UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon says the slaughter and trafficking of endangered species represents a threat to national and regional security. Volker Homes of the WWF explains the dangers facing animals and rangers.
DW: What exactly is wildlife trafficking?
Volker Homes: This means huge animals like elephants and rhinos and even tigers are killed for their parts. From elephants the ivory is taken, from rhinos the horn, and then sold for thousands of US dollars, or euros. With this money, basically, other crimes are financed. This is of particular concern.
Indian animal rights activist Maneka Gandhi recently wrote that animal trafficking has exceeded arms and drug trafficking. She also said there are well organized criminal syndicates shifting into the lucrative animal trade.
This is of particular concern. This is quite recent, so with regard to rhinos, about a decade ago, only about one dozen rhinos had been poached per year. But the number increased dramatically - 700 rhinos are being poached each year. And this is not sustainable, so the species is highly threatened, and if the increase continues, we're looking at local extinction of the species.
How is the money that comes from wildlife trafficking used to purchase weapons and support violent conflict?
What we're facing at this point in time is that in regions like central Africa, there are some states that have problems with poaching. Foreigners are coming in, mainly from the Sahel belt, going into Chad, into Cameroon and Central African Republic, and basically taking the elephants, killing the elephants, taking the ivory, selling the ivory and then buying weapons and other illegal goods with the funds. This is well beyond the environmental sector, so it reached the UN Security Council. I think that tells a story in itself.
Turning wildlife trafficking from an environmental to a global challenge to peace and security represents a major shift. But what are the conditions like for the people who are supposed to be protecting the animals?
The people on the ground are facing these criminal groups and they are scared. People are losing their lives, for example the rangers and the wildlife guards, they are facing death.
This is documented and it's a tragedy. This was happening mainly in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo, and we're facing similar things at the moment in Cameroon, where a new government is ruling the country, but obviously the security situation is not stable at all. And a lot of people are dying as well, because they try to protect wild animals.
What does the hunt for the animals looks like?
What we're facing at the moment is a highly cruel process. In northern Cameroon, about one year ago, about 50 people came in on horseback. They were highly armed and they took more than 300 elephants at the same strike. In one to two months, they took these 300 animals, killed them by AK-47s, took the ivory, left the carcasses in the field. Another strike happened in Chad about one year later, only months back in time, so early 2013. About 86 elephants were taken and killed by machine guns and many of the elephants were pregnant, actually.
Moving forward, where does that ivory go once these rebel groups have it in their hands?
It's not easy to track, of course, because all is illegal. It's illegal to kill the elephants, it's illegal to take the ivory and then sell it. However, this is happening and we know that ivory is sold via different middle men, and then mainly going to the east of the continent, so mainly to Kenya, to Tanzania and to Mozambique. From there, it's mainly shipped to east and southeast Asia. There are various stations in these shipping lanes. The Philippines play a role, Vietnam plays a role as middle men, and most of the ivory is ending up in China.
What action can be taken? What is the next best step?
We have to make sure that there is implementation on the ground, so we need more rangers, we even need more military to protect World Heritage Sites, to protect the sites where the elephants still are. Otherwise we are facing at least regional extinction of these species.
Volker Homes is the head of species conservation at the WWF.