The illegal wildlife trade is an industry worth $10 billion a year, making it the world’s fifth-largest illicit market behind drugs, counterfeit products, trafficked people and smuggled oil.
Tiger bones, penises, deer musk, paws and bile of the Asiatic bear and rhino horn have a huge market due to their so called ‘medicinal’ properties. Tiger bones are used to treat rheumatism and arthritis, as well as limb spasms and lower back pain. Rhino horn is used to treat fever, convulsions, and haemorrhagic conditions. It is also popularly used to relieve dizziness, build energy, nourish the blood, and cure laryngitis. Rumours have circulated in Vietnam that rhino horn had cured a VIP of terminal liver cancer. Bear bile is used to treat fevers and inflammation, liver disorders, convulsions and spasms, ophthalmological disorders, and various other conditions. The trade and value in ivory is aesthetic and along with rhino horn and tiger skins are providing the Asian market with items to show off their wealth.
TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network, has stated that the value of rhino horn has reached $60,000, beating the price of gold per kilogram. Compared to cocaine, a bear’s gall bladder will fetch six times the amount the drug would sell for. It seems that Japan are prepared to pay the most for bear products.
In February 2014, 41 countries, including China and Japan, and the European Union signed a declaration against trade in illegal wildlife products. The illegal wildlife trade is the biggest threat to wildlife after habitat destruction.
Why is illegal and legal wildlife trade a problem?
The following is found on the WWF website.
Overexploitation should concern us all…
- …because it harms human livelihoods.
Wildlife is vital to the lives of a high proportion of the world’s population, often the poorest. Some rural households depend on local wild animals for their meat protein and on local trees for fuel, and both wild animals and plants provide components of traditional medicines used by the majority of people in the world. While many people in developed countries are cushioned from any effects caused by a reduced supply of a particular household item, many people in the developing world depend entirely on the continued availability of local wildlife resources.
- …because it harms the balance of nature.
In addition to the impact on human livelihoods caused by the over-harvesting of animals and plants is the harm caused by overexploitation of species to the living planet in a wider way. For example, overfishing does not only affect individual fishing communities and threaten certain fish species, but causes imbalances in the whole marine system. As human life depends on the existence of a functioning planet Earth, careful and thoughtful use of wildlife species and their habitats is required to avoid not only extinctions, but serious disturbances to the complex web of life.
Particular problems are associated with illegal wildlife trade, which is usually driven by a demand for rare, protected species which need to be smuggled and/or by a desire to avoid paying duties. In illegal wildlife trade, some species involved are highly endangered, conditions of transport for live animals are likely to be worse and wildlife is more likely to have been obtained in an environmentally damaging way. The existence of illegal trade is also worrying because it undermines countries’ efforts to protect their natural resources.
Wildlife trade can also cause indirect harm through:
- Introducing invasive species which then prey on, or compete with, native species. Invasive species are as big a threat to the balance of nature as the direct overexploitation by humans of some species. Many invasive species have been purposely introduced by wildlife traders; examples include the American Mink, the Red-eared Terrapin and countless plant species.
- Incidental killing of non-target species, such as dolphins and seabirds, when they are caught in fishing gear. It is estimated that over a quarter of the global marine fisheries catch is incidental, unwanted, and discarded. Incidental killing of animals also happens on land when crude traps are set (for example, for musk deer or duikers). These cause damage and death to a variety of animals besides the intended ones.
Finally…while wildlife trade alone is a major threat to some species, it is important to remember that its impact is frequently made worse byhabitat loss and other pressures.
The price of animal parts will only increase as supplies dwindle. The question is, will the demand increase? The trade has bloomed from a conservation issue into a security threat for many countries as militant and insurgent groups sweep across the world claiming wildlife parts.