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Wild and wanton
The global illegal trade in wildlife is now worth $20 billion. Ignorance and newfound prosperity in those parts of the world that have traditionally been big markets for wildlife products still drive it, says Uttara Mendiratta.
Two jewellery storeowners recently entered into a plea agreement with the Manhattan District Attorney's office. The stores were selling illegal ivory. The ivory seized from one of the stores, Raja Jewels, was estimated to be worth $2 million. News reports claim that the packaging indicates that it might have been made in India. That was a bit of a surprise, since India banned all legal trade of ivory in the 1970s. One would have expected the good old 'Made in China' label. Guangzhou and Fuzhou are well known ivory centres - for both legal and illegal ivory.
In fact the illegal wildlife trade is a very big global problem, perhaps the third biggest illegal trade after narcotics and human trafficking, and, significantly, bigger than the illegal arms trade. Its global worth is currently estimated to be around $20 billion annually. Southeast Asia, which is currently the trade's biggest hub, harbours around half the trade, while China ranks as the world's largest market for illegal wildlife products;and the US comes next. Which is largely why organised crime syndicates now move many tonnes of illegal wildlife products across continents.
Indeed, since the trade offers a 1, 000 per cent return on investment it often proves irresistible to many. Yet that figure does not beggar belief. It is not difficult or expensive to kill a tiger in the wild. The wildlife trade is comparatively low-risk. Since enforcement is often inadequate the fear of getting caught is low. Besides, even if poachers are caught, low conviction rates and lenient penalties do nothing to deter seasoned poachers or traders.
And buyers are often very rich or very eager to buy products. Traditional Chinese medicines (TCMs) that use parts of animals like tigers, rhinos, many primates, geckos and pangolins are greatly in demand not just in China, but also across large parts of Southeast Asia (especially in countries like Vietnam). Migrants from these areas to other parts of the world, and more recently, Westerners eager to move away from conventional medicines are also big factors driving the trade. Sadly, even though many medical practitioners, including TCM practitioners, have repeatedly discredited the usefulness of these animal parts in healing, the market only seems to go one way, straight up.
And TCM demand is only part of the problem. Even though fur coats might be out of fashion at the moment, the fashion and 'art' industries continue to be a part of the problem. They've failed to restrain themselves from using ivory and shahtoosh, for instance. Tourists visit exotic destinations and bring back curios made from endangered species. Not to mention, until very recently, you could just go to midtown Manhattan and buy illegal ivory.
Then there's the problem posed by the exotic pet trade. Not everyone is content with a faithful dog or a classy cat. Exotic pets, ranging from spiders to lions, have a market everywhere. Birds and fishes are perhaps the most popular pets sourced from the wild, but there are also turtles, lizards, snakes and monkeys. Laundering of wild animals as 'captive bred' is also common in this business. A recent expose of large-scale laundering of exotic birds from 'breeding facilities' in the Solomon islands discovered that a vast majority - if not all - of the thousands of birds exported from the island to markets such as Singapore were caught in the wild.
Moreover, let's not forget the good old market for wild meat. Its consumers are not just those who live in the back of beyond and often hunt for survival. They are also those sitting in upmarket restaurants across the globe eating wildlife, be it bird meat in Milan, pangolin meat in Hanoi, or shark fin soup in Beijing. Wild meat seems to have made a definite comeback - as a luxury dish.
Wild animals are no longer sourced from local vicinity - they are killed wherever they are found and moved thousands of kilometers across continents to reach the final customer. Raw ivory may be shipped from Africa to Malaysia via Singapore to finally reach carving units in China or Thailand. Finished products also travel similar journeys.
Recent prosperity in East and Southeast Asia has created a massive market for wildlife products. Items such as tiger wine, ivory carvings and rhino horn tonic, which have traditionally been items that everyone wanted, but only some could afford, have suddenly become affordable with growing incomes. This despite the fact that some products can cost more than gold, even twice as much. Yet, traditional desire for such products is so entrenched in culture that it has been a real challenge to stamp down this demand.
Studies have shown that within the last decade, while ivory prices in China have gone up tenfold, sales of products made of ivory have gone up by 50 per cent. Another survey found that it was the rich, young and educated in China who were the biggest buyers of wildlife products. Curbing demand for wildlife is not going to be easy, clearly.
And until we do something about that, at least by raising global awareness, we will be all the poorer, as our common resources are abused and exploited by criminals who plunder and sell what belongs to all of us.
The writer is with the Freeland Foundation
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