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Axel Hunnicutt of the Wild Tomorrow Fund has done a lot of work studying poaching and illegal trafficking in Africa — looking at both as an unfortunate side effect of animal conservation in Asia. As a wildlife ecologist, Hunnicutt works with hyenas, elephants, rhinos and other wildlife. He recently spoke at Greenwich Audubon, in Connecticut, about the unnatural nature of witnessing species decline from poaching and what can be done.
Definitely, seeing a species decline because of being carved up for parts is disturbing, notes Hunnicutt: “Watching an antelope be taken down by a cheetah or a bull elephant be stabbed by another bull in a fight can be saddening. (But) poaching sticks with you because, from an ecologist’s point of view, it is so unnatural and exceeds all levels of barbarity in most cases,” he said to Nature World News.
But those of us who oppose poaching must be organized, he says: “If I want to talk about African wildlife trade, I need to set the narrative — and the narrative doesn’t start in Africa, it actually starts in Southeast and Eastern Asia,” Hunnicutt said in his talk.
Many of the most emblematic animals in Asia — rhinos, tigers, elephants — have been in a decline for years, with some populations on the brink of extinction. As a result, those animals are safeguarded under federal protection, and the Asian markets for rhino horn and other materials can no longer obtain their products on that continent. Therefore, the markets looks to supply demand with the African relatives of those species — animals that are present in much larger numbers than in Asia, Hunnicutt noted.
That said, the illegal wildlife demand isn’t limited to Asia; it’s global. How large is it, really?
Compared to drugs, counterfeiting and human trafficking, illegal wildlife trade is ranked as the fourth largest illegal market in the world, according to a 2012 survey. In fact, illegal animal trafficking is estimated to be a $19 billion per year industry.
One problem is that catching poachers can require unusual levels of expertise in animal life, too. “Government officials and local law enforcements may be trained to detect counterfeiting, human trafficking and even different kinds of drugs, but is a local official going to be able to distinguish one particular cat skull from another? Usually that is left up to people at universities, who can’t even usually do that,” Hunnicutt added.
Therefore, the illegal wildlife trade is an open market. The following are some of the most emblematic and endangered species subjected to trafficking and poaching.
There are five rhinoceros species in the world, three of which are listed as critically endangered. The black and white rhino are native to Africa. At one point, populations of black rhinos were in the millions across sub-Saharan Africa, with the exception of the Congo. Today, however, there are just fewer than 5,000 black rhinos left in the wild.
What’s worse is the gruesome way in which poachers rob the animals of their horns.
“Poachers come into reserves across South Africa and they shoot these animals, if they can, or they will try to jab them with spears; some are even sophisticated enough to come in on helicopters and dart them,” Hunnicutt explained. “They will use machetes, axes and chainsaws to dismember the animals and remove their horn.”
Rhino poaching sky rocketed in 2007 following rumors that Asian government officials had used rhino horns to cure cancer. When used for medicinal purposes rhino horns are ground into a dust or paste, then consumed in a liquid form. Surprisingly, however, biting one’s fingernails, which are made of the same keratin material, could employ the same cancer treatments.
“Yet, myth and legend have spurred a slaughter across South Africa as a result of this,” Hunnicutt said.
Elephants: Who doesn’t love elephants?
“For some reason, as much as we love elephants, we really love their teeth. But just like your teeth and my teeth, they don’t come out easily — the animal has to be killed to remove their teeth or tusks,” Hunnicutt explained.
Again, elephants are a species that once populated Africa in the millions. However, between 200 and 300 years of elephant slaughter for their ivory tusks has caused populations to drop dramatically.
Would you be surprised to know that almost every person owns something that is made from ivory? From piano keys, to billiard balls, bowling pins, mantle fixtures, and various other trinkets, there is probably something in your home made of ivory.
Following the “ivory craze,” elephant populations reached an all-time low in 1989 with only 600,000 individuals left in all Africa, where 26 million had existed just 300 years prior.
While the first global ivory ban instated by Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) gave elephants the protection they needed to recuperate, in 2008 many African and Asian countries convinced CITES to allow a “one time” buy-off of ivory stockpiles. During this time 150 tons of ivory were sold to China and 50 tons to Japan.
Originally it was thought that this would be a way to put a little money back into protecting the elephants, rather than opening up the channels to full-time ivory trade.
“Unfortunately, the floodgates broke and African elephants are again in a free-fall population decline,” Hunnicutt said. “Today, some 35,000 elephants are killed a year — about one every 15 minutes.”
Size aside, an elephant’s tusk is nothing special — it is just dentine. Yet, it is thought to bring luck and be the “perfect hostess gift.”
To elephants, however, their tusks are a vital defense used in sparing matches. Essentially, the longer the tusks, the longer they can hold their opponent at bay. And while the largest tusks were most favored by poachers, they now grow much smaller. Coincidence?
Pangolin: The most trafficked animals in the world
Pangolins are burrowing anteaters — about the size of a house cat — and the only mammals covered completely in overlapping scales. When threatened, pangolins roll into tight balls. While this tactic may defend against tigers, it also makes them very easy for poachers to pick up and carry away.
“This animal is literally being eaten to extinction,” Hunnicutt said.
In fact, pangolins — native to Asia and Africa — are the most trafficked animal in the world. Over 100,000 pangolins are traded and trafficked annually, mostly for human consumption. Their scales alone go for over $6,000 a pound.
With a burgeoning population in Africa and agriculture industries unable so far to keep up, hunting animals for illegal bushmeat is becoming a larger industry than the illegal ivory trade, says Hunnicutt. “Africa is the fastest-growing continent in the world, there are currently about 1.3 billion people,” he explained. “By 2050 there will be about 2.5 billion people. The country of Nigeria is set to be the third-largest country in the world in 15 years, with half a billion people, so it will over take the U.S. in population.”
In individual countries, hundreds of thousands of animals a year are killed for bushmeat, said Hunnicutt. They range from primates, to antelope, elephants, hippos — anything you can find, he noted. The most common way to hunt these animals is with the use of wire snares or nooses. This means that there is indiscriminate killing going on everywhere, he says.
While this method is very effective in killing animals, 90 percent of an animal that is trapped and killed is not even used, leading to indiscriminate waste, says Hunnicutt.
Animals aside, rampant trading of illegal meat poses a serious of risks. For instance, diseases — such as Ebola — can spread across the world. Terrorism and organized crime are largely funded by the illegal animal trade. There is also, of course, the problem of biodiversity loss.
But there is hope, Hunnicutt assures. The first step is education. For one thing, many people outside of elephant-dwelling countries do not know that ivory comes from them — but they’re often sympathetic when they learn.
There have been some clear signs of change. For instance, in a very touching display of conservation, Sri Lanka recently became the first country to publically apologize to elephants, admitting they were wrong for killing so many animals. While doing that, they also destroyed 1.6 tons of ivory.
There is a certain need for speed, Hunnicutt said. Otherwise, with so much illegal ivory on the market, “there can be huge buy-backs or a buying frenzy, which can quickly slow down the work that has been done.”
Moving forward, there’s a need to have feet on the ground in Africa, and for selfless people to put their lives on the line to protect animals. Many of these vigilant people are park rangers. However, they are outnumbered and out-financed.
Wild Tomorrow Fund and some other organizations enter the picture there: Along with working on research projects, they try to provide rangers with proper equipment, such as uniforms and flashlights.
“Everyone can do something; it is just about finding what you can do,” Hunnicutt concluded. “The worst thing you can do is nothing.”