Perhaps the single most immediate threat to wildlife in many parts of the world is the dramatic increase in wildlife trade. Whole animals or any parts of them which will fetch a price are sold on an increasingly massive scale across the world, in the form of pets, meat, food, medicines, furs, feathers, skins and trophies. The world’s wild places are falling increasingly silent as their animals are stripped out to be sold in distant markets, and the world’s rural people who depend on wildlife as one of their main resources are further disadvantaged.
People have been hunting wildlife for millennia – at least 10,000 years in Latin America, 40,000 years in Southeast Asia, and 100,000 years in Africa. What has changed? First, human populations have increased – by an average of more than 300% in the past 50 years in countries across Southeast Asia, Central Africa, and Amazonia. Remaining wild areas have also become much more accessible, through improved river transport, railways, flights, and most especially roads, often built in the rush to extract timber, oil and other natural resources. As soon as a road goes in, outside hunters and weapons also go in (snare wire, shotgun cartridges, and even batteries for night hunting), and wildlife flows cheaply and rapidly down to distant towns where it is either sold directly, or linked in to global markets through ships and planes. In Congo, wildlife densities declined by more than 25% in a single three week period after a forest was opened up by a logging company, and in areas of forest in Sarawak, Malaysia, which had been accessible by logging road for at least a year, no large mammals remained.
Another important change is that, in the past, people hunted using traditional weapons, mainly made out of natural items in the forest. Now, most hunting is done using wire snares and firearms which are much more efficient and less discriminating, so allow more animals of a wider range of species to be hunted.
The final major change is that hunting was once mainly for subsistence – most animals were hunted to feed the hunter and his family. But today, hunting has also become a global-scale, multi-billion dollar business, fueled by increased buying power among urban consumers around the world. And with globalization, trade chains have now extended well beyond the boundary of an animal’s country of origin, with ships and planes carrying wildlife to distant markets. Parrots from Cameroon and smoked monkey carcasses from Ghana are sold in New York and London, and turtles and pangolins from Indonesia are consumed in Hanoi and Guangzhou.
WCS is working around the world to show that wildlife trade can be reduced successfully to levels where wildlife populations can be conserved, and the livelihoods of rural communities maintained. This requires commitment, dedicated personnel, funds, and political support at many different levels. Such efforts need to be expanded greatly if the world’s most spectacular animals are to be conserved for future generations in their homes in the forests and other wild places of the world.