Combatting the Illegal Wildlife Trade

A recently published article at JSTOR Daily asked: “Is militarizing rangers really the best way to combat illegal wildlife hunting?”

A rise in environmental security, or what has been termed a “war for biodiversity” or “green militarization”, particularly in the context of Africa, has seen the rise of the use of armed patrols, tracking equipment, and aerial surveillance using helicopters, airplanes and drones. Strictly-speaking however, this is not an entirely new phenomenon, since high incidences of poaching in the 1970’s and 80’s also saw the deployment of military responses by some African governments. Green militarization has been criticized for a number of reasons, including potentially leading communities to feel threatened by the presence of enforcement personnel, as well as engendering resentment.

The illegal wildlife trade involves thousands of wild animals and related products that are shipped daily around the globe as food, pets, medicines, clothing, trophies, and religious amulets. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and INTERPOL have estimated that the illegal wildlife trade (IWT) is valued between $7 billion and $23 billion per year. IWT-targeted species include elephants, rhinos, tigers, pangolins, primates, reptiles, birds, and medicinal plants. In Vietnam, there are a number of transnational networks illegally trading rare and endangered wildlife, in particular tigers, panthers, bears, elephants, snakes, and pangolins – with Vietnam being considered a transit country for wildlife and wildlife products to third countries.

The trade is extremely lucrative. A recent estimate has noted that the value of rhino horn can exceed the per kilogram price of gold.  Elsewhere, in countries under conditions of political instability and economic turmoil, illegal bushmeat hunting has emerged as a serious conservation threat. In West and Central Africa, bushmeat hunting is a survival strategy for large numbers of people.

In one study, the highest exporters of IWT were identified as Kenya and Tanzania for elephants, South Africa for rhinoceros, and India for tigers. Intermediaries with the highest influence in the flow of trade were identified as Kenya, Thailand, China and Hong Kong for elephants, China and Vietnam for rhinoceros, and India and Myanmar for tigers. The highest key importers, on the other hand, were identified as China, Hong Kong, Thailand and Vietnam for elephants, China and Vietnam for rhinoceros, and China for tigers. However, IWT is a global phenomenon and cannot be restricted to certain parts of the world alone.

In the case of Africa, IWT has serious consequences on African economies by destroying and depleting natural resources and biodiversity. Natural capital stocks produce benefits that support societal and individual well-being and economic prosperity, such as clear air, fresh water, and the pollination of crops. IWT also risks damaging entire ecosystems. The cross-border smuggling of live animals and plants also carries risks to human health through the potential spread of disease. The hunting, butchering and preparing of meat from wild animals has been argued to have contributed to the spread of Ebola in several African countries. Diseases like bird flu can also spread to food chains, leading to the mass euthanasia of livestock herds. IWT also has significant security implications, given that in many cases, it is associated with organized crime syndicates, illegal arms trafficking, and in some cases, armed militant groups. Added corruption thrown into the mix also hinders the fight against IWT.

IWT further impedes the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) set out by the UN General Assembly in 2015, by diverting national budgets away from social or development programmes. In Uganda, for example, the political pressure to curb wildlife crime has been driven by the recognition that wildlife conservation is a crucial aspect of continuing social and economic development. For example, the tourism sector, which is largely dependent on wildlife conservation, is a leading source of foreign exchange and a major provider of employment.

IWT is complex and multi-faceted. Most agree that some law-enforcement, and even armed response, is necessary to protect wildlife – but the potential risks to this approach should also be kept in mind. Elsewhere, the Black Mambas, a predominantly female and unarmed anti-poaching unit, have demonstrated themselves to be more than up to the task of protecting wildlife. Local communities also need to be supported, and the issues of household poverty and unemployment, which may lead people to resort to wildlife crime, also need to be addressed. But what is worth -reiterating is that a number of species, as well as biodiversity, are seriously at risk – and are worth protecting.