Trade in endangered wild animals: Part I
One look at the cover and I braced myself for a very disturbing book. Black Market: Inside the Endangered Species Trade in Asia by veteran journalist, Ben Davis along with distinguished photographers, takes a shocking look at the illegal markets in wildlife and exotic species in Asia. This superb book is a must read for anyone who wishes to know what is really going on in the black market in wildlife which only ranks next to the illegal trade in drugs and arms, where and how it emanates, and what spurs it on with increasing intensity.
Most people, including conservationists, have very little knowledge of the magnitude of the trade and the havoc wrecked on wildlife populations, which are recklessly killed, stolen and transported for thousands of miles in cramped conditions. The cruelty to individual animals is quite shocking. Bear paws being cut off when the animal is still alive in cages, bile juice extracted from bears with improperly planted catheters. Live snakes being squeezed out for their blood. Certainly these pictures and others are not for the faint-hearted.
Indonesia, which has one of the last great rainforests, and about 17,000 islands is one of the key areas where wildlife such as parrots, pangolins, orangutans and tigers are exported or killed. India is another major supplier, with animal parts or bones of elephants, rhinos and tigers being smuggled out. Thailand was once a major supplier, but with dwindling wildlife, it has become a lucrative transit centre, such as Malaysia, Singapore, Laos and Vietnam. Often the illegal animal trade accompanies the narcotics and arms trade, and the trafficking of people.
China, a giant vacuum cleaner?
Amongst Asian countries, China is the largest consumer of ivory, swallowing fifteen tons a year (which is about 1500 dead elephants). China takes in more than half of the 10,000 tons of freshwater turtles traded annually, along with being the biggest market for tiger bone, leopard cat, rhino horn, and sea horse. In fact, one conservationist in Cambodia likened the Chinese market to “a giant vacuum cleaner sucking out all the animals” in his own and neighbouring countries.
There is a tremendous demand for wildlife from cultural reasons. Body parts of wild animals like tiger bones and rhino horns are widely used for Chinese traditional medicine. Shark fin and blood from live snakes are seen as powerful aphrodisiacs. Ivory and rhino horn are smuggled in large quantities from India and Africa for artefacts and traditional Chinese medicine.
Where else does the wildlife go?
It’s not China alone which sucks in all the wildlife. Bush meat or the commercial killing of wild animals for food is widespread in Africa and in other parts of Asia. Much of the trade in exotic birds, fish and reptiles, from live animal and bird markets in Burma, Thailand and Indonesia end up in Europe and America in the hands of rich pet collectors.
The US is the biggest buyer of exotic pets. Nearly 7 million households own a pet bird, a further 4 million own a pet snake, turtle, or iguana.
Japan is a major purchaser of ivory. Taiwan and Korea also acquire wild animals or products from the region.
All the South EastAsian countries(excepting Laos) have signed the CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna which produces the Red List of Endangered Species every three to four years), but smuggling is still rampant.
Habitat destruction, due to growing population, deforestation, desertification, urban development, damming for agriculture contributes to reduction of wildlife populations.
The challenge to protect wildlife against illegal trafficking is huge. Developing countries are too poor to keep environment and wildlife on their priority list, their focus being taken away by human issues such as poverty, health, terrorism and education. Funding for wildlife protection is minimal. Poor villagers assist in catching wildlife as a means to supplement their meagre income.
On the contrary, the organised traffickers who kill or capture wildlife with brazen disregard, have well connected, influential and deep pockets, making the task of curbing the trade even more challenging. Even in developed countries, the wildlife trade is hardly a priority for the Police, whose focus is on fighting drugs, theft and anti-social behaviour.
Is there hope?
However blood-curdling the images in Ben Davies’ book are, we have to thank him for bringing them to our attention and raising our awareness of this nefarious global trade. The devastation caused to wildlife species and populations is mind- boggling. Equally mind-boggling is the extreme cruelty to animals which is painful to comprehend. It leads me to wonder, how we as humans have become so numb, so insensitive to the pain and suffering of fellow creatures.
As Jane Goodall says in the introduction of the book, “It is my firm belief that an understanding of animals as individuals can pay an important role in shaping the way people think about wildlife. For it is not only the threat to a species that matters; so too does the suffering of individual animals.”
Raising public awareness, activism and stricter enforcement are the only ways to save whatever is left of the wildlife. If people are poor, they will only continue to try and make money in any way possible, which includes killing wildlife. Community education programmes must enlighten them to value their wildlife, and also provide them with alternative means of earning a livelihood. Consumers from wealthier nations have to end the demand side of the equation. Without demand, there will be no incentive for black market to flourish.
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