Understanding Asian market demand for wildlife


Mamaponya Motsai, South African Broadcasting Corporation

Date Published

See link for photos & infographic.

Over the past few years, illegal animal trade has reached unprecedented proportions and though it is a problem in many countries in the world, the demand for animal parts and products is particularly high in Asian countries.

Director for International Fund for Animal Welfare (Ifaw) in Asia, Grace Ge Gabriel, explains the boom in animal parts or derived products trade in the continent and what is being done to reduce market demand.

Says Gabriel “Asian culture has a long history. 3000 years ago, quite often, when people were ill or needed food they would kill wildlife. Some people become ill and ate a piece of wildlife; and for some reason got well. That made wild animals become adopted into traditional Chinese medicine”.

She says people believe that “if its tiger bone, it will help my bones. If it’s a bear’s bile will help my gall bladder.”

Gabriel says in countries like Vietnam, new myths are leading people to believe that animal parts like rhino horn can cure cancer and Aids.

And with  economic boom in Asia, Gabriel says animal parts where no longer used just for medicine, people, who previously could not afford animal parts or products, wanted to buy them as a way of showing off.  

Business people have also taken advantage of the fact that traditional medicine uses animal parts.

“Entrepreneurs set up their own facilities to catch animals from the wild. They breed some as well, then take the animal parts and sell them. This stimulated more demand in the market and led to more animals being endangered,” says Gabriel.

In China, the government has reduced market demand for animal parts by subsidising those who make traditional medicine without using any animal parts

Elephant ivory, rhino horn and tiger bones are the most trafficked animal parts to Asian countries. The demand for tiger parts in China almost completely wiped out the species in the country. The same is true for pangolins.

The demand for pangolins in China was so high that their species were almost diminished. When there were not enough pangolins, the Chinese market started to look to other Asian and African countries to meet their demand.

Now pangolins are the most trafficked mammal in the world. Animal parts in Asia are used in traditional medicine, jewellery, wine, exotic pets, exerting food, art, investment and a form of status.

Many of the Asian communities ,who consume animal parts products are misinformed about how they are obtained.

Gabriel says Ifaw did a survey in China and it showed that 70% of the population did not know that elephant ivory is derived from dead animals.

“In China, ivory is directly translated to ‘elephant teeth’. So they think, a person’s teeth can fall out and a person doesn’t die.”

As part of reducing market demand, Gabriel says they are working with different governments to educate people about how animals die for them to consume the products they do.

In China, the government has reduced market demand for animal parts by subsidising those who make traditional medicine without using any animal parts. Other projects introduced in China to reduce the market for wildlife products include the banning animal parts auctions; cracking down on illegal traders; on both online and physical market and educating people.

Gabriel says countries from which animals are trafficked from must also play their part.  Gabriel says even though they work in countries where there is a demand for animal countries, they also work with the countries the animals are sourced from. She is urging the South African government to not allow for domestic or international trading of rhino horn.

She says though who are making this call do not have an understanding of the market.

Just as with elephant ivory, Gabriel says allowing trade of rhino horn will fuel market demand, and lead to more rhino poaching. In 2007, the Convention of International Trade in Species of Wild Fauna and Flora allowed for once off sales of confiscated ivory. Most of the ivory was sold to China and other Asian countries.

“The price of ivory doubled and even tripled, it was considered to be white gold. A lot of people who previously did not have any desire for ivory all of the sudden see their friends, family and co-workers having ivory bracelet and kind of showing off to say see this thing is so white, so pure and so prestigious,” says Gabriel.

In 2011 ivory prices were at their highest, they increased by 170% from the previous year alone.  

“In china the demand is driven by wealth. That kind of wealth makes the market insatiable. However much you put in, will be absolved. People have money now, the more they pay the more they can show off,” says Gabriel. She says allowing for trade of animal parts or products, countries must understand the market, and must understand that some markets cannot be satisfied and will bring about demise of the animals.