Poaching and illegal wildlife trade pose the greatest threats to some of the Earth’s most charismatic, valuable and ecologically important species. Recent months have seen a dramatic upsurge in poaching and illegal trade of high-value wildlife products. Over 430 rhinos have been killed just this year in South Africa. Tens of thousands of elephants are killed annually for their ivory. There are as few as 3,200 tigers now left in the wild.
And most of this booty is hauled to Asia – for status symbols, tourist trinkets, or supposed medicinal cures.
Illegal wildlife trade also leads directly to human injury and death. It is estimated that well over 1,000 wildlife park rangers have been killed by commercial poachers and armed militia groups in the last 10 years alone. The number of poachers killed is unknown but likely to be much higher. Yet the criminal syndicates at the heart of this trade are rarely caught, and even more rarely prosecuted.
The rangers on the front line of this fight are the protectors of iconic species. Protectors of animals that take our breath away with their beauty, their power and their dignity – that form a vital part of the vast and complex web of life to which we all belong. They represent our natural heritage and a valuable resource for governments and communities, and without them we would be poor indeed.
WWF was founded on the desire to give such incredible animals a chance at survival – for their own sake, and for the sake of life itself. There is so much that hangs on the survival of tigers and rhinos – economies and societies are inextricably linked to them.
But there is hope that we can save them from this poaching and trade crisis – and two recent encounters have given me fresh cause to be optimistic that humanity can and will tackle this ugly problem.
Last month WWF awarded its highest honour, the Duke of Edinburgh Conservation Medal, to 36-year-old Israeli wildlife crime whistleblower and activist, Ofir Drori, recognising his vision and courage in shedding light on this issue and bringing perpetrators to justice.
When you hear Ofir speak, you cannot help but be deeply touched by the fire in his eyes, by his conviction and passion. Ofir risks his life in his efforts to take down the leaders of the syndicates that are making vast profits from this destabilising organised crime. Seven months after Ofir’s arrival in Central Africa, the small group of local activist volunteers that he established, called The Last Great Ape Organization (LAGA), brought about the first ever wildlife prosecution for the whole of West and Central Africa. Today, LAGA’s work with the Government of Cameroon has put more than 450 traffickers behind bars.
And it is not just dedicated activists like Ofir who are recognising the severity of the problem. In our work with Donald Kaberuka, President of the African Development Bank, I’ve been struck by his fierce determination to galvanize action on illegal wildlife trade. Formerly finance minister in Rwanda, he knows first-hand that the heavily armed bands of poachers who are massacring elephants and rhinos across the continent are a threat not just to wildlife but to national economies and national security. Illegal wildlife trade is destabilising societies and jeopardising the reputations of African countries as good places to invest and do business.
In Asia, too, the severity of the problem is being recognised at the highest level. A declaration from the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit in September expressed concern about “the escalating illicit trafficking in endangered and protected wildlife” and its “economic, social, security, and environmental consequences in our economies”. The region’s leaders committed “to strengthen our efforts to combat illegal trade in wildlife”.
Everyone – be they activists or businesspeople, tourists or presidents, can play a part in their own spheres of influence in putting a stop to wildlife poaching and illegal trade. I ask you to do so. We’ve seen too much already – and it could soon be too late.