaching for ivory to fund its activities, according to a report published on Tuesday. Eyewitness accounts from park rangers, Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) escapees and recent senior defectors report that the fugitive warlord Joseph Kony, who is wanted by the international criminal court for war crimes and crimes against humanity, ordered African forest elephants to be killed in Garamba national park in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and the tusks sent to him.
(06/04/2013) Before Anna Nekaris began championing the cause of the world’s lorises, little was known about this cryptic family of large-eyed, nocturnal, insect-eating, venomous primates. Nekaris, with Oxford Brookes University and founder of the Little Fireface project, has been instrumental in documenting rarely-seen loris behavior, establishing conservation programs, and identifying new species of these hugely-imperiled Asian primates.
(06/04/2013) The world’s monitor lizards remind us that the world was once ruled by reptiles: this genus (Varanus) includes the world’s biggest lizards, such as the stunning Komodo dragon and many other island kings. A large number beautifully-colored and patterned, these lizards are known for their intelligence and their apex role in many island food chains. However, a new study finds that the world’s monitors, especially those in Southeast Asia, are vanishing due to the international pet trade and for their skins, which are turned into handbags and straps for watches. Meanwhile the rapid destruction of their rainforest homes is exacerbating the situation.
(06/03/2013) A new study in the open access journal PLoS ONE estimates that manta rays are worth $140 million a year in tourism across 23 countries, significantly outweighing the worth of manta ray gill plates, which have become the newest craze in Traditional Chinese Medicine.
(05/30/2013) A former police officer has been arrested in Indonesia for orchestrating a $150 million illegal logging ring in Indonesian New Guinea.
(05/29/2013) The Kenyan parliament has approved emergency measures to tackle the on-going poaching crisis: last week Kenyan MPs approved legislation that should lead to higher penalties for paochers. The emergency measure passed just as Kenya Wildlife Service’s (KWS) is pursuing a gang of poachers that slaughtered four rhinos over the weekend. Both rhinos and elephants have suffered heavily as poaching has escalated in Kenya and beyond.
(05/23/2013) A private safari company has moved six white rhinos (Ceratotherium simum) from their home in South Africa to Botswana in a bid to save them from an out-of-control poaching crisis in their native land. Currently, around two rhinos are killed everyday in South Africa for their horns, which are then smuggled to East Asia.
(05/22/2013) Prince Charles has warned that criminal gangs are turning to animal poaching, an unprecedented slaughter of species that can only be stopped by waging war on the perpetrators, in the latest of a series of increasingly outspoken speeches about the environment. Addressing a conference of conservationists at St James’s Palace in London, the Prince of Wales announced a meeting of heads of state to take place this autumn in London under government auspices to combat what he described as an emerging, militarized crisis.