Wildlife Trafficking: The Heartbreaking and Highly Profitable World

It’s a $10 billion-a-year business with no end in sight.

lioness and cub, Ngorongoro Conservation Area in Tanzania
Safe for now. A Lioness with her cub at the Ngorongoro Conservation Area in Tanzania. (DEA / P. JACCOD/ Getty)
A former Gourmet staffer, Lawrence enjoys writing about design, food, travel, and lots of other stuff.

Tourism is big business in Africa. In Tanzania alone, the “tourism sector earned $1.471 billion in the year to June, making it the second biggest source of foreign currency after gold,” says Reuters. “Tanzania’s sweeping savanna plains in the shadow of Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa's highest peak, teem with wildlife, drawing tourists who pay hundreds of dollars a night to stay in luxury tented camps.”

Unfortunately, trading in animals is also big business and yesterday Reuters reported that, “Tanzania has sacked the most senior official responsible for managing its wildlife and two others over the illegal export of more than 100 live animals and birds from the east African nation's game parks, local media reported on Tuesday.”

And this is not a new problem for the country. “Members of parliament last year accused senior wildlife officials of smuggling giraffes, impalas, gazelles, hornbills, vultures and other rare wildlife out of the country.”

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But this is also a worldwide dilemma. In 2009, Smithsonian said, “Wildlife trafficking is thought to be the third most valuable illicit commerce in the world, after drugs and weapons, worth an estimated $10 billion a year, according to the U.S. State Department. Birds are the most common contraband; the State Department estimates that two million to five million wild birds, from hummingbirds to parrots to harpy eagles, are traded illegally worldwide every year. Millions of turtles, crocodiles, snakes and other reptiles are also trafficked, as well as mammals and insects.”

In addition to the problems in Africa, “Latin America is vulnerable to wildlife trafficking because of its extraordinary biodiversity. Ecuador—about the size of Colorado—has about 1,600 species of birds; the entire continental United States has about 900. Accurate data about the illegal trade in animals and plants are hard to come by. Brazil is the Latin American nation with the most comprehensive information; its Institute of Environment and Natural Resources cites estimates that at least 12 million wild animals are poached there each year.”

The Coalition Against Wildlife Trafficking (CAWT) adds, that “Unchecked demand for exotic pets, rare foods, trophies and traditional medicines is driving many species to the brink of extinction . . . The illegal wildlife trade is often linked to organized crime and involves many of the same culprits and smuggling routes as trafficking in arms, drugs, and persons.”

And then there’s problem of many at-risk animals showing up on U.S. menus. Discovery reported yesterday that in addition to the risk to fish and seafood species that you’ve probably read about (such as Chilean sea bass and sturgeon), some chefs persist in coming up with stuff like lion burgers.

Yep, your read that right. “Lion meat has shown up on menus from California to Kansas. And even though lion burgers often spark outrage among the public, it’s not illegal for chefs to buy, cook, or sell the meat.”

Discovery also noted that, “Many species of turtles and tortoises, both freshwater and sea-dwelling, are listed as endangered or critically endangered around the world. But that doesn’t stop illegal turtle eggs and meat from showing up in Asian food stores and on menus in the southern U.S. and in tropical regions.”

What can be done about all of this? CAWT has some suggestions:

“Improve Wildlife Law Enforcement by expanding enforcement training and information sharing and strengthening regional cooperative networks.”

“Reduce consumer demand for illegally traded wildlife by raising awareness of the impacts of illegal wildlife trade on biodiversity and the environment, livelihoods, and human health; its links to organized crime; and the availability of sustainable alternatives.”

“Catalyze high-level political will to fight wildlife trafficking by broadening support at the highest political levels for actions to combat the illegal trade in wildlife.”

Were you aware that animal trafficking was such big business? Aside from the suggestions provided by CAWT, what else can be done to stop this illegal trade?

Lawrence Karol is a writer and editor who lives with his dog, Mike. He is a former Gourmet staffer and enjoys writing about design, food, travel and lots of other stuff. @WriteEditDream | Email Lawrence | TakePart.com

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