Despite efforts to preserve endangered animals, trafficking has increased in some parts of the world by an estimated 5000%. According to conservationists, poaching is pushing some animals to the very brink of extinction. In 2014, 46 countries signed the London Declaration which was set up to work towards ending wildlife trafficking through law enforcement and cross-country cooperation. Wildlife trafficking is a multi-billion-dollar industry that has reportedly helped fund Al-Qaeda-related groups. What is the scope of the problem? What should be done about it? Maria Armoudian speaks with David Wilkie, Tanya Wyatt, and Marc Bekoff.

David Wilkie is the Director of Conservation Measures for the Wildlife Conservation Society.

Tanya Wyatt is an Associate Professor in Criminology at Northumbria University. She is an expert in wildlife trafficking and animal welfare and is the author of Wildlife Trafficking: A Deconstruction of the Crime, the Victims, and the Offenders.

Marc Bekoff is Professor Emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He is an expert in behavioral ecology and is the author of The Emotional Lives of Animals: A Leading Scientist Explores Animal Joy, Sorrow, and Empathy — and Why They Matter.


This interview has been edited for clarity and length 

Maria Armoudian: Let us start with the scope of the problem. David Wilkie, what would you say we are facing?

David Wilkie: Humans have been trafficking wildlife for millennia. And it is remarkable, North Americans actually ate passenger pigeons to extinction: there used to be flocks of three billion flying overhead and we ate every single one of them. The challenge is that we are doing this to more and more species as more and more of humanity gets to a level of wealth where we can all afford to buy things. And so tiger bones, tiger skins, leopard skins, rhino horns, elephant teeth are all trinkets that humans want for prestige or for other reasons and with seven billion people on the planet, demand for wildlife products is grossly outstripping the ability for wildlife to supply and meet that demand. So we are in a terrible crisis and we are going to lose many species unless we do something about it.

MA: As I understand it the numbers are changing quite drastically and have become much worse, particularly with some of the animals like you mentioned tigers, rhinos, and elephants, do you have a sense of how much worse it is?

DW: Well there is only about 1600 female tigers left in the wild, that is a startingly tiny amount. African elephants, we have gone from 1.5 million Savannah elephants to around 300,000, we went from 800,000 elephants in the tropical forests of Africa to 80,000. So we have only got ten percent of the elephants in the forests of central Africa that we used to have, an unbelievable crash in the population. It is very much the same way that whaling went, we lost almost ninety-five percent of our whales and only when we found fossil fuels in Pennsylvania and started replacing whale oil for lamp oil did we actually save the whales. So we have got the ability to change the situation we just need to have a global commitment to do so and I think we have actually begun to see a sea change in the attitudes of the global community about wildlife trafficking.

MA: Tania Wyatt, what would you add?

Tania Wyatt: I do think you see geographic differences. You have problems of demand in the US, in the European Union, also in China, in South East Asia, but then you could also see the developing global south is being the area that is particularly exploited, areas obviously in Africa, South America, and Asia that are targeted for their wildlife as commodities to be sold into Western areas that have growing middle class consumers. So there is a regional and geographic aspect to it that we need to take into consideration when we are developing prevention strategies.

MA: Marc Bekoff?

MB: I agree with everything that has been said. I think we need to have extremely strong enforcement of existing regulations and maybe the existing regulations are not really strong enough. I am always amazed at the share numbers of animals who are involved. It is staggering when I read the reports of the members of different sorts of species who are involved in the illegal wildlife trade so it seems to me that enforcement is really important.

MA: When you say millions of species the ones we hear most about are the tigers, the rhinos, the elephants, the great apes. Mark Bekoff what are the other species?

MB: When I said millions of species I was really thinking more the share number of individuals in a given species. But the exotic bird for instance, and reptiles who can be stuffed in suitcases for example and people have tried to smuggle them in. So that is all I was really referring to.

DW: I was just in Cameroon working with some colleagues of mine to think about how we might set up a conservation agenda for African great parrots. It never occurred to me that African great parrots are the most valuable pet on the planet because every African great parrot goes for around ten thousand dollars a bird. And we know nothing about them, we don’t know about their ecology, we don’t know where the feed, we don’t know how many there are. They are social birds, they groom one another like primates and yet we know practically nothing about their ecology and yet they are the single most valuable pet on the planet. Isn’t that startling? And I think this speaks to me about what the trade is about. Eighty-nine percent of Chinese consumers of ivory know that ivory consumption requires the death of an elephant, and eighty-five percent of those consumers will say they are going to buy ivory again. If just ten percent of Chinese families who make 16,000 dollars a  or more a year buy one two-ounce piece of ivory that is about the size of a piece of soap that you get in a hotel, that requires 32600 elephants to die. So the scale of the issue is unbelievable and yet our knowledge of the issue is waning relative to the scale of demand.

MA: Tania Wyatt you have been looking at this. You have compared it also to the drug trafficking rings, you say the worst perpetrator is organised crime but that there are other perpetrators, how would you describe this?

TW: I would say that organised crime might have the largest impact in that they are capable of killing frankly more animals than individuals, but you do have all the different levels of people that are actually involved in consumption and involved in demand, so you do have impoverished people that may feel forced to poach or to harvest things illegally. But I would argue they would probably have the least amount of impact or killing the least amount of animals and you do have with these larger criminal organisations that may be organised or may be just structured rather than be a stereotypical mafia kind of organised crime and those are the kinds of criminals that we need to be worried about because they are the ones that are poaching elephants and rhinos in a very structured and systematic way.

MA: And yet part of it, there are also all these other actors that are part of the process, states, terrorists, corporations, insurgents, how do you see each of these actors as part of it?

TW: Well absolutely it certainly is a long chain of middlemen as well and states do have a role to play in that arguably, corruption is key in facilitating a good deal of wildlife trafficking which is an area that needs to be studied much more. But corruption of customs, border patrol, police officers, government officials that are facilitating it and profiting from it, that is a big part of it as well. And then there is anecdotal evidence that is becoming more substantiated that terrorists and insurgents are using wildlife, particularly ivory, sometimes timber as a way of funding their kinds of conflict and that too has a tremendous impact on the survival of these species.

DW: I couldn’t agree more. I think that the wildlife trade and wildlife trafficking is just one other commodity that is being adopted by organised crime. They traffic arms, they traffic women, they traffic drugs, and now they are trafficking wildlife. It is just another commodity. But to be honest, I think we have got incredibly powerful tools to tackle that part of the trafficking, the financing of trafficking. United States statutes for money laundering are about twenty years old and it allows for the Treasury Department, the State Department, and the Department of Homeland Security to actually forfeit assets of people we believe have gained these assets illicitly. It doesn’t require the conviction of someone it just requires the assumption that the assets have been obtained illicitly, and I think that asset forfeiture has huge potential for the US and the European Union to take a bite out of crime in many ways.

MA: In terms of the law enforcement side of things do we know how effective these statutes are? When I worked in the legislature one of my first observations was we have good laws on the books but we don’t have them enforced. Is that the same situation?

MB: That was what I was saying about enforcement. I agree that holding assets would be a very powerful tool but maybe I am a sceptic, but it seems the corruption is so widespread that that is one of the reasons why it is so difficult to enforce already existing regulations or laws.

DW: I would agree with that too. But two colleagues of mine looked at ten years of data on changes in elephant numbers in Central Africa. The results were devastating, it was a huge collapse of the elephant populations in Central Africa and they used really credible data to show that. But the upside of that was they showed that anywhere in Central Africa where rangers were actively patrolling, elephants survived. We know that good and effective ranger patrolling is a hugely successful activity to prevent poaches coming in and whacking elephants for their ivory. Regardless of corruption it actually works. So we know that ranger patrolling works, and the conservation community has come together to develop this consortium called SMART which is to try and role out the next generation of really clever tools to help eco-guards, rangers, park service people to do patrolling as effectively as possible, and we have got credible evidence to show that that matters, that it makes a difference. Where rangers are patrolling elephants survive, where rangers aren’t patrolling, elephants disappear. So yes, corruption is a huge problem but we have got some tools that can actually make a difference.

MA: I had read that a lot of technology was being developed in a way that could also aid in the enforcement of these laws, technology that is actually controversial in other ways, such as drones. Is this actually being developed for conservation purposes or is it just far off into the future? Tanya Wyatt?

TW: Some colleagues of mine have been testing drones in Uganda but I do think it is a bit further along than we would have guessed.

DW: Yes, UAVs are actually really useful and to be honest they are useful for two reasons. UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, let eco-guards who are typically far less sophisticated and armed than poachers who they are against it lets a ranger patrol figure out whether people that they are hearing, are they hunter-gatherers who have got legitimate reasons to be there or are they illegal hunters who have got AK-47s and RPGs. So drones help rangers save themselves from getting into a firefight and actually getting killed. So I think drones have huge potential to increase the safety of ranger patrolling and drones also have huge potential for reaching out, allowing a ranger patrol to patrol a far larger area than they would on foot and this is particularly important in the forest. So yes, we are actively using drones to extend the reach of eco-guards and to protect eco-guards from bumping into much more seriously armed individuals and much more ruthless individuals who are poaching ivory.

MB: We are more on the ground because at the beginning we were talking just about corruption and regulations and holding assets which I think is really a great idea as well, but I think it is really difficult to enforce. But I love what you are talking about in terms of local types of control. When I was in Kenya I talked to some people, and one of the points that they made was in some ways the people who are doing this are just trying to survive and you can pay them to kill animals or you can pay them to protect animals. It is not that they are nasty people, it is just that they are very poor and they need an income. So I am liking the idea of acting locally and thinking globally.

MA: That brings up a case study that Tanya Wyatt did, Tanya you did this case study about Cambodia and some of the efforts they have made there that seems to have had an element of success?

TW: Well I think it is similar to what David was talking about with NGOs that have been quite progressive and realised that rangers do make the difference in protecting species. I do think they have had some success in terms of paying rangers to protect these animals. It is very promising not only in terms of preventing poaching but then also rescuing animals that have been poached and rehabilitating them and hopefully returning them to their habitats.

MA: It sounded also that there was an education program there in Cambodia that was really teaching people about the ecology and about the need for biodiversity, was that also part of it?

TW: Yeah that is a great program that the Wildlife Alliance has developed there. They have a van that they drive around to the more remote villages throughout south-west Cambodia and really focus on young people and go into the grade schools and to children that are around the ages of six and seven and teach them the value of conservation and biodiversity and how we need to protect our environment, which really is the age we need to be targeting to kind of change the entitlement that people feel the need to consume wildlife. So I think it is a great program and I do think that they are showing some success after years of doing it.

MB: I love the idea of working with children, I think it is one of the big keys to the future.

DW: One of the interesting things is that, while trafficking is a destabilising thing, it is usually outsiders coming in and taking the resources of local people. Local people don’t like that because it is their resources, they don’t like it because it increases violence and instability and insecurity and that is not good for development. So one of the neat things that is happening as mobile and cellphone coverage extends is we actually have the capacity to have anonymous whistleblowing that allows for local people to say ‘Hey you know I have noticed some weird stuff happening in my neighbourhood’. And to me this sort of crowdsourced intelligence networks again has huge potential to extend the reach of law enforcement. And law enforcement always sounds bad, but I think of it as crime prevention. To me if I say crime prevention everyone likes it, if you say law enforcement it sounds more like a fascist state. But crime prevention through crowdsourcing to me has huge potential of changing the game because local people don’t want armed militias coming into their neighbourhood and shooting the critters that they could potentially make a profit on through tourism or something else.

MA: One other thing that I saw in one of your papers pertained to the buyers of certain products. No this was specifically I think about bush meat, but you had found that as the prices went up really high the consumption went down quite a bit. Is there an answer on that side as well?

DW: Bush meat is a necessity for many people, it is a source of dietary protein. That is different from a luxury good like ivory or a rhino horn. So the economics of the trade is fundamentally different. When you drive the price up of a necessity people will look for a substitute. There is no substitute for a rhino horn or elephant ivory and that is the trick. And that is why a ban on sales and burning cashes of illicitly harvested ivory is so important. I am really looking forward to Tanzania burning their hundreds of tonnes of illegal ivory, that means ivory will not leak back into the market. Public crushing or burning of ivory sends a huge message.

MA: Lets take a look at the previous Obama Administration’s task force but also the London declaration. Mark Bekoff?

MB: I think what happened was a good move in the right direction. I work in China occasionally on one of the rescue projects there and I love the people but I am not so optimistic about change there, not because the people are necessarily heartless but just because the sheer numbers and the sheer money involved that is what I have heard from people there working in other areas of animal protection is that it is just so hard to get your foot in the door just because of the numbers and the money.

MA: Tanya Wyatt?

TW: I read what came out of the US and then I was at the wildlife trafficking symposium before London and I am encouraged it is being put on the political agenda. So it is encouraging but I would probably share my colleagues reservations though, that I worry that it could go down the path of being too militarised and paramilitarised and we have the same kind of battle that we had with the war on drugs to where we throw lots of money and lots of law enforcement at it and we don’t actually make the changes on the ground to provide people with alternative livelihoods and things that need to be done to really stamp out the problem. But hopefully all of that will come into play as well as efforts increase.

MA: So you see part of the missing components as really an economic component for people to have an alternative to this process?

TW: Yes I do. That is how we help local communities to not poach and to not harvest things illegally. You have got to tackle demand. Yes there is crime prevention but there is also changing the paradigm of how we view wildlife that can be consumed and that is the most challenging task ahead for us.

MA: David Wilkie how would you asses the international community’s efforts?

DW: I am startled by the marvelous mobilisation of international interest and support for the ivory trafficking issue. I agree with everyone on the panel that we need to tackle wildlife trafficking along the commodity chain from the source points where poaching is happening to national transit, to international transit, to the consumers. We need to tackle all the way along the supply chain absolutely. What we learned with China is really interesting. We thought that we could use campaigns that have been very successful in the US and in Europe, using movie stars or sports stars as spokespeople for the trade. When we actually interviewed Chinese ivory consumers we said you know if Yao Ming, the former Chinese basketball player, said ‘Don’t buy ivory’ would that change your impressions, would that change your impressions? Three percent of ivory consumers said that would change their ivory purchasing behaviour. And Yao Ming is a marvelous advocate, but thirty-seven percent of ivory consumers said if the government banned it they would stop consuming ivory, twenty-five percent said if politburo members said that it was inappropriate to buy ivory they would stop buying ivory. I think one of the things we really need to do is understand the consumer, and we are getting a better handle on that, and we are getting to understand how we can use social media, how we can use pressure on the governments to change behaviour and that is a significant difference.

MA: One other aspect of this that I have been thinking about is: who lives, who dies and why. Mark Bekoff how would you answer that?

MB: I think individuals are making that decision. When I think about American advertisement you know when Lebron James says something and the stock and the company goes either up or down significantly, I didn’t know that about China. But I think the people who are answering the question ‘who dies, who lives and why?’ are really the locals and that is why I said before it is important we get to them in whatever way. So if they can be influenced by government policy or what politburo people say that would be the way [to] go. But I also don’t think that people realise that they are basically making that decision and that is why you know the ‘who lives, who dies, and why’ has sort of become a little bumper sticker. When I talk to people about it in terms of other issues with non-human animals it actually gives them pause because that is basically an issue, we are making these decisions about the lives of individual animals.

MA: Tanya Wyatt one of your studies also looked at how birds are being smuggled in Oceania going from Australia to New Zealand and then getting trafficked out. Given New Zealand’s reputation for actually protecting the environment and other species, does that become part of it? Are countries like Australia and New Zealand going to have to crack down on this?

TW: They are definitely hugely involved in the international discussion around wildlife trafficking. New Zealand is an interesting case because they were the first really to come up with a wildlife enforcement network, so they were good in predicting that this was going to be an issue. It does obviously come down to funding, they have had trouble maintaining the resources that are going to those units. But I think Australia is a good example because they have much stricter regulations than other countries and I think that is why they have managed to keep their illegal trade so low, and as I have written it might be wise for New Zealand possibly to consider having stricter regulations as well. And the UK as well, because it does tend be a hub in London for illegal trade.

DW: The charismatic species always get the headlines. The pangolins, the seahorses, the sharks, animals that people either think are slimy or unpleasant or dangerous don’t get into the headlines. And I would just like people to understand that the wildlife trade is rhinos and elephants and tigers, but it is a whole host of other species that are being over-exploited because seven billion people is a lot of demand. And we can no longer feed off the planet, we can no longer eat off the planet, we can no longer just take what we need, eighty-nine percent of the terrestrial landscape is dominated by humans, that is a lot. Humanity has to decide if we want to save things or not and for my children, my children’s children, I want elephants to be there, I want rhinos to be there, I want sharks to be there, I want a future where my great, great-grandchildren get to see what I see and that is why we need to fix the wildlife trade.

MB: I agree. We have to somehow have people become aware of the incredible importance of the non-charismatic animals. And you know there is a size thing there to because a lot of times they are the ones who can be put into a suitcase, you know you can’t put an elephant into a suitcase, but you can put a lot of small animals into a suitcase and smuggle them. So in my own work, I try to stress especially with kids, take them on hikes and walks and have them focus on the little animals who they think are slimy and ugly and are the ones whom they go ‘Ew, I wouldn’t want that animal around me’.

TW: I would agree with both of my colleagues enthusiastically that we need to have that shift that wildlife is not just valuable to humans but that it is intrinsically valuable and beautiful and has its own right to life.

This interview originally aired on the Scholars’ Circle. To access our archive of episodes and download this interview, click here.

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Disclaimer: The ideas expressed in this discussion reflect the views of the guests and not necessarily the views of The Big Q. 

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