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Trading the Endangered

Prepared by: Toni Johnson
August 22, 2007

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In August, poachers killed two one-horned rhinos in India’s Kaziranga National Park. The park is home to more than half of the world's three thousand remaining one-horned rhinos, and at least twelve have been killed (AFP) so far this year, the highest death count in a decade. Rhino horns—used in traditional Chinese medicine—fetch as much as thirty-seven thousand dollars on the international market. Around the same time as the rhino killings, China seized twenty-seven pelts (AP) of the endangered snow leopard, whose current population is estimated at less than seven thousand worldwide. The pelts are worth up to $1200 each. Elizabeth Bennett of the Wildlife Conservation Society contends that due to globalization, meat, fur, skins, and other animal parts “are sold on an increasingly massive scale across the world” (Newsweek Int'l).

Considered second only to the illegal drug trade as far as black market activities go, the illegal wildlife trade earns an estimated $20 billion globally each year. Much, though not all, deals in protected species (National Geographic). “Trade has been the foremost factor in the decimation of scores of species ranging from tigers to cod,” notes one Kenyan wildlife official tells the Guardian. Worldwide, law enforcement agencies are trying to keep up. New high-tech methods are being employed to catch wildlife criminals, including DNA testing, an international database (Reuters), and electronic trail monitors (Economist). Willem Wijnstekers, who heads the coordinating organization for the UN Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), said that despite law enforcement successes in recent years, “a much higher priority” must be given “to bringing wildlife criminals to justice.”

Enforcement efforts face recent setbacks. A four-person Scotland Yard unit has seized more than thirty thousand (Guardian) endangered species products in the past ten years, but the unit may be cut in half due to budget restraints. Anti-poaching measures and a ban on ivory sales have allowed African elephant populations to rebound from historic lows. Ivory prices have recently tripled (McClatchy) due to demand from Asian markets, however, so poachers are once again targeting Africa’s elephants. The International Fund for Animal Welfare, an advocacy group, notes the Internet has allowed “unscrupulous traders and sophisticated criminal gangs” access to new opportunities.

Not everyone agrees with current trade bans. Pro-trade groups increasingly contend trading can be sustainable, attacking the UN agency’s precautionary principles. In China, tiger farmers are lobbying to lift a ban (NPR) on tiger parts, arguing it would “lower the profitability of poaching”—though activists contend commercial breeding has no effect on conservation. Some southern African states want ivory trade regulations relaxed (CSMonitor) so that ivory from animals that have died of natural causes can be supplied to “lucrative Asian markets.” However, CITES authorities agreed to extend the ivory ban another nine years—after a one-time sale of ivory “stockpiles” to Japan. For several years, Japan—asserting that not all whales belong on the endangered species list—has attempted to loosen restrictions (Scotsman) on whaling but has been rebuffed by international authorities.

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