It's time to pay attention to wildlife crime

It’s time to pay attention to wildlife crime

“Are we moving toward a world without wildlife?” At the 6th World Parks Congress this week in Sydney, five of my classmates and I are working with the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) to ensure wild animals exist well into the future. We have spent the semester learning about wildlife crimes and how they threaten species around the world – particularly in protected areas. The situation is so serious that WCS co-organized a double session at the congress to discuss wildlife crime and law enforcement in protected areas. On Saturday I watched as global conservation leaders took the stage to call the world to action, examine lessons learned and share messages of hope.

You may be thinking, wildlife crime? That issue doesn’t affect me. But here’s why you should care: species losses due to wildlife crimes have ecological, economic, and even security-related consequences that can affect almost anyone – even you.

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John Scanlon chairs the first of two sessions discussing wildlife crime at the World Parks Congress in Sydney on Saturday. Photo by Linda Holcombe

From an ecological perspective, commonly poached mega-fauna are often key players in their native ecosystems. For example – forest elephants, a smaller subspecies of the better-known African elephant, are important seed dispersers in the jungles of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Unfortunately poaching of forest elephants for ivory and bush meat has pushed their populations to near-extinction and is now threatening the future of DRC forest ecosystems. In addition, research has shown that the loss of top predators in a landscape can cause trophic cascades that will further reduce biodiversity and negatively affect ecosystem services. Don’t care all that much about biodiversity? How about public health? Loss of predators has also been linked with increased spread of infectious diseases.

In many countries, iconic species are also critical to both local and national economies. Poaching of elephants and rhinos pose a serious threat to the economies of Kenya and Tanzania, both of which have GDPs that rely on wildlife-based tourism. A 2013 study by the United Nations found that the continued presence of mountain gorillas generates both wealth ($294 million in 2013) and peace in Rwanda. But wait, there’s more. Illegal hunting and fishing, and the subsequent trafficking of species and their parts, are increasingly linked with organized crime and terrorism. Many of the same organizations partaking in illegal wildlife crimes are also trafficking illegal drugs, weapons and even humans. Terrorist organizations such as Boko Haram have been reported to use the sales of illicit wildlife products such as ivory to finance their activities.

Wildlife crimes are increasingly linked with organized crime and terrorism.

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In 2013 alone, over 1,000 rhinos were lost to poaching in South Africa. Photo by Tara Meyer

To quote John Scanlon, Secretary-General of CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) and Saturday’s first session moderator, “wildlife crime is a serious issue and needs to be treated like other serious crimes.”

Speakers in Saturday’s back-to-back sessions stressed various approaches to stopping (or reducing) the demand for illegal wildlife products, improving monitoring and enforcement in protected areas, and cracking down on trafficking throughout the supply-chain. Alexa Montefiore of the SMART Partnership introduced a new tool called SMART (Spatial Monitoring and Reporting Tool), which supports front line efforts by helping rangers track patrols and record spatial data. Barney Long of the World Wildlife Fund called for a set of standards to provide clear targets for wildlife crime prevention and species management. Namibian conservation leader John Kasaona challenged the audience to “more action and less talk.”

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John Kasaona calls participants to action. Photo by Linda Holcombe

Wildlife crime is a serious issue and needs to be treated like other serious crimes. – John Scanlon, Secretary-General, CITES

Iconic species such as elephants, rhinos, tigers, and lesser-known species such as the pangolin and the hawksbill turtle, are facing extinction unless wildlife crimes are stopped. I believe saving species from extinction is important because of the intrinsic value of wildlife, in addition to all the benefits we humans receive from them. I am proud to be contributing to the conversation on this issue in Sydney – and I am hopeful about the future of wild animals on our planet. I am ready to spread the word about the importance of stopping wildlife crime. Are you?