March 3, 2015 is the second annual World Wildlife Day as recently declared by the United Nations. While the day’s intent is to bring attention to wildlife crime and illegal wildlife trade — a global epidemic bringing numerous prized species to the verge of extinction — there are also many other negative environmental side effects to the wildlife trade. As the United Nations points out, it degrades ecosystems, threatens national security, and limits the ability for communities to sustainably manage their natural resources.
“On this World Wildlife Day, I urge all consumers, suppliers and governments to treat crimes against wildlife as a threat to our sustainable future,” said United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in a statement. “It’s time to get serious about wildlife crime.”
While wildlife poaching and trafficking is a $15 to $20-billion-a-year global industry with supply and demand spread across the world, Africa and East Asia are two of the hotbeds: They are both blessed with a unique diversity of species and burdened with corruption and weak governance.
In an especially unappetizing example of the way this conflict manifests in everyday life in these regions, this week it has been reported that Robert Mugabe, the prime minister of Zimbabwe, served baby elephant meat to guests at his 91st birthday party.
According to reports, Zimbabwean game farmer Tendai Musasa killed the elephant because it was apparently damaging crops. Musasa also donated another elephant, along with a lion trophy, a crocodile trophy and a small herd of live impala, to the festivities in a show of his admiration for Mugabe.
According to the Los Angeles Times, Musasa said the elephants would have been shot anyway because they are a nuisance to farmers and that Zimbabwe was severely overpopulated with elephants. He said the 31,000-acre Woodlands Conservancy he directs usually shoots about two elephants a year in the service of “problem animal control.”
Center for American Progress Visiting Senior Fellow and vice chair of the President’s Advisory Council on Wildlife Trafficking David J. Hayes told ThinkProgress that since 1980 the number of wild elephants has been cut in half, from about 1.2 million to around 600,000.
“There was a good study done recently that showed 100,000 elephants have been killed in the last three years for ivory,” said Hayes. “With 400,000 or 500,000 elephants left, at a rate of death of about 35,000 per year, we’re looking at potential extinction.”
Wildlife trafficking is fueled by unchecked demand for exotic pets, rare foods, trophies, and “traditional” medicines, according to the U.S. State Department, which says the slaughter to meet this demand is threatening wild populations of tigers, elephants, rhinoceroses, exotic birds, and many other species.
In February, the Obama Administration announced a new national strategy for Combating Wildlife Trafficking. It includes three strategic priorities: strengthening enforcement, reducing demand, and reinforcing partnerships. It also includes a ban on commercial trade of elephant ivory in the United States. The world’s largest importer of smuggled tusks, China, also imposed a one-year ban on ivory imports in February. A move to buy time as the country considers next steps to curb demand for the damaging product, the domestic ivory trade in China will continue to thrive in the interim.
Environmentalist and author of the new book “The Last Unicorn,” about the endangered Saola in East Asia, told ThinkProgress that he supports the Administration’s efforts, but acknowledges that the $8 million in new funding won’t do much to bring down the massive business of illegal traffic in wildlife.
DeBuys believes that with a sustained and coordinated effort, change can come: consider the recent abandonment of shark fin soup by Chinese consumers. The San Francisco-based NGO WildAid reports that sales of shark fins have plummeted 82 percent in Guangzhou, the hub of the shark trade, and that two-thirds of respondents to a recent poll cited awareness campaigns as a reason for ending their shark fin consumption.
“Already many forests that once were rich in tigers, leopards, gaur, banteng, and gibbons are now devoid of any mammals larger than a cocker spaniel,” deBuys told ThinkProgress. “If the rest of the world truly wants to protect the biodiversity of the planet, assisting the governments and NGOs of Southeast Asia in protecting the region’s natural heritage must become a global priority.”