Beyond Cecil: The illegal trade in wildlife has real consequences for the world Achim Steiner, United Nations under-secretary-general and UN Environment Programme executive director


The Guardian

Date Published
As the world agonised over the death of Cecil the lion late last month, poachers in Kenya’s Tsavo West National Park – less than 300km from the UN Environment Programme world headquarters in Nairobi – illegally slaughtered five elephants, plundered the carcasses and fled the country with their ivory prize. Compared to Cecil, the slaughter barely registered on the world’s radar.

The slaughter of five elephants in Kenya was no anomaly – it’s a symptom of a global epidemic. Estimates show some 100,000 elephants out of a population of 420,000–650,000 were killed in Africa between 2010 and 2012. In 2014, poachers slaughtered 1,215 rhinos in South Africa alone, an increase of over 9,000% from 2007. Great apeslost to illegal activities number in the thousands worldwide.

These killings are extremely upsetting. But while we often view them as an aesthetic loss or an ethical shortfall, we frequently fail to see how such tragedies reverberate deep within our societies.

The global illegal trade in wildlife has very real consequences for the world, beyond an ethical quandary. It ruins ecosystems, destroys livelihoods, undermines governments, threatens national security and sabotages sustainable development.

The illegal wildlife trade is deeply disruptive to our ecosystems. A dramatic population collapse triggers knock-on effects throughout the entire system. Removing elephants in large numbers, for example, means that plant seeds are not spread widely. Other species, whose diets rely on plant diversity, must endure this shift. As species populations dwindle, their genetic diversity decreases and disease is more easily spread.

If the animals are the first victims of these criminals, then good governance and the rule of law are not far behind

And the changes are equally unbalancing for communities. Those reliant on their immediate surroundings for sustenance find themselves suddenly facing inhospitable environments. Where magnificent animals like rhinos and gorillas attract tourists, those who rely on the tourism industry suffer the animals’ absence. Where tourism drives the economy, the effect is devastating.

A look at the money involved explains why. A recent report by the United Nations Environment Programme (Unep) and Interpol estimated the value of transnational organised environmental crime, including illegal exploitation of wildlife and forest resources, at up to US$213bn (£137bn) annually. This economic loss is particularly felt in developing countries where natural resource wealth represents a foundation for sustainable development. That this revenue instead goes to line the pockets of criminals compounds the issue.

Where crime flourishes, corruption blooms. As the rule of law is undermined, criminality multiplies. If the animals are the first victims of these criminals, then good governance and the rule of law are not far behind.

Indeed, illicit wildlife trade supports organised crime and non-state armed groups. Ivory funds militias in the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic, and horse gangs in Sudan, Chad and Niger.

As criminal organisations take root, the cycle of the illegal wildlife trade becomes self-propagating. But while the cycle is tragic, it is not inescapable.

UN member states have now recognised the significance of wildlife crime, placing it high on the global environmental and sustainable development agenda at the first UN Environmental Assembly last year. Last week, they reaffirmed their commitment to tackle the issue with the adoption of an historic wildlife trafficking resolution at the UN General Assembly.

Environmental crime is a serious threat to sustainable development but the consequences are first felt at the local level. When devising solutions, we must account for both conservation and what works for those living with wildlife, which is why we’re working with partners to ensure a coherent international response is in place, aimed at both the supply and demand side of the illegal wildlife trade. As we work to eradicate international demand, we are helping to improve intelligence and border controls, and to strengthen enforcement and prosecution capabilities so governments can build strong institutional, legal and regulatory systems.

It’s a rare and fleeting occasion that the global community turns its collective attention to this important topic, even if context may be sidelined for headlines. Before we move on to other issues, it’s important to take a moment and remember that the rifle shots of a poacher echo far beyond an elephant’s watering hole.