World Wildlife Day 2015

Today is World Wildlife Day 2015, which this year highlights the challenges of the illegal trade in wildlife.

World Wildlife Day, on the 3rd of March, marks the day of the adoption of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

The global trade in wild animals and their body parts is estimated by UNEP at US$50-150 billion per year. The global illegal fisheries catch is valued at US$10-23.5 billion a year and illegal logging, including processing, at US$30-100 billion.actionposter_thumb_elephant

These numbers don’t include the costs of fighting poaching, the impact that fight has on local communities, or the indirect costs of border security – after all, 90% of all illegal animals and animal parts are shipped across international borders.

These numbers don’t include issues like the introduction of non-native species in the form of exotic pets and the havoc they can wreak on local eco-systems (not to mention the introduction of foreign pathogens).

They don’t include the cost of fighting the organized crime that is funded via illegal wildlife trade.

What can each individual do besides sign a petition, make a donation or offer support today at #SeriousAboutWildlifeCrime?

As I said in an earlier post on ivory, we can cut of the trade on the consumer end. That saltwater fishtank might be a nice conversation piece, but the fish in it were likely harvested at the cost of an entire coral reef habitat.

Find sustainable alternatives to traditional medicine that calls for endangered species like pangolin or rhino (after all, people have been substituting buffalo horn for rhino for years).

That supposedly antique ivory trinket was probably made from poached elephant tusk. If that hardwood lumber for your floors is being sold at a price too good to be true, chances are its been illegally logged. And so on.

What you buy as a consumer ripples out through the entire environment of the illegal wildlife trade.

I thought I’d repost Farewell, Forest Symphony, something I wrote a couple of years ago on the interconnectivity of one single endangered species, the elephant, on its entire ecosystem.

It’s not a short post – but what is true for this particular animal is true in other ways for all the other endangered animals and plants:

They, and we, are all part of something larger.

Sunset over the Congo rainforestPhoto: David Beaune via

Sunset over the Congo rainforest
Photo: David Beaune via

The fundamental chords that hold a symphony together aren’t always apparent to the untrained ear. The symphony of an ecosystem is often more complex than we comprehend.

A recent study draws a vital connection between elephant poaching, tree reproduction and forest ecosystems. Certain trees – in this case, large bush mango trees – have evolved alongside large animals, in this case, forest elephants (Loxodonta cyclotis).

The trees have developed seeds which are best dispersed via elephants eating the seeds, walking long distances, and then depositing digested seeds far from the parent tree. The seeds of these trees are too large to be properly digested and dispersed by smaller mammals.

Unfortunately for both the wild trees and the elephants, up to 75% of the elephant population has been killed in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where this study was carried out, and an estimated 60% of all forest elephants in the world have been killed in the service of the illegal ivory trade – all in the last ten years.

From an interview in an article on

“[The] Congo forest without elephants would certainly lose part of its soul, but elephant extinction with their seed dispersal services would also affect the entire plant community,” lead author David Beaune with the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology told Forest elephants are “important gardeners of the forest,” says Beaune, so important in fact that when elephants go extinct in a part of the forest, important trees are unable to reproduce. “If we can’t replace elephants, then the reproduction of these plant species is hugely compromised.”

Irvingia gabonensis, the African mango, an edible fruit with nutritious nuts at their core. Source: Herbwisdon

Irvingia gabonensis, the African mango, an edible fruit with nutritious nuts at their core.
Source: Herbwisdom

The bush mango tree used in the study, Irvingia gabonensis, happens to be one that is also important to the economy of many African regions, and has been successfully cultivated. Its reproductive patterns are well-known.

It plays a key role in preventing soil erosion as well as being useful as a cash crop.
What of the many other fruits and seeds eaten by forest elephants which are less-studied, with lesser known roles in the ecosystem? Without the massive ‘gardeners of the forest’, what aspects of the ecosystem will crumble?
It puts me in mind of the final movement of Haydn’s Symphony No. 45, in which all the instruments disappear. There is a final song of the remaining violins, but it is thin and lonely without the other melodies.

Ivory Trade Antics

Elephant Eye Artist: Kristan Benson

Elephant Eye
Artist: Kristan Benson

There have been several elephant and ivory-related news items over the past few weeks, including a year-long ban on ivory imports announced by China this week, and the announcement by several Hong Kong retailers that they will no longer be selling elephant products.

New regulations have just come into effect in the United States, one of the leading markets for legal and illegal ivory, that further restricts ivory imports and sales.

New laws that would ban ivory trade outright in New York and California (proposed) reflect findings that in these national markets, the first and second respectively, between 80-90% of all ivory being sold is illegal.

I know I should say they are encouraging, and these developments are good news.

But my real reaction is: Why are people still buying and selling ivory?

This is the issue with legal ivory sales within countries: If people see an item openly for sale, they assume it’s legal.

© WWF-Canon / Folke Wulf

© WWF-Canon / Folke Wulf

Once ivory has entered its destination country, it is extremely difficult to differentiate the illegal stuff (harvested from one of the elephants killed every 15 minutes around the world) from the legal stuff (either antique, or imported before the African elephant was listed in CITES Appendix I in 1990).

I am baffled that the US still allows the importation of hunting trophy tusks. But given the ongoing battles to re-instate permission to allow for the importation of endangered rhino horns even as the rhino population is in steep decline, it shouldn’t be a surprise.

Added to this is a dire lack of awareness among shipping workers and officials as to the methods used for transporting illegal animal parts, even as 90% of the illegal trade crosses international borders.

I’m sure there are many, many dealers who handle only legal ivory, but as a responsible and concerned consumer, would you know the difference?

Origami elephant created by Sipho Mabona Photo by Philipp Schmidli / Mabona

Origami elephant created by Sipho Mabona
Photo by Philipp Schmidli / Mabona

I know I wouldn’t.

There’s an easy solution to that: Don’t buy the stuff.

Stop buying it anywhere until all imports have been stopped, the elephant populations and those of other catastrophically endangered source animals have rebounded, and the illegal market has dried up. If it’s made of ivory, that means no trinkets, no souvenirs, no fancy gifts for business associates, no allegedly legal decorative items for the home. Don’t admire that new ivory bracelet someone shows you, don’t covet that sculpture.

A thriving market in one kind of animal part only supports all the others, and the trade in general.

Sorry, sellers of legal ivory, the stakes are just too high.


The Full Cloth


Origami elephant
Photo: Philipp Schmidli / Sipho Mabona

On World Wildlife Day, March 3, Nepal achieved a rare feat: an entire year without wildlife poaching. In the three years since 2011, the country lost a single rhino to poaching. Populations of rhinos, tigers and elephants are on the rise.

Compare this to other nations, where these animals are disappearing fast. South Africa has seen 146 rhinos already killed in 2014, over 1000 in 2013.

So, what is Nepal doing right?

Many things, apparently, because no single solution works. First, the country has a zero-tolerance approach to poachers. Get caught, go straight to jail for up to fifteen years. And there’s no long court process involved – Nepal’s forest law allows chief game wardens to pass judgement and punishment, lessening the likelihood of escape or a long, fruitless court trial.

The country also places a high priority on seeking out and capturing ring leaders. Various agencies work collaboratively to share information and find dealers and enforce anti-trafficking laws.

Tourists prepare to ride an elephant during a wildlife safari in Chitwan National Park. Photo: Gemunu Amarasinghe / AP

Tourists prepare to ride an elephant during a wildlife safari in Chitwan National Park.
Photo: Gemunu Amarasinghe / AP

Crucially, in the promotion of ecotourism, the Nepalese government not only supports programs that provide employment, it also redistributes the revenues from parks and tourism – licence fees, park entrance fees, and so on – among local communities. Half of all tourism revenues are handed back to the locals, making the animals more valuable alive rather than dead.

This achievement is all the more impressive due to Nepal’s location between China and India, two of the main regions for trafficked animal parts.

Origami elephant created by Sipho Mabona Photo by Philipp Schmidli / Mabona

Origami elephant created by Sipho Mabona
Photo by Philipp Schmidli / Mabona

Artist Sipho Mabona created an entire life-sized origami elephant out of a single piece of paper, a long project that required over a year of planning, a month of construction and many hands.

Mabona‘s elephant is a good symbol of Nepal’s achievement. This creation is no piece of easy patchwork.

Anti-poaching success is something that results from a whole cloth approach and many hands. It’s impressive, it’s inspiring, and at the same time, it’s fragile.

Time lapse film of the elephant’s construction.

Heroes and Villains

Update below.

You know a cause has achieved cult status when it makes it into the comic books.

Marvel Comics has come out with a double pack of comic books featuring the popular character of Wolverine and the issue of the illegal trade in endangered animal parts. Written and illustrated by the great Phil Jimenez, the comics couldn’t be more timely.

The Dallas Safari Club auctioned off a chance to hunt an endangered rhino for $350,000 last week, over widespread protests and petitions.

Savage Wolverine #12 Art: Jimenez/Marvel

Savage Wolverine #12
Art: Jimenez/Marvel

Ostensibly, the money will go towards conservation efforts in Namibia. The hunt has been sanctioned by the government.

I can understand the need to cull non-breeding, older male rhinos from a herd to promote younger, healthier males that might otherwise be attacked or intimidated. I can understand the Namibian government wanting to earn hard cash for a cull that would otherwise only cost them time and money.

But let’s not kid ourselves: Paying a vast sum of money for the thrill and privilege of hunting an endangered animal, even in the name of conservation, does little more than glorify the illicit status of that animal’s value to humans, and add value to the illegally traded body parts of poached animals.

This auction comes the same week that saw an Irish native, Michael Slattery Jr., convicted and sentenced to almost two years in prison for coming to the United States to buy mounted rhino horns, which he sold on to Asian buyers for an estimated $30,000 per pound.

Horns of endangered black rhinos. According to the prosecutors in the Slattery case, the horns he sold were resold twice and tripled in price before leaving the U.S. Photo: US Attorney's Office - Eastern District of New York

Endangered black rhino horn.
Photo: US Attorney’s Office – Eastern District of New York

Mr. Slattery claimed he was just doing business  and saw no connection between his actions and its effect on endangered species. According to the prosecutors in the Slattery case, the horns he sold were resold twice and tripled in price before leaving the U.S. Slattery argued that he was just a salesman, turning a dollar on something already there.

As Judge John Gleeson of United States District Court, who presided over the trial, is quoted as saying by way of comparison to Slattery’s defense, “‘I didn’t make these drugs, all I did was distribute them; I didn’t create this child pornography, I just distribute it.’”

The hunters and poachers in Savage Wolverine don’t fare well at the hands (well, claws) of Wolverine, but he reserves just as much anger for those who trade in the endangered animal business.

I wonder where Wolverine would stand on the trophy hunt auction of endangered animals.

UPDATE: 21 May 2015. The rhino auctioned for hunting was shot dead on 20 May 2015 by Corey Knowlton, the Texas hunter who won the auction bid.

From the AFP: Knowlton stated, “I think people have a problem just with the fact that I like to hunt… I want to see the black rhino as abundant as it can be. I believe in the survival of the species.”

Since 2012, Namibia has sold five licences each year to kill individual rhinos, saying the money is essential to fund conservation projects and anti-poaching protection. The only rhinos selected for the hunts are old ones that no longer breed and that pose a threat to younger rhinos.

Sorry, I just don’t agree. This is no different from countries selling off illegal rhino horn or elephant ivory seized from traders.

As long as the animals are worth more dead than they are alive, for any reason, poaching and the trade in illegal animal parts will be encouraged.

Savage Wolverine #13 Art: Jimenez/Marvel

Savage Wolverine #13
Art: Jimenez/Marvel