Photo by Arno Meintjes
In case all those highly depressing adverts on daytime TV haven't alerted you to this worrying fact quite yet, we are in the midst of a global conservation crisis. Although extinction isn't a new phenomenon – indeed, science tell us that animal species began disappearing when Noah shafted the last griffins at the door to his ark – the number of species dying out each year has begun to spiral at an alarming rate.
In 2012 alone, it’s estimated that at least 10,000 species became extinct, while some of the more televised animals (rhinos, tigers, any of the other selfish attention-seekers snatching precious airtime) continue to teeter on the brink. In many cases, the main catalyst for these dwindling populations is poaching.
Black market trading in endangered animal parts has skyrocketed in recent years, fuelled by a growing belief among the newly emerging middle class in Asia that rare animal parts can make their hair grow back and give them boners. And while no one wants to deny a middle-aged Chinese accountant his hard-on, it’s clear that something must be done to stem this ever-worsening crisis.
It was against this bleak backdrop that representatives from 178 countries around the world gathered in Bangkok this week to hammer out a solution. Rhinos are among the species hardest hit by a recent increase in poaching – their horns are prized for medicinal and decorative purposes and have been known to fetch as much as £45,000 per kilogram on the black market, considerably more than cocaine or diamonds, the two traditional stalwarts by which everything else's value is quantified.
“Back in 2007, there were only 13 rhinos killed in the whole year, and last year there were 668 rhinos killed – that’s over a 3,000 percent increase. So we’ve seen rocketing demand and a massive increase in poaching as well,” explained Heather Sohl, chief adviser for species at the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in the UK. As a result, in 2011 alone, two rhino subspecies – the Western black rhino in Africa and the Javan rhinoceros of Vietnam – were declared extinct.
But the effects of this growing crisis stretch far further than diminishing animal populations. It also poses serious threats to human rights and even national security. “It’s not just about the species populations that are affected and depleted by illegal ivory trade, it has connections to terrorism,” Sohl explained.
Recently, the UN Security Council called for an investigation into claims that illegal ivory trade has been used to fund the Joseph Kony-led Lord’s Resistance Army, which is believed to be responsible for the murder and displacement of millions throughout Africa.
Soaring demand and increased market value has altered the face of poaching in recent years. While rhinos and elephants were typically killed by impoverished locals using cheap firearms, nowadays criminal networks employ well-equipped and highly-trained triggermen to kill the animals on a wider scale. As a result, the past decade has seen an explosion in violence, as African park guards and private security firms wage a long-fought, bloody war with poachers.
As the violence continues and species numbers shrink, experts have been scrambling to come up with a viable solution to the problem. In the lead-up to this week’s summit in Bangkok, conservation groups like the WWF have called for increased regulation and more severe penalties for powerful criminal organisations.
“We’ve seen such a boom in illegal rhino trade because what we’re effectively talking about here is a high-profit, low-risk business,” Solh explains. “This isn’t just a local person deciding to kill an animal for a small profit, these are large organised criminal networks, and they see this as something that they’re not going to be caught for. And if they are caught, quite often there’s such rife corruption in these countries that they're able to provide a bribe and get off on bail."
Early signs from this week’s summit in Bangkok have been encouraging, according to Sohl. The Prime Minister of Thailand, currently one of the key areas where illegal ivory is laundered into products bound for the Chinese market, pledged to outlaw its domestic ivory trade in what Sohl described as a “major victory”.
Yet others remain doubtful about whether increased regulation and harsher punishments will be the key to turning the tide in the conservation crisis. For example, while activists rejoiced over the unprecedented 40-year prison sentence handed down by a South African court for wildlife crimes last November, it has since done little to curtail the number of rhinos killed in the region.
Other less sunny, though arguably more pragmatic options – like establishing special rhino and elephant farms to satisfy the ever-growing consumer demand in Asia, or even culling populations in certain regions to create more sustainable environments for species to thrive – have largely been rejected by conservation organisations. No matter how sustainable the environment might be, the prospect of thousands more hornless rhinos and massacred elephants is never going to get anyone who devotes their life to saving animals onside.
But whatever happens at this week’s summit, it’s clear that world leaders need to rethink current strategies before this crisis deepens any further. With species of tiger, rhinos, elephants and various other creatures falling to mere thousands, there’s little room for error.
Follow Ronan on Twitter: @RonanOKelly
More stuff about how humans are ruining the animal kingdom: