Published in September 2019
Regional Perspective: Eastern and Southern Africa - added in April 2020
This module is a resource for lecturers
Implications of wildlife trafficking
Although threats to wildlife and plant species come from multiple sources, such as pollution, deforestation, destruction of natural habitats and climate change, wildlife trafficking contributes significantly to the problem through poaching, harvesting, or depleting significant quantities of already endangered or at-risk species. Trafficking in wildlife, animal parts, and plants has far-reaching implications, not only for the species involved, but also for human livelihoods, biodiversity, and governance. The diverse and significant implications of wildlife trafficking, in turn, mean that the protection of wildlife, forests, and fish 'must be part of a comprehensive approach to achieving poverty eradication, food security, sustainable development, including the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity, economic growth, social well-being and sustainable livelihoods' (UN General Assembly, 19 August 2015).
Trafficking in wildlife can diminish species populations and cause local or even global extinction. When endangered species are involved, any poaching or harvesting of that species to supply the illegal trade risks the species becoming extinct. Further worsening the problem is the fact that the demand for larger and more ornate specimens means that hunters and collectors often aim for the fittest individuals from the breeding population, with serious consequences for subsequent generations (Rosen & Smith, 2010). Moreover, many endangered species are fragile and require expert and delicate handling. The ways in which many animals and plants are caught, transported, and kept, however, frequently cause injury, death, or attrition, resulting in further losses especially when living animals or plants are trafficked (UN ECOSOC, 4 March 2003).
Wildlife trafficking is related to some of the most important underlying causes of biodiversity loss (Broad et al, 2012). It can threaten ecosystem functions. Beyond endangering species via population losses, wildlife overexploitation can cause long term ecological problems such as creating sex-ratio imbalances and slowing the reproduction rate of vulnerable species. With respect to the former problem, elephant poaching of bull elephants (i.e. males with large tusks) has left a severe gender imbalance amongst African elephants. Consequently, population recovery among elephants has been slowed because it has affected reproduction rates. With regard to slow reproduction rates, species like macaws have an extremely slow reproduction rate compared to others in the parrot family. Because macaws have historically been targeted disproportionately by poachers, their populations are less likely to rebound with fewer and fewer macaws left to reproduce with.
Population decline is further problematic if keystone species are affected by illicit trade. Keystone species have 'a significant direct and indirect effect on their surrounding ecosystem and other species within that ecosystem' (Moreto & Pires, 2018, p. 19). Sharks, for example, have a key role in the oceanic system by preying upon smaller fish. Unfortunately, as a result of shark finning that has decimated shark populations globally, populations of smaller fish have significantly increased leading to a decline in shellfish (Ferretti et al, August 2010).
Furthermore, ecosystems have been altered through environmentally destructive practices to remove wildlife, timber, and fish. In Peru, for instance, the demand for forest products has led to several iconic species becoming threatened with extinction (Global Witness, 2017). With regard to destructive fishing practices, cyanide and dynamite is used at times to capture fish by stunning them; this practice can also kill many other nearby fish and destroy coral reefs that provide a habitat for many aquatic species (McManus et al, 1997).
The methods used by poachers to kill or capture animals and the way animals are handled are often extremely cruel and fail to comply with animal welfare standards. Furthermore, many transportation and concealment methods are harmful to animals and many specimens fall ill, are injured, starve or die otherwise in transit (Rosen & Smith, 2010). Trafficking live animals can result in high fatality rates for the specimens involved, especially if animals are stored and fed inadequately (see further, Baker, 2013). As mentioned above, indiscriminate methods used to catch animals, such as cyanide fishing, can also harm and kill non-target species, deplete fishing populations, and damage ecosystems (see further, Dee, 2014). Not further discussed here, though still worthy of note, are animal rights and ethical perspectives that advocate more broadly against the killing, use, and consumption of (wild) animals.
Threats to other species
Beyond the direct negative biological impact on specific species, the illegal wildlife trade can have indirect impacts from a conservation perspective. The two most obvious examples are detrimental by-catch of non-target species and the introduction of harmful alien species into a habitat. Examples of detrimental by-catch are particularly well known from the fisheries sector: nets, lines, and other fishing gear used to catch the desired fish will also catch everything else in their path, including turtles, dolphins, and juvenile fish. Terrestrial examples include impacts on non-target species from activities such as logging and waterfowl hunting (Broad et al, 2012).
Wildlife trafficking can pose health threats to humans, native species, and livestock, especially if it introduces viruses, bacteria, or species to which native populations are not adequately resistant (Rosen & Smith, 2010). Exotic species that are trafficked can pose a biosecurity risk because they can potentially establish themselves in the wild and become pests. They can also carry seeds, parasites, and viruses which, if released to the environment, would have negative impacts on native wildlife, and on the agriculture, horticulture, and aquaculture industries (Alacs & Georges, 2008). Negative impacts of alien species introductions caused by wildlife trafficking are less well documented; some of the more problematic examples have been linked to deliberate movements of ornamental plants and game fish species outside their natural ranges (Broad et al, 2012).
Example: The illegal commercial bushmeat trade
Bushmeat trade is the commercial hunting and selling of wild animals for food, and bushmeat is an important source of food and social/cultural values in many parts of the world. For many wealthy consumers, bushmeat may be considered a 'status symbol' that enables them to stay connected to their ancestral cultures. There are also significant risks to human health from killing, handling and butchering wild meat: wildlife-related diseases can be transmitted from animals to humans, including Ebola and retroviruses.
Threats and violence
Poachers and hunters are frequently armed with guns or other weapons that are used not only to kill, capture, or collect wildlife, but are also employed against rangers, conservation officials, police, and local people who protect or live in close proximity to endangered animals or plants. Rangers around the world are killed at a high rate. Over the last decade, some 1,000 rangers have died in the line of duty in Africa alone. Threats and violence can often escalate - along with the scale of depletion - if organized criminal groups become involved in wildlife, forest, and fisheries crime (for further reading, see Module 3 of the E4J University Module Series on Organized Crime). This also heightens the risk of corruption at many stages of the illegal wildlife trade (Rosen & Smith, 2010). Increased militarization of anti-poaching efforts can sometimes lead to 'shoot first' policies that can ultimately lead to more deaths of potential offenders and escalate violence between those on the frontline and locals (Moreto & Pires, 2018). For further reading on green violence, please refer to Module 3 of the E4J university Module Series on Wildlife crime.
Depleting natural resources and threatening livelihoods
Wildlife trafficking undermines and threatens the ability and efforts by States to manage their natural resources. It can result in severe economic losses, which particularly affect developing countries that rely on revenue generated by legal trade (Rosen & Smith, 2010). Wildlife, forest, and fisheries crime can threaten rural livelihoods where people's subsistence and income rely on wildlife, including those based on ecotourism.
Governance and conflict
Wildlife trafficking can undermine good governance and the rule of law and, in some cases, threaten national stability. For example, the UN Security Council, for instance, has repeatedly expressed concern that the internal armed conflict and widespread breakdown of law and order in the Central African Republic was fuelled by armed groups and criminal networks that benefited from illicit exploitation of natural resources, including wildlife and wildlife products, in that country (United Nations Security Council, 2013; United Nations Security Council, 2018). Several reports also document the impact of land clearance for mining operations and infrastructure projects on local animal species and humans in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Many of the affected areas are home to endangered mountain gorillas that are displaced, lose their food supply, or that are poached for use as bush meat that is then sold to miners and armed groups (South & Brisman, 2013; Nellemann et al, 2010).
Similarly, in the case of the armed conflicts in the Great Lakes Region of Africa, the Report of the Expert Group on the Democratic Republic of the Congo noted that the 'slaughter of elephants in the Democratic Republic of the Congo is one of the most tragic consequences of years of war and poor governance'. In 2014, the Security Council drew attention to the linkage between the illicit trade in natural resources, including poaching and illegal trafficking of wildlife, and the proliferation and trafficking of arms. According to the Security Council this constitutes one of the major factors fuelling the conflict in the Great Lakes Region (Strydom, 2016).