Wildlife Crime Has a Very Real Human Toll
As the drama and social media outcry surrounding Cecil the lion fades, it’s worth considering the significance of the outrage…and the outrage against the outrage. The dizzying backlash overshadows a vital connection that goes far beyond one mediagenic predator. After all, why should one dead lion matter so much in the face of a world rife with human suffering?
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The answer is that we should care about animals both for their intrinsic value and because we care about people. Animals such as tigers, elephants, rhinos, countless birds, sharks, and reptiles are disappearing because humans are destroying a natural order that very much affects the health not only of wildlife but of humanity itself. Consider that a recent World Wildlife Fund report found wildlife populations of vertebrate species—mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and fish—have declined by 52 percent over the last 40 years. Yet despite all the warnings, we seem to be mired in a state of political and societal indifference. Animals like Cecil are important because they are a symbol, a symbol that something is out of balance in the way we view and care for our planet.
The illicit trade of threatened and endangered species partially fuels illegal activities such as drug and human trafficking, and it provides income for groups such as Boko Haram, the Lord's Resistance Army, and other terrorist organizations. While these issues make news, there is often a sense in the United States that these are faraway problems. But the U.S. plays a significant role in the global wildlife trade and is a primary destination for wildlife and wildlife products from legal and illegal sources. For what purpose, you might ask? Animals such as elephants, rhinos, and tigers are slaughtered for trinkets, trophies, or medicinal remedies that have no therapeutic or curative value. Wildlife crime is estimated to be the fourth-largest transnational criminal activity after trafficking in drugs, counterfeit goods, and people.
The animals that we think of as the poster children for extinction are worth far more alive than dead. Whole communities, regions, and countries depend on them for their survival. Economically speaking, no animals equals no tourism, no hotels, no tour guides, no rangers...and the list goes on. But animals should be more than just dollar signs—they are guardians of entire ecosystems. Elephants are gardeners of the forest, charged with spreading plant seeds along their migration; rhinos clear paths in dense foliage; and predators like lions, tigers, and wolves keep animal populations in balance, with the added benefit of preventing animals from overusing and destroying rivers, lakes, and watering holes. In the same way the absence of animals makes the environment (and the communities within them) more impoverished, their presence offers virtually endless benefits.
Knowing this, the question becomes one of how to act and implement solutions. Jacques Cousteau once said that to build environmental sustainability, one must build human sustainability. Nowhere is this more evident than in Nepal, where we recently embarked on a trip in partnership with the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation and the World Wildlife Fund.
Nepal, the only country in the world with zero poaching, is a bright spot in the seemingly endless cycle of bad news around the poaching crisis. In the lowland region called the Terai, aggressive federal law enforcement combined with grassroots community engagement have led to solutions. During our expedition, we watched local youth antipoaching brigades talk about their work. NGOs have invested in local education and infrastructure development to create economic opportunities tied to the long-term health of wildlife. From facilitating the creation of small-scale tourism infrastructure to supporting biogas facilities that recycle animal manure and human waste to produce clean-burning methane gas, these investments have dramatically transformed Nepalese communities. These efforts are empowering the local populations to feel like they have a stake in conservation. The results speak for themselves. We invite you to see some of the transformative stories in our online series "Treasures of the Terai" at TakePart.
As animal populations suffer and decline, so do we. Public outpouring of support and compassion for one lion or for wildlife in general doesn’t mean society is turning its back on human suffering. Let’s hope it means there is a growing realization that the system is suffering and the health of animals, our natural environment, and the future of our species are inextricably linked.