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Wed February 12, 2014
World

For Elephants And Rhinos, Poaching Trends Point In Wrong Direction

Originally published on Wed March 5, 2014 2:48 pm

South Africa has a stable government that makes wildlife protection a high priority. But even in that country, there's been a dramatic surge in poaching, particularly for rhinos.

A decade ago, fewer than 100 rhinos were killed in a year. Last year, it was more than 1,000, says Dan Ashe, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

"When you're talking about something that is more valuable than gold, and it is easily accessible, you're going to create the atmosphere where people are going to take advantage of that," he says.

Wildlife conservation groups from around the world are meeting in London this week to search for more effective ways to slow the trade in rhino horns, elephant tusks and other illegal wildlife products.

Britain's Prince Charles and his son Prince William helped convene this symposium, which has taken on added urgency as rhinos and elephants have been slaughtered at higher rates.

One pound of rhino horn now sells for tens of thousands of dollars, and that kind of money attracts poaching gangs that can afford high-tech weapons, silencers and night-vision equipment.

In many cases, the people who traffic these products are the same people who sell illegal drugs, weapons and even humans. But the consequences for selling wildlife products are far less severe, notes Jonathan Baillie, director of conservation programs at the Zoological Society of London.

"If you compare it to things like human trafficking, drugs [or the] arms trade, the illegal wildlife trade isn't seen as a serious crime, so these syndicates are getting away with doing it at a very low risk," Baillie says.

Multiple Proposals

There are many steps to addressing the problem. One approach involves changing laws, to make wildlife poaching a more serious crime.

Another strategy involves giving animals more physical protection on the ground.

A third step is to reduce demand for wildlife products. That trend line is also moving in the wrong direction, says Baillie.

"What we're seeing now is a massive increase in demand. But this isn't really for traditional medicine. This is more [for] the growing middle class or upper class in Asia," says Baillie. "It's being used for things like cancer cures or even mixed with cocaine and snorted. ... All sorts of crazy things that do absolutely nothing for anybody. It's just about status."

The world's leading countries have been slow to respond to this problem, but that's starting to change.

In November, the U.S. pulverized its stockpile of confiscated elephant tusks, dumping tons of ivory into an industrial grinder, where was crushed to splinters. Soon after the U.S. took that step, other countries followed suit.

John Robinson is with the Wildlife Conservation Society.

"The Chinese government recently destroyed six tons of ivory," Robinson says.

Hong Kong, meanwhile, plans to destroy its ivory stockpile of 28 tons over the next two years.

Many people are comparing this struggle to the war on drugs, or on human trafficking.

But there's one important difference. The world can fight the illegal drug trade forever. If the illegal wildlife trade continues, the fight will someday be over, because there will be none left.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And in London this week, experts on tracking wildlife are meeting. They're trying to figure out how to slow the trade in rhino horns, elephant tusks and other illegal wildlife products.

Elsewhere in our program, we'll hear how the U.S. is changing its rules on ivory. First, from London, NPR's Ari Shapiro reports on the challenges conservationist face in protecting wildlife worldwide.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: The trend lines in the wildlife trade are moving in the wrong direction. Take South Africa: compared to some other countries with elephants and rhinos, South Africa has a stable government that makes wildlife protection a high priority. Even so, South Africa has seen a huge jump in poaching - rhinos, especially.

DAN ASHE: Less than 100 per year a decade ago. This last year, 2013, over a thousand.

SHAPIRO: This is Dan Ashe, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He says it's not that South Africa is asleep at the switch. The country is trying hard to protect its wildlife, but the poachers are trying harder.

ASHE: When you're talking about something that is more valuable than gold, and it is easily accessible, you're going to create the atmosphere where people are going to take advantage of that.

SHAPIRO: One pound of rhino horn now sells for tens of thousands of dollars. That kind of money attracts gangs that can afford high-tech weapons, silencers and night-vision equipment. In many cases, the people who traffic these products are the same people who sell illegal drugs, weapons, even humans. But the consequences for selling wildlife products are far less severe. Jonathan Bailey is the director of conservation programs at the Zoological Society of London.

JONATHAN BAILEY: If you compare it to things like human trafficking, drugs and arms trade, illegal wildlife trade isn't seen as a serious crime. And so these syndicates are getting away with doing it at a very low risk.

SHAPIRO: There are many steps to addressing the problem. One approach involves changing laws to make wildlife poaching a more serious crime. Another strategy involves giving animals more physical protection on the ground. A third step is to reduce demand for wildlife products. That trend line is also moving in the wrong direction, says Bailey.

BAILEY: What we're seeing now is a massive increase in demand. But this isn't really for traditional medicine. This is more the growing middle class, or upper class in Asia. And it's being used for things like cancer cures, or even mixed with cocaine and snorted in terms of rhino horn - all sorts of crazy things that do absolutely nothing for anybody. It's just about status.

SHAPIRO: The world's leading countries have been slow to respond to this problem, but that's starting to change.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY)

SHAPIRO: In November, the U.S. pulverized its stockpile of confiscated elephant tusks. This video shows a bulldozer dumping tons of ivory into an industrial grinder, where it's crushed to splinters. Soon after the U.S. took that step, other countries followed suit. John Robinson is with the Wildlife Conservation Society.

JOHN ROBINSON: The Chinese government recently destroyed six tons of ivory. That was followed by a destruction of almost the entire ivory stockpile in Hong Kong, which was, I think, about 25 tons.

SHAPIRO: So, the world's leading countries are at least sending the same message. This week, here in London, they're trying to translate that message into coordinated global policy decisions. Prince Charles and his son Prince William helped convene this symposium. They released a video message encouraging people to come together for wildlife in six languages, including Arabic, Swahili and Mandarin.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

PRINCE CHARLES: (Mandarin spoken)

SHAPIRO: The English message was longer.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

PRINCE WILLIAM: My father and I hope you share our belief that it is shocking that future generations may know a world without these magnificent animals.

SHAPIRO: Many people are comparing this struggle to the war on drugs or on human trafficking. But there's one important difference: the world can fight the illegal drug trade forever. If the illegal wildlife trade continues, the fight will someday be over, because there will be none left. Ari Shapiro, NPR News, London. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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