Getting tough on trade

13 January 2011 | Article

We have our work cut out in bringing burgeoning wildlife trade under control says Richard Thomas.

As I write this, Heads of State from tiger range countries are due to meet at Prime Minister Putin’s invitation to decide the fate of the tiger. It could be argued that this is the first time such a high level meeting has taken place to save a single species, one that is under threat from verdiminishing habitats but one that faces an even more imminent threat—that of poaching and trafficking of its parts.

Does this meeting mark a sudden shift in political awareness of the seriousness of the threat posed by uncontrolled wildlife trade to some of the planet’s most iconic animals? Certainly it has been sorely needed
and will help boost the issue higher up the global consciousness. But it is brought about by a conservation crisis that is fast approaching—it is, quite literally, a lastditch attempt to rescue the tiger.

Despite sustained efforts by many wellmeaning organizations and individuals, numbers of this magnificent animal have plummeted—down to around 3,200, just 3% of what they were a century ago.

Will the International Tiger Forum mark a turning point in this animal’s future or will its inexorable decline continue? Only time will tell, but over the next decade, what of other looming wildlife trade crises?

One of the most pressing is the imminent collapse of fish stocks—worldwide. The northern bluefin tuna is a prime example. Despite huge public and political interest, governments meeting earlier this year for CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) failed to come up with measures that would have helped this species recover. And the tuna is not alone. Many of the fish species vital to people worldwide for food are similarly about to vanish off the dinner table, gobbled up by our insatiable and short-sighted appetite.

The message is—or should be—very clear. That as a species whose numbers and behaviour are outstripping the resources this planet has to offer, we have to bring our consumption of the world’s natural resources—animal, mineral and vegetable—down to levels that will not be detrimental to their survival.

We have already seen whole island ecosystems altered irreversibly by human activities, and the extinction of species caused by overconsumption. There is a danger that history will repeat itself on a planetary scale.

So the challenge is clear: how do we ensure there is sustainability in our use of wild resources? We clearly cannot expect world leaders to meet and adopt recovery plans for every species that becomes threatened through over-use. What is needed is a whole armoury of measures.

Consumers who will only purchase products that have the stamp of sustainable harvesting on them: just imagine the impact if every one of the more than 50,000 plant species used medicinally worldwide was collected to the FairWild Standard.

We also need to raise awareness worldwide of the dangers we face and how we can overcome them, and digital methods have a big part to play. Social networks like Facebook can be effective weapons, while the Internet itself is the most powerful communications tool ever invented. With a few keystrokes and mouse clicks, the conservation movement can beam its message to the world. The challenge is to make sure it is heard and understood amid all the background noise.

It is also important to get tough on those who plunder the world’s wildlife, with no thought for the future or the destruction they bestow on those who will follow—the poachers, traffickers, pirate fishermen and
illegal loggers. Such criminals are becoming increasingly sophisticated in their use of modern technology; organized criminal gangs ship ivory—by the tonne—half way round the world. This year alone, more than 230 rhinos have been poached in South Africa, many of them drugged, their horns chain sawed off and whisked away by helicopter. In a matter of days, the horns may have been sold in Asia. Massive illegal deepwater gillnets— up to 130km long and set 1.5km below the surface—drift silently, like a wall of death, entangling all in their path. With little fear of detection, those who have set these nets visit them undeterred to harvest their illicit plunder.

Keeping up with such sophistication in the criminal world is a challenge in itself. Ever greater resources are needed by those charged with policing global wildlife trade. The urgent issue of bringing the world’s use of wildlife resources down to sustainable levels has to be high on the political agenda—which is why the tiger meeting is so important: it might just save not only tigers, but humankind too.

Richard Thomas is Communications Manager of TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network (a joint programme of IUCN and WWF).