Wildlife Trafficking: Causes and Consequences

Words by Calum Kirk, edited by Adam Curry

Tonight’s SciBar was a dive into the murky and sadly, all too common, world of wildlife trafficking, expertly guided by Tanya Wyatt, Professor of Criminology at Northumbria University. On the 19th of February, Professor Wyatt gave us an overview of the breadth of wildlife trafficking, ranging from the causes for participation, through to the environmental consequences. The audience soon discovered that this is a complex topic with no single cause or solution, but one that requires dedicated research.

Professor Wyatt started by explaining that “wildlife trafficking” ─ the illegal trading of plants and animals ─ is a huge obstacle, and currently, one of the world’s biggest challenges. The wildlife trafficking industry is worth upwards of £20 billion per annum and is the fourth largest criminal activity in the world. Since the issue spans borders, tackling it requires inter-government cooperation. Thankfully, there are a plethora of regulations and agreements in place which do just this. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (or CITES for short, which can be found over at https://www.cites.org/) was established in the 1970s and has the potential to combat the illegal trade of wildlife. However, despite this and the large scale of the problem, addressing wildlife trafficking is still a low priority for many governments.

The concept of wildlife trafficking is intriguing. What gives people the desire to smuggle animals and plants across hundreds of miles, or pay for the privilege? Your first thought might be economics; with people seeing an exploitable resource and trying to make a living from it. But often the answer is not so simple. In many instances’ traffickers are fulfilling a demand from other sections of society. In some cases, rich clients are willing to pay to own an exotic pet or merely display a trophy.

Cultural reasons for trafficking also extend to the trade in traditional medicines, with “cures” being sold for a multitude of reasons. For example, current projections estimate that the black rhino will be extinct 2050, simply because their horns are used as a treatment for arthritis as well as a purported hangover cure.

While some instances of trafficking are relatively small scale, there are also examples of organised crime operations such as the sale of ivory. Professor Wyatt outlined one of her own experiences through her research of Russian black markets and the trade of live falcons. She thankfully spared us too many upsetting details but did elaborate on the cruel methods which involve catching the falcons, drugging them (or worse!) and putting them in tubes for transportation.

While the consequences of trafficking are as numerous as their causes, Professor Wyatt focussed on three main areas; loss of biodiversity, invasive species and disease transmission. The term ‘biodiversity’ refers simply to the number of different species in an ecosystem. However, the removal of species via trafficking not only impacts the target species but it also has a knock-on effect to the other species in that ecosystem. Professor Wyatt used the example of insect-eating pangolins. They’re the single most trafficked animal in the world, and the loss of pangolins would likely lead to a rise in insect numbers. An increase in insects would have untold effects on the environment and agriculture, directly impacting human activities.

Similarly, the introduction of foreign or invasive species can be just as disruptive. The accidental release of exotic pets from the illegal pet trade is one way that new species can enter an ecosystem. In several cases, these species have managed to outcompete native inhabitants. From Burmese pythons escaping into the Florida everglades, to parakeets into the south of Britain. Escape of these animals into the surrounding environment often disrupts the unprepared ecosystems.

Changes to an ecosystem from new animals can be surprisingly varied. To highlight this, Professor Wyatt used the example of the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone National Park (USA). After several decades of absence, the returned wolves hunted such a significant proportion of the deer population that consequently, more trees grew. This increased abundance of trees, led to more beavers building dams, which in turn changed the course of some rivers ─ a substantial impact!  While a change in species may not always be so dramatic, this example certainly highlights the unknown consequences different species may have on an ecosystem.

Arguably, the ecological consequences of biodiversity loss and invasive species are easy to ignore due to minimal human impact. However, trafficked wildlife may also bring diseases and parasites, which can have a direct effect on human health. Animals or animal parts trafficked for food can lead to outbreaks of disease, just like a SARS outbreak in Toronto (2003), which was traced back to consumption of a civet cat.

Despite the challenges, there is hope. Britain, amongst others, is very involved in the conversation around trafficking. London hosted the International Illegal Wildlife Trade conference and is further helping to ban traded items. In the last few years, for example, all ivory items are now banned, not just their import. Organisations combating wildlife trafficking include: United for Wildlife (https://www.unitedforwildlife.org/) and TRAFFIC [https://www.traffic.org]. If you want to do more to support the effort to end wildlife trafficking, then supporting these organisations are an excellent way to start.

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