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Help to end illegal wildlife trade

What is the illegal wildlife trade, and equally importantly, what can you do to help?

First, it’s important to know what the trade is and why it’s growing. The illegal wildlife trade is wildlife crime involving the capture, sale/trade of animals/plants as food, pets, clothing/accessories, tourist attractions, trinkets, medicines and more. It is the second-largest threat to animals behind habitat loss and has been escalated to an international crisis. It is the fourth most lucrative black-market industry. However, in stark contrast to those industries, international law enforcement is inadequate and in some places nonexistent.

Millions of wild, endangered animals and plants are sold and/or exchanged around the world, leading to over-exploitation, extinction and negative effects on the ecosystem. An estimated 96 elephants are poached for their ivory tusks to make trinkets and jewelry every day. A staggering 60 percent of these elephants are being poached in Tanzania, which depends on travel and tourism.

Sea turtles are being captured so their shells can be made into combs and jewelry. Exotic birds are dying after being smuggled in tiny packages to be sold in the U.S. as pets. Otter and fox pups are stolen from their mothers (often with mother not surviving) as the trend for them as “cute” pets grows and is perpetuated by social media.

Why does illegal wildlife crime happen and where is it happening? The U.S. is one of the largest markets for wildlife trafficking in the world. The exotic pet trade has been on the rise. The slow loris is a venomous primate that suffered a dramatic increase in the pet trade after a video was posted online by an owner. Individuals buy exotic pets for their uniqueness, often not realizing that most die in transport and require exponentially more time, money and attention than a domesticated animal does. Parrots are one of the most common animals that suffer from wildlife trafficking. An entire tree is often cut down to get the young birds. There are more tigers in the state of Texas than there are in the wild!

Another common cause of wildlife trafficking is the use of animal products for traditional medicines. Traditional Asian medicine uses animal parts like tiger bones, bear bile and rhino horn for what is believe to be medicinal value. These medicines have been proven to have no effect. Rhino horn is made of keratin, which is the same material of our hair and nails. Our own U.S. black bears are poached and shipped to Asia as a part of the illegal wildlife trade for their bile.

This is not just an animal issue. Illegal wildlife trade not only affects the animals being trafficked, but also the surrounding community, and it affects the community’s safety. Communities in or near areas where poaching occurs often fall victims to violence at the hands of poachers. The trade also affects the community’s income. Communities rely on wildlife to attract tourists. Wildlife tourism represents 80 percent of the total annual sales of trips to Africa, with wildlife-viewing safaris as the most popular activity (United Nations World Tourism Organization). In addition, trafficking networks often contract locals to poach, and provide food/information/shelters to outside poachers, thus incentivizing locals to drop out of the formal economy and enter the illegal underground economy.

The good news is that the news isn’t all grim! There are things you can do to help here at home or when traveling. Always buy informed. Don’t buy the items that help to make this trade successful, including ivory, tortoiseshell and coral. Travel informed, too. Be wary of unaccredited roadside attractions that promote the ability to take “animal selfies” with animals in unnatural circumstances without safety barriers, and don’t promote the illegal wildlife trade by re-posting viral photos or videos of exotic pets or animals in unnatural situations.

Equally importantly, help spread the word. We’ll be sharing more throughout the month about the ways you can help, so stay tuned!

Carissa Bishop
Conservation Education Initiatives Supervisor

Connect With Your Wild Side #onlyzooatl