Wildlife Trafficking: Beyond Elephants and Ivory

By Susan Lieberman

In the wildlife trafficking policy debate in the U.S., the majority of attention to date has been on the ivory and horn of Africa’s elephants and rhinos. Given the devastating losses those species have suffered this is perhaps not surprising. That attention has engaged diverse parties from around the globe, including the Obama Administration, African elephant range states, the EU, and conservation NGOs like the Wildlife Conservation Society, for whom I work. WCS’s 96 Elephants campaign has attracted some 170 partners to raise awareness of this critical issue.

However, elephants and rhinos are not the only species threatened by illegal international trade. Numerous other species of mammals, birds, reptiles, and others are also subject to trafficking, and they too need increased attention and political and financial support. In testimony I submitted to a meeting of the President’s Advisory Council on Wildlife Trafficking, I detailed some of the species whose illegal trade is under the radar but still are suffering the effects of wildlife trafficking.

Between 2000 and 2013, more than 27,000 seizures of tiger derivatives have been reported to CITES, mainly originating in China and Vietnam. Photo: ©WCS Russia.
Between 2000 and 2013, more than 27,000 seizures of tiger derivatives were reported to CITES, mainly originating in China and Vietnam. Photo: ©WCS Russia.

The final remaining tigersonly about 3,000 remain in the wild globally — are now threatened by illegal killing for their bones and other body parts. Between 2000 and 2013, more than 27,000 seizures of tiger derivatives were reported to CITES, mainly originating in China and Vietnam. Tiger skins are the most commonly reported seizures item from other range states, followed by bones.

All eight species of pangolin, which occur across tropical South and Southeast Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, are listed by IUCN on its Red List of Threatened Species as threatened with extinction, as well as on the Appendices of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora(CITES). They are traded for their scales for traditional medicine. Their meat, which is also believed to have medicinal properties, is also eaten as a high-status item. In the last decade alone, it is believed that more than one million pangolins have been removed from the wild, with the vast majority entering international trade, much of which is illegal.

In the last decade alone, it is believed that more than one million pangolins have been removed from the wild, with the vast majority entering international trade. Photo: Ruslan Rugoals (CC).
In the last decade alone, it is believed that more than one million pangolins have been removed from the wild, with the vast majority entering international trade. Photo: Ruslan Rugoals (CC).

More than 50 percent of the approximately 330 species of tortoises and freshwater turtles are listed on the IUCN Red List  as threatened, with international trade as the primary threat. They are traded primary as food and as pets, and much of this trade is illegal. This illegality includes both animals that are trafficked and those that are traded using what appear to be legal permits when in fact the animals have been taken from the wild and falsely identified as captive bred.

Turtles for sale at a wildlife market in south China. PHOTO CREDIT: © Liana Joseph.
Turtles for sale at a wildlife market in south China. Photo: © Liana Joseph.

Many species of birds are threatened by illegal capture and trade for the pet trade. The straw-headed bulbul, a Southeast Asian bird that was locally abundant across much of its range until as recently as two decades ago, is now thought to be extinct in Thailand and Java, and virtually extinct on Sumatra. Huge demand for the African grey parrot has caused the species to lose almost half of its population in recent years due to extremely high capture rates with associated mortality due to harsh trapping conditions and poor handling of captive birds.

Between 1975 and 2005, 1.3 million African grey parrots were reported to be legally exported from Africa, and actual numbers removed from the forests of Central and West Africa are likely at least double that due to unreported trade and high mortality in capture and transport. Central American populations of the Scarlet Macaw in Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico, and Belize have been reduced to isolated sub-populations of fewer than 1,000 wild individuals in total—due to illegal trade in this endangered highly attractive bird.

Confliscated African grey parrots undergoing rehabilitation. Photo credit: Zanne Labuschagne/WCS.

Unlike that of elephants, rhinos, and tigers, the global trade in sharks and rays is still largely legal, while also being largely unregulated and unreported. The world’s sharks and rays are being depleted worldwide as a result of over-fishing, much of it driven by international market demand for meat, shark fins, cartilage, oil, manta and devil ray gill plates, and other products. The United States, European Union, China, and many countries around the world play an important role in the over-exploitation and over-consumption of these fishes, and much more needs to be done to reverse their decline, which has brought a full 25 percent of these species to risk of extinction.

All of these species have unique ecological roles and their massive losses from their habitats have unknown repercussions in terms of biodiversity, ecosystem functions, and local livelihoods. However, it is challenging for enforcement agencies to identify the different species and to know what is and is not protected. Yet the species mentioned above, such as pangolins, the African grey parrot, and freshwater turtles, are important and deserve the focus and attention of the U.S. government in its efforts to combat the scourge of wildlife trafficking.

The world’s sharks and rays are being depleted worldwide, with a full 25% of these species at risk of extinction. Photo: Stacy Jupiter ©WCS
The world’s sharks and rays are being depleted worldwide, with a full 25 percent of these species at risk of extinction. Photo: Stacy Jupiter ©WCS

To address the crisis facing these species we must adopt the same three-prong strategy that has been employed to slow the slaughter of elephants and rhinos: stop the killing, the stop the trafficking, and stop the demand

We need more support for their conservation in the wild, including research on cost-effective techniques for surveying species and detecting them in transit. Law enforcement also needs tools to identify them and their parts in trade rapidly and cheaply, through Smartphone apps or DNA bar-coding. Finally, there is a need for far greater awareness of the threat that consumption and purchase of such species poses to their survival, as well as comprehensive programs to change attitudes and behavior and reduce demand.

To be maximally effective in conserving the world’s species threatened by wildlife trafficking, implementation by the U.S. Government of the Administration’s laudable National Strategy to Combat Wildlife Trafficking should fully include these other species that are so often off the radar.

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Dr. Susan Lieberman is Vice President for International Policy at the Wildlife Conservation Society and serves on President Obama’s Advisory Council on Wildlife Trafficking.

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