Greed and Exploitation: The Second Coming of the Illegal Wildlife Trade

The once prolific notion that the possession of the body parts of dead exotic wildlife was a key sign of wealth is largely considered archaic in the western world. The conscious slaughter of species for the sake of trinkets or superstition or prestige is largely believed to be a relic of the colonial empires, not a reality of the 21st century. But, as wealth continues to rise in the East, flora and fauna of foreign lands are again being desecrated to the brink of destruction. And, through the advent of globalisation and new means of instant communication, it is becoming increasingly difficult to intercede with one of the largest criminal trades in the world – wildlife.

Ivory Trade Late 19th Century
Ivory Trade in East Africa boomed during the 1880s and 1890s

Ivory’s Heart of Darkness: Elephants Once More Under Threat

The ivory trade is perhaps the most famous example of the slaughter of animals for the sake of human vanity. Used in jewellery, piano keys, billiard balls and combs; the ivory trade was responsible for the demise of the hippopotamus, walrus, narwhal and (most commonly) the Asian and African elephants. The target of rampant colonial domination, African elephants were among the most affected, with the population declining from 26 million elephants in 1800 to fewer than 500,000 today. At the peak of the ivory trade, in the years leading up to the 20th century, around 800-1000 tonnes of ivory was sent to Europe alone. After two world wars and their subsequent depressions there was a rapid decline in demand for ivory and the elephant population began to slowly recover.


However, the early 1970s saw a resurgence of the trade and Japan was the most dominant market, consuming around 40% of the global trade. This was thanks to Japan being relieved of its WWII trade restrictions and the Japanese now having the income to purchase ivory for traditional necklace pendants. By 1979, the African elephant population was in a critical state and continued to decline from approximately 1.3 million to 600,000 in 1989. Throughout that decade around 75,000 African elephants were killed for the ivory trade each year – this created a revenue stream in the sum of US$1 billion. Of what was traded, around 80% was believed to have been sourced through illegal poaching. This decline led to a worldwide ban on ivory sales. However, despite stricter regulations, the trade remains strong. 25 000 elephants were killed in Africa in 2012 alone and currently African elephant populations only number at approximately 470,000.

Elephant ivory has become a key source of funding for armed groups in areas such as central Africa and there is big money to be made as ivory’s value can rise ten-fold as it moves through the supply chain to its newest and biggest ever market – China. Possessing an intake of around 70% of the ivory supply China’s consumption of ivory continues to grow in spite of regulatory and educational attempts to dissuade buyers. Many have argued that China’s controls are largely weak; recently, an internal Chinese document was leaked that described how 121 tonnes of China’s own store of ivory could not be accounted for, indicating it arrived illegally. This is the equivalent of 11,000 elephants.


Rhinos are being poached to extinction for their horns
Worldwide Rhino populations are being desecrated by poachers who hunt them for their horns which are believed in Asian nations to have medicinal properties. Source: Martin Harvey/WWF

Rhinos and Tigers and More

But the illegal wildlife trade and its impact is by no means limited to the notorious ivory market. According to the World Wildlife Fund, poaching is threatening the last of the wild tigers and rhino poaching increased by 7,700% in South Africa between 2007 and 2013. It is also important to note that not all wildlife trade is illegal, but its impacts are still vast. One of the main drivers of poaching, in spite of international regulation and regional efforts, is the fact that the rarer the species, the higher the price. This is driving the world’s most vulnerable species towards extinction as replenishment rates cannot keep up with consumption. Tigers, one of the most famous and most loved members of the animal kingdom has a wild population at an all-time low. In just over a century we have lost 97% of wild tigers, as few as 3,200 exist today. While this is largely attributable to habitat loss (tigers have lost 93% of their historic range), the illegal wildlife trade is involved in the sale of tiger parts from the tips of their tail to their whiskers. Poaching is considered the most immediate threat to wild tigers as their parts are used in traditional Asian medicines, in folk remedies and, increasingly, as status symbols.

Poaching animals to the point of extinction is not unheard of. Rhinos were once abundant throughout Africa and Asia with a worldwide population of around 500,000 in the early 20th century. But in spite of efforts by conservationists (who are going to such extreme measures as re-locating rhino groups to outback Australia to evade hunters), the poaching of rhinos is only increasing. This trade is largely driven by demand from Asian hubs such as Vietnam where rhino horn is believed to cure illnesses from cancer to bad hangovers. In 2011 the Western Black rhino was declared extinct, with the primary cause being identified as poaching and in November 2015 one of the last remaining Northern White rhinos died, leaving only 3 of her species on the planet – again a symptom of excessive poaching.

Anti-ivory campaign
Anti-ivory campaign. Source: WildAid

Hunters Going Unhunted

Poaching not only affects animal populations, but also local communities who are threatened by violent poaching gangs and whose local ecosystems are being damaged by the rapid loss of species. Efforts are expanding worldwide, particularly in illegal trade hubs such as China, Vietnam and Hong Kong due to international pressure, to stem the flow of illegal wildlife products. However, bans and regulations are not enough to curb demand and supply. The illegal wildlife trade stems from more complex sources than vanity or prestige. Instability, lack of development and extreme poverty are all driving factors for hunters to begin poaching protected species in source nations. Likewise, lack of education and ingrained cultural and societal norms in high demand nations will maintain the market. If we are to save some of the most iconic species on the planet, these are areas which require the most focus.

Cumulative extinction rates. Source: The Conservation
Cumulative vertebrate species recorded as extinct or extinct in the wild by the IUCN (2012). Source: The Conversation

What does the future hold?

However, it is important not to forget that poaching is just one of many causes for the decline in integral wildlife populations. Our planet is experiencing a new wave of species die-offs caused by factors such as habitat loss, the introduction of exotic invader species and rapid changes to our climate. Many are deeming this as the sixth ‘mass extinction’, one on par with the catastrophic decline of the large dinosaurs 65 million years ago. It appears that history is once again repeating itself, that the poaching and hunting of exotic wildlife in the colonial era for the sake of human vanity was a taste of what was to come. Humans are wiping out our fellow species for our desire for three-ply toilet paper; for a personal, air-conditioned vehicle on our transit; for a large, grain-fed beef steak on our dinner plate; for a large, carved elephant tusk on a mantle-piece; or a shark fin in our soup. Poaching is merely a symptom of the much larger issue of human consumption, of the way our behaviours are directly impacting our living planet in ways that are irreparable. The fact of the matter is, even if we stopped all poaching today, we most likely will not save the elephants.

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