By John G. Robinson
The illegal wildlife trade is big business. Not including the illegal trade in timber, it exceeds $19 billion annually. The trade is heavily capitalized and is part of the same criminal networks that are involved in drugs, weapons, and human trafficking.
The impacts on wildlife populations – including elephants, tigers, and fish species – are widely known. We are losing 35,000 African elephants a year. Tiger populations have been extirpated from Vietnam and Cambodia.
Yet the effect on human livelihoods, community integrity, income-generating jobs, sustainable development, and national economies is equally pervasive.
The illegal wildlife trade affects individuals directly. Trafficking networks often contract local people to poach. Even when poachers are from outside the community, local people are conscripted to help provide food, accommodation, information, and to act as guides. This incentivizes people to drop out of the formal economy and enter the illegal underground economy.
At the same time, this trade harms local people that depend on wildlife and fish for food. Rural people in the forests of tropical Africa consume over a million metric tons of wild meat annually. Roughly a billion people around the world who rely on fish as a primary protein source are threatened by illegal fishing that largely benefits consumers in wealthy countries.
The illegal wildlife trade also undercuts the livelihoods of many local peoples whose occupations depend on the presence of wildlife. Trophy hunting, for example, can provide jobs, cash, and development incentives for rural communities in Africa. Wildlife tourism provides employment in hotels and lodges, transportation, tours, and cultural performances.
The illegal wildlife trade further corrupts the local and national institutions that seek to manage natural ecosystems, and the jobs in these institutions – as community leaders, government officials, police, ecoguards, and park staff – can be vulnerable.
Finally, the illegal wildlife trade robs nations of their wealth. According to the United Nations World Tourism Organization, wildlife tourism represents 80 percent of the total annual sales of trips to Africa, with wildlife-viewing safaris the most popular product. In Kenya and Tanzania for example, wildlife-based tourism accounts for some 12 percent and 17 percent of GDP respectively.
These challenges illustrate how this trade directly affects the employment of individuals, and livelihoods and jobs at community and national levels. The trade is a direct challenge to the economic, social, and environmental pillars embedded in the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals.
How is the global community responding to this human dimension to the illegal wildlife trade? The United Nations system and Member States – through the key Conventions and Treaties, the work of the United Nations Commissions, and recent Security Council resolutions – are coordinating a global response.
The U.N. Sustainable Development Goals argue for taking urgent and significant action to reduce degradation of natural habitat, halt the loss of biodiversity, and protect and prevent the extinction of threatened species by 2020. They likewise call for urgent action to end poaching and trafficking of protected species of flora and fauna and address both demand and supply of illegal wildlife products.
Just last week, the global community came together for a conference in Kasane, Botswana. Building on momentum from the previous year, African countries in Botswana called for eradicating the market for illegal wildlife products; ensuring effective legal frameworks and deterrents; strengthening law enforcement; and promoting sustainable livelihoods and economic development.
To maintain the momentum of these efforts we must remember that the wildlife trafficking crisis is also a human crisis. With that in mind, the international community must continue to act with extreme urgency and political muscle to stem the illegal wildlife trade and the devastating impact it is having on the economic, social, and ecosystem fabric of so many countries across the globe.
John G. Robinson is Executive Vice President for Conservation and Science at WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society). Follow John on Twitter at: @wildcons.