What are illegal wildlife trade and poaching?
Illegal wildlife trade is one of the most horrific yet discrete industries in the world. The multi-billion-dollar industry transports animals around the globe alive or dead, for pet markets, medicine, jewellery etc. The demand for valuable items like Elephant tusks or Rhinoceros horns is presumably the driving force behind poaching and other illegal activity. Poaching practices have implications beyond individual animal suffering and threaten the existence of entire species like the Western Black Rhinoceros. According to study.com, “[the] main reason the West African black rhino is extinct is because of poachers, or illegal hunters”. Some poaching activities in Kenya go to such extremes that the remaining few animals are monitored 24/7 by guards. As for Tigers, PHYS.org claims that fewer than 4,000 remain in the wild, “yet more than 100 of the big cats are still killed and illegally trafficked each year”.
Why is it done?
The trafficking of wildlife is most commonly done for the purpose of producing rare ornaments like shark teeth or pets such as non-native snakes. Commercial poachers often kill animals like American Black Bears for exotic foods, medicines and/or ornaments. According to the WWF (World Wild Fund for Nature), the most commonly affected animals include Tigers, Asian Elephants and Hawksbill Turtles. In Asia, countries like China poach numerous species for the production of traditional medicines or to sell as pets to European or American buyers, willing to pay thousands.
In Brazil alone, 38 million animals are taken from their homes to be shipped abroad as foreign pets, with Latin American biodiversity declining by more than 83% since the 1970s. Whilst in Botswana, 35,000 Elephants are slaughtered annually. Petpedia claims that 30,000 animals are driven to extinction every year due to poaching for illegal trade. That’s around 3 species per hour.
Based on value and demand, prime targets include:
– Pangolins (poached 82 times more than Rhinos, with all 8 species endangered);
– Rhinos (between 2007 and 2015, there has been a 90% spike in slaughtering);
– Elephants (per pound ivory is worth more than gold, silver, oil and cocaine);
– Tigers (highly valued in traditional Chinese medicines);
– Sea Turtles (body parts are used for leather, cosmetics or perfume);
– Gorillas (by 2050, 80% of western gorillas will be gone – achieved in just 3 generations);
– Lemurs (over 90% are considered vulnerable, endangered or critically endangered); and
– Bears (40,000 to 50,000 are hunted down in the United States and Canada annually).
Where does poaching occur?
According to Save the Rhino, South Africa “has been the country hit hardest by poaching” due to large populations of Rhinos and other species. From 2007 to 2014, Rhino poaching escalated by more than 9,000%. The Kruger National Park, an area of 19,485 square kilometres, is one of the prime poaching locations throughout South Africa. Siyabona Africa states, “South African National Parks (SANParks) and [the] South African government is facing increasing pressure from the public” to eradicate poaching activity throughout the area. As expected, the government “and international donors have channelled ever more funding and resources into securing the Park”. The World Bank recently applauded the Wildlife Conservation Bond (WCB) for supporting black Rhino populations within the region through a $207 million AUD ($150 million USD) deal.
This is an issue well beyond any individual country. Others like China, Thailand, Vietnam, India and the Philippines are also home to large poaching activity. A report released by TRAFFIC, an NGO that monitors international wild animal and plant trade, claims, “[an] estimated equivalent of 740 Critically Endangered Philippine Pangolins were seized from illegal trade in the country between 2000 and 2017”. Yet, between 2018 and 2019, “an estimated 6,894 pangolins” were intercepted being unlawfully traded. Much like South Africa, further laws are being implemented along with more advanced technologies.
Whether enough is really being done, however, is certainly still up for debate. As it stands, the number of animals killed by poaching is outstripping those saved through hard regulations and monitoring.
Whilst it may seem near impossible to stop these illegal discrete practices and capture those doing the wrong things, there are new technologies thanks to the development of AI, helping provide another tool in our arsenal to end these disgusting activities.
Are these activities increasing or decreasing?
To determine whether poaching and illegal wildlife trades are increasing or decreasing is very difficult. There are many variables that make it exceptionally complicated to calculate. For example in certain regions, poaching activity is often left unreported. However, as of 2020, around 30,000 African Elephants are still poached annually despite the ban on international ivory trade since 1990.
Despite the huge humanitarian issues presented with the Coronavirus (COVID-19), the pandemic seems to have been a blessing for Rhinos. According to the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries, in 2020, Rhino poaching in South Africa declined by 33% largely due to COVID-19 restrictions. Between 2013 and 2017, an average of 1,000 Rhinos were poached annually. In 2019, the figures declined to 594 and in 2020, 247. Of course, those figures are still well beyond 0 but at least these were positive signs. However, after the 2020 September lockdown in South Africa, there was yet again a “significant spike” in poaching activity throughout the region.
In addition to concerns for animal welfare, in 2021, crime science released a theoretical article stated, “when properly viewed within the context of COVID-19 and other zoonotic diseases transmitted from wildlife, that wildlife trafficking is the most costly and perhaps the most serious form of trafficking”. This publication comes after the drastic rise in global hygiene standards and greater awareness about the transmissions of viruses through imported foreign animals. The researchers argue that wildlife trafficking should be one of the most serious forms of any trafficking. As it stands, wildlife trafficking “consistently rank[s] wildlife trafficking lower relative to human trafficking, drug trafficking and weapons trafficking”.
How could Artificial Intelligence help?
Artificial Intelligence, also known as AI, is often associated with unrealistic or pessimistic dystopian beliefs. However, despite the increasing negativity, technological advances in computer science and machine learning are playing a large part in helping reduce or locate poaching activity.
Start-up and established companies have begun using AI systems in regions to “[focus] the camera on poachers”. AI devices can be deployed in remote landscapes and connected via the Iridium satellite network to work in areas with no WiFi coverage. The cameras use AI to identify particular animals, which once detected, sends notifications to researchers – indicating what animals have been trapped and where. Forbes claims, “machine learning [can be used] to predict where poachers might strike”. The Protection Assistant for Wildlife Security (PAWS) AI system (which uses machine learning) analyses data on where poaching locations are and where traps are likely to be. Shahrzad Gholami, a PhD candidate in computer science states, “when we tested PAWS in the field at Uganda’s Queen Elizabeth National Park, rangers found more snares and snared animals in areas where we predicted a high rate of snaring”.
According to wildlabs.net, AI is estimated to be one of the 3 most effective new emerging technologies in helping conservationists. According to the Guardian, in places like Zambia’s Kafue national park, AI is being utilised for “a 19km-long virtual fence across Lake Itezhi-Tezhi. Forward-looking infrared (FLIR) thermal cameras record every boat crossing in and out of the park, day and night”. The poaching of Whales is another concern, although, AI has now eliminated the tedious manual labour and instead implemented acoustic recorders within the ocean to detect Whale location patterns. According to Ann Allen, a researcher at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (Noaa), “this comprehensive analysis of our data wouldn’t have been possible without AI”.
How can you help?
Poaching activity and the trafficking of animals have ignited existential threats to biodiversity around the globe, and whilst this isn’t a problem that can be solved by a single group or individual, there are ways people can help:
– sticking to certified products (the Forest Stewardship Council or vegan certified);
– asking before you buy(if you are not sure where your jewellery came from, ask how and where it was made);
– donate (to the WWF, IUCN or Back a Ranger);
– sign an anti-wildlife trade petition (World Animal Protection);
– choose a sustainable native pet;
– report any illegal wildlife trade or forms of animal cruelty; and
– buy plant-based products (plant-based meat or plant-based shampoo).
Poaching and illegal wildlife trade are among the most disturbing and horrific human practices there are. Practices willing to rob thousands of animals of their lives for the benefit of a few people interested in exotic pets and foreign ornaments. The ethical and environmental implications of such practice could not be clearer. Beyond the obvious, pandemics like COVID-19 have provided even greater evidence regarding zoonotic diseases and their associations with wildlife trade. Fortunately, however, there seems to be an increasing global consensus that these activities must not only end, but those who participated in them must pay a substantial price.
The UN is pledging to all global citizens to cut back our meat consumption, the RSPCA has made it clear that there is no place for animal cruelty, and activities that threaten the stability of biodiversity like deforestation, are inhumane. The message is clear, treat our fellow companions and wildlife appropriately or simply leave them alone.