By Bryan Walsh
Human beings are killers. Not just toward each other, though we do that of course, every hour of every day. We’re killers of those other species of life that share this planet with us. Some we kill for food, like domesticated animals, or the wild fish and game we harvest from the waters and the forest. Others we kill by as a by-product of modern life, taking their habitat through deforestation or pollution. But many, too many, we simply kill for their parts. Or perhaps murder is the better word.
The threat of wildlife trafficking is on my mind, as the biennial meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) continues over the next two weeks in Bangkok. Born 40 years ago, CITES sets the global controls for trade in wildlife, with a focus — at its best — of slowing the slaughter and trafficking of endangered species. For years there was real progress being made in the field. After low points during the 1980s, nations under CITES began to successfully crack down on the illicit ivory trade, which drove the wide-scale poaching of rhinos and elephants in Africa. Between 1973 and 2012, the population of the white rhino in Africa rose from 2,000 to over 19,000 and other endangered species made comebacks, thanks to international sanctions on ivory trade and tougher prosecution on the ground in Africa.
But those advances — and the endangered species — are at risk. Last year poaching levels in Africa were at their highest since international monitors began keeping detailed records in 2002. In 2011 a record amount of illegal ivory was seized worldwide: 38.8 tons, equal to the tusks that would be found on more than 4,000 dead elephants. According to CITES’ own numbers, an estimated 25,000 elephants were poached across Africa in 2011, and in South Africa alone 668 rhinos were killed by poachers last year. And the wildlife trade is having a serious impact on biodiversity as well. According to a new study published in the open journal PLOS ONE, in central Africa an astounding 62% of all forest elephants — slightly smaller than the better-known African savannah elephant — have been killed for their ivory over the past decade. “The analysis confirms what conservationists have feared: the rapid trend toward extinction — potentially within the next decade — of the forest elephant,” Samantha Strindberg of the Wildlife Conservation Society, one of the lead authors of the PLOS ONE study, said in a statement. The forest elephant — and other species — are being hunted to death. More....