The extent of illegal wildlife activity has reached epic proportions. It ranks among the top five largest transnational crimes in the world, and threatens species, communities and ultimately, global security.
Teeth, claws and beaks notwithstanding, the word "wildlife" implies some kind of defenselessness in a world driven by the human hand. With illicit activity involving animals at an all time high, that implication has never been more loaded. More species are now at the mercy of criminals that will offer them none.
Gone are the days when a sole poacher might kill an elephant to line his own pocket. In this globalized age, well-organized syndicates are the ones choreographing the wholesale slaughter of some of the most prized creatures to walk the planet.
According to WWF there are only 3,200 tigers left in the wild, tens of thousands of elephants are killed each year, and rhino poaching in South Africa increased 5,000 percent between 2007 and 2012.
Vietnam goes wild for rhino horn
One of the leading recipient countries for rhino horn is Vietnam, where it has acquired such currency as a cure for numerous ailments, including cancer, that people are buying it as an investment. It has also recently been marketed as trendy tonic.
"It is being used to detox after a night of heavy drinking," Volker Homes, species protection expert at WWF in Berlin said. "Many engaged in that practice are wealthy and educated, and understand that animals are dying."
But that comprehension does not stop them from supporting a deadly industry. Neither, apparently do awareness campaigns featuring the pleading eyes of creatures at risk.
Indeed, Richard Thomas, spokesman for Traffic, the wildlife trade monitoring network, told Global Ideas it can prove counterproductive to try and get consumers to change their behavior by using images of animals to tug at their heartstrings.
"We found some users in Vietnam were impressed by the pictures of rhinos, so much so that they wanted to own a piece of the remarkable looking animals they were being shown." he said. "They basically want to show off their new found wealth to their friends."
A more expansive approach
He advocates a different approach to tackling the problem of wildlife crime, one that acknowledges the length and breadth of its devastating reach.
"This is not just of interest to environment ministries worldwide," he said. "It is an issue that has to be taken seriously right across the board."
For it is not only the natural world that suffers at the hands of the illicit wildlife trade, but individuals, communities and societies. Never before, for example, has being a park ranger been deemed such a dangerous job.
The Thin Green Line Foundation says 1000 park rangers have been killed worldwide over the past ten years. Eighty percent, it estimates, by commercial poachers and armed militia groups.
That leaves a heavy emotional and economic burden on the families of the deceased, but is by no means the extent of the human damage incurred along illegal trade routes. Andrea Crostas, Executive Director of Elephant Action League and founder of WildLeaks says Kenya's collapsing tourist industry is a direct result of increasingly dangerous conditions and dwindling animal stock in the wild.
The power of money
He is also aware of numerous incidences in which poor people are seduced into poaching circles on the promise of overnight wealth.
"It is very difficult to resist the fact that a couple of elephant tusks can earn someone four years worth of salary they would otherwise not have," he said. "But that one bad decision can leave young people in jail or dead."
Estimated to be worth some ten billion dollars, illicit wildlife activity is linked to the drug trade, corruption and even terrorism, which at the top end of the chain, impacts national and international security. As unlikely as it might seem, a simple sea mollusk can contribute to the destabilization of society.
"Abalone is fished in South Africa and exchanged for crystal meth before being trafficked to Hong Kong where the trade is controlled by triads," Richard Thomas said. "From Hong Kong it is distributed into mainland China."
And that is not the only correlation between different types of crime. Referring to a wildlife crime leak Crostas said he became aware of a key figure in Mozambique who has port workers on his payroll.
"These people are being used to smuggle ivory, but also drugs and weapons," he said. "They could smuggle a bomb that ends up in Hong Kong or New York."
Where to from here?
Conservationists say saving species such as elephants, tigers and rhinos has become a veritable race against time and that law enforcement is imperative to efforts to win.
"People operating in this field know that if they get caught, they will probably get away with it by bribing someone," Homes said. "Because wildlife crime often occurs in countries that are not very stable politically, perpetrators are likely to get away with a small fine."
If that. As things stand, existing bans on animal products such as ivory and rhino horn are too easily ignored and legal loopholes offer syndicates an opening for their smuggled goods.
WWF is running a campaign under the slogan "make wildlife crime a serious crime," and calling for punishment commensurate with the severity of the crimes being committed. But that requires a concerted and combined effort from governments in supplier, middle-men, and recipient countries, which will take time.
Pangolins are killed for their meat and the keratin in their scales, and are at increased threat as a result of the illegal trafficking
Crostas goes further. He says it is time to draw a line under industries such as ivory, and is calling on China, which is regarded as the largest importer of smuggled tusks, in particular to do the right thing.
"The Chinese President could decide it is a small industry in which just a few people, mostly criminals, are getting rich and decide to phase it out," he said. "He has the power to do that."