Monday, February 15, 2010

Wildlife: Illegal $20 bn wildlife trade, the world’s third largest illicit business

By Babukar Kashka Kind permission of IDN-InDepth NewsAnalysis

NAIROBI (IDN) - With an estimated value of up to 20 billion dollars a year, the booming illegal trade in wildlife, which is vital to the whole system of life including human life, is reported to be the world’s third largest illicit business after arms and drugs.

This shocking data comes from international bodies such as Interpol, the Nairobi-based UN Environment Program (UNEP) and the Geneva-based Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

Examples of this trade are that some 40,000 monkeys and other primates are shipped across international borders each year, as are 2 to 5 million live birds, 2 to 3 million live reptiles, and 10 to 25 million reptile skins, according to CITES.

The wildlife trade also includes 500 to 600 million ornamental fish, 1,000 to 2,000 tonnes of corals, 7 to 8 million cacti and 9 to10 million orchids, and many other products.

What is all such a gigantic volume of wildlife sales for?

The answer comes from CITES, which reports that all the above species and others are bought for a great variety of uses from pets to medicine, from food to fashion, from ornaments to scientific research.

Much of this trade is from developing countries, which contain most of the world’s biodiversity, to developed ones, which provide the demand. The United States is even the biggest market for traditional Chinese medicines made from wild species.

The wildlife trade is driving many species towards extinction.


High fashion is driving the rare Tibetan antelope rapidly towards extinction. Its wool provides the gossamer light yet warm ‘shahtoosh’, prized by some of the world’s richest women.

It is so fine that a large shawl -- which can cost up to 15,000 dollars -- can be pulled through a wedding ring. Yet at least three of the antelope are killed to provide the wool for each one.

International trade in the wool has been banned for over 20 years, but demand remains so high that poachers are still gunning down whole herds, often with automatic weapons.

Experts estimate that only about 70,000 of the antelope now remain -- down from over a million around 1900 -- and that 20,000 are being killed every year for their wool.

“These are not shawls, they are shrouds,” says the director of Science for the United States Wildlife Conservation Society, biologist George Schaller.


In less than a quarter of a century, between 1970 and 1994, sub-Saharan Africa lost 95 per cent of its black rhinos, and the wildlife trade was the major reason. Other species, like the Javan and Sumatran rhinos, are also in grave peril.

The prehistoric looking creatures, whose direct ancestors have lived on Earth for 40 million years, are killed for their horns. These have long been used in traditional oriental medicine to cool fever; not as an aphrodisiac, as popularly believed.

The demand for rhino horn increased greatly in the 1970s as young North Yemeni men, prosperous from working in Saudi Arabia during the oil boom, bought daggers with ornamental handles made of it: the price of the horn increased 21 times during the decade.

The trade has been illegal since 1977, but it still continues. Worldwide only 12,000 rhinos -- from five species -- still survive, though the decline in black rhinos has eased in recent years.


Tigers ruled over a vast swathe of the Earth, from Turkey to Indonesia, for a million years. Three of the tiger’s eight subspecies have become extinct since the 1940s and the rest are endangered.

Overhunting and the loss of its habitat have both done much to reduce it to this state. But the most immediate threat to its survival now comes from poaching.

Over the past 1,000 years almost every part of the tiger has been used in traditional Chinese medicine; now just its bones are used -- to treat rheumatism -- but this is sufficient to fuel a large illegal trade.


The Chinese ‘happy tree’, which produces a chemical used to treat cancer, is in a sorry condition: less than 4,000 survive in the wild.

The devil’s claw, a southern African medicinal plant -- used in drugs to treat arteriosclerosis, diabetes, hepatitis and other complaints -- is under pressure from overharvesting.

And the European herb, spring Adonis used in homeopathy and folk medicine, is also under threat.

Around 80 per cent of the estimated 1,000 medicinal plants in the Himalayan region of Lahaul-Spiti have been severely depleted over the last decade to meet the increasing demands of the international medical and perfume industries.

Some 20,000 to 30,000 tonnes of European medicinal plants are gathered from the wild each year, and some 150 species are threatened as a result.


Millions of wild birds are caught and traded internationally every year, mainly to be sold as pets. Finches and parrots are the most popular, but, in all a quarter of the world’s known bird species have been recorded in the trade over the past two decades.

Hundreds of thousands die after capture; hundreds of thousands more perish in transit.

Most of the trade is legal, but there is also a large illegal one, often in endangered species, such as salmon-crested cockatoos, Bali starlings, and red siskins; 250,000 birds are estimated to be smuggled into the United States alone every year.

Many, including the hyacinth macaw and the red-and-blue-lory, are endangered as a result, and the trade has helped to wipe out the last wild population of Spix macaws.


Populations of basking sharks -- the world’s second largest sea fish - – have crashed all over the world. Their giant fins, which grow up to 2 metres tall, are in great demand for shark’s fin soup; a single large fin sold for 15,000 dollars last year.

Sturgeon -- which produce caviar -- are also endangered; trade in products from two species of the 250 million year old fish is banned, and it is controlled for the other 25.

And collectors may put in peril even the coelacanth, the 400 million year old “living fossil”, whose discovery, after long being thought extinct, caused international celebration.

Just a reminder: the world now celebrates the International Year of Biodiversity under the slogan “variety of life”. In view of all the above, the term “celebrate” might be no longer adequate.

Published by i On Global Trends - Mike Hitchen Online - news, opinion, analysis
See also Sydney Irresistible and for personal comment, Mike Hitchen Unleashed
Putting principles before profits