Breaking the gridlock on the global wildlife crime crisis

Poaching not only takes a toll on animals, but bears a terrible human cost as well.

Africa's western black rhino has been hunted to extinction by poachers seeking ivory [AP]

Wildlife crime not only destroys our vital natural heritage, but it is also a crime against the stability and prosperity of nations and a crime that puts human lives at risk. Elephants and rhinos are targeted in Africa, but their tusks and horns are bought across the world. This means that countries on both ends of the market must get serious about tackling wildlife poaching and illegal trade, for the good of their economies and natural wealth alike.

Poachers and illegal traders in endangered wildlife products are fast robbing us all of our most iconic animals. As many as 30,000 African elephants have been killed in the past year alone – slaughtered to fuel the rampant illegal ivory trade in markets where ivory is coveted for trinkets and status symbols. Rhinos, too, are under unprecedented pressure. Among the world’s most endangered species, they are brutally killed for their horns, which are traded for use in medicines in far-off lands. Last year a record 668 South African rhinos were killed by poachers.

This is tragic but wildlife crime is actually about much more than wildlife.

The illegal international trade in ivory and other wildlife products is organised crime on a massive scale, pulling in up to $10 billion every year. Violent gangs armed with AK-47s raid Africa’s forests, are threatening communities, undermining local economies, and destabilising governments.

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Criminal syndicates, drug traffickers, armed militant groups and terrorist organisations use profits from illicit wildlife trafficking to acquire arms, finance operations and threaten national and regional security.

The direct human cost of this ongoing tragedy is devastating. Estimates say that more than 1,000 rangers were killed in action in the last decade, though the true figure is likely to be much higher. More than 150 rangers have been killed defending the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Virunga national park alone, and many more have been left permanently disabled. Attacks can be vicious – some involving unspeakable cruelty.

Tackling illicit wildlife trafficking is essential, if Africa is to sustain the promising economic growth of recent years.

In Kenya, the Head of the National Economic and Social Council has said that the country should declare wildlife poaching and trade in ivory and rhino horns a national crisis – a profound threat to Kenya’s tourism sector, which contributes 12 percent of the country’s gross domestic product.

Just a few weeks ago, there were demonstrations on the streets of Mombasa against the damaging economic impact of wildlife crime on tourism business. The people demanded much tougher penalties for poachers, and pleaded consumer countries in Asia to put an end to demand for wildlife products.

President Bongo Ondimba of Gabon has put himself and his country in the spotlight on this issue. Last summer, he set fire to five tonnes of illegally obtained ivory, representing about 850 slaughtered elephants. This powerful message to poachers and peddlers in the international ivory trade made the point that Gabon would resist wildlife crime in the strongest terms, and would fight to protect its elephants.

Pundits speak of this as the “African century”, and say ours is an era of “Africa rising” – and so it should and can be. But wildlife crime is a major obstacle on that path. Depleting countries of their abundantly rich and yet finite natural heritage is a tragedy of the first degree.

There is an urgent need to scale up enforcement, policing and prosecutions, and the criminal justice response must match the severity of the crimes. Paltry fines will never deter criminals who are bringing in millions through illicit crime rings. Action from the highest levels of government is essential in shining a light on the gravity of the issue, bringing perpetrators to account, and making sure that they are quickly and severely punished.

But the slaughter of our iconic wildlife to supply the ivory and rhino horn trade is just one side of the equation. We also urge key players on the other side – the governments and civil societies in countries where wildlife products are used and consumed – to step up and play their part to stop the apparently insatiable demand, before it is too late.

Jim Leape is the Director General for the World Wide Fund for Nature.

Donald Kaberuka is the President of the African Development Bank.