The Value of Wildlife

The Value of Wildlife

Globalization and economic growth are causing an unprecedented surge in poaching activities worldwide. Can policy changes and grassroots efforts help save threatened species?

Poachers killed around 22,000 African elephants for their tusks in 2012—and 25,000 the year before that. With an estimated 500,000 elephants remaining in the wild, that’s almost 10 percent of the total population slaughtered in just two years.

But while elephants may be among the most recognizable casualties of poaching, they are among many species facing a catastrophic decline as the worldwide demand for wildlife products has soared.

Rapid globalization has created new economic opportunities for billions of people in developing countries, and with those new opportunities have come aspirations for a better life—aspirations many are pursuing through the illegal trade of wild animals and their body parts, notes Douglas MacMillan, a resource economist at the University of Kent in England.

“I don’t think conservationists have caught on to this,” he says. “People want to turn animals into money. This is not subsistence activity or people with nothing else to eat; people want their kids to go to school.”

At the same time, the increased spending power of rapidly growing economies in Asia, and shrinking stockpiles of ivory and other protected products are causing demand for wildlife products to surge—worldwide, the trade of illegal wildlife has an estimated value of at least $10 billion per year.

Against those powerful economic forces, traditional enforcement and anti-poaching measures are grossly inadequate, MacMillan argued in a paper published in the journal Conservation Letters this year.

“It’s just like the drug trade,” he says. “We’ve spent millions trying to control the drug trade, but it’s only enhanced the profits of organized criminals. Criminalizing people is not a good way to approach these kinds of social issues.”

In Vietnam, poachers are decimating the population of threatened pangolins—a scaly species of anteater—selling their scales as a medicinal item and their meat to high-end restaurants. Fetching up to $400 per kilogram, pangolin meat is a delicacy—and a luxury item often ordered by Asia’s new business elites as a show of status.

“Hunters used to consume pangolins themselves,” says Dan Challender, a member of the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s pangolin specialist group. “But prices paid to hunters have increased rapidly, and that’s what driving the trade.”

Leatherback turtles are another species facing extinction due to poaching in Asia and elsewhere. In Costa Rica, locals traditionally gathered and ate turtle eggs for their own consumption. Today, the opportunity to earn as much as $200 in one night has turned egg gathering into a lucrative job—one that some poachers are willing to defend with violence.

In 2013, conservationist Jairo Mora Sandoval of the Costa Rica Wildlife Sanctuary was attacked and killed by poachers as he patrolled a beach near the small coastal city of Limón. Sanctuary director Vanessa Lizano suspended anti-poaching operations this year out of safety fears.

“In 2012, we had up to 30 percent of nests being saved,” she says. “Before, it was nothing. That’s when poachers started getting mad because we were kind of winning the battle.” Without security and enforcement, she estimates, the area will see the elimination of its leatherback population within 15 years.

For some species, extinction is too immediate a threat to ignore. Simon Stuart, chair of the IUCN’s Species Survival Commission, points to the Javan rhino as an example. As few as 35 individuals remain, in Indonesia.

But while broad-brush enforcement actions may be falling short, policy changes and education at the local level—and based around regional customs, expectations, and security concerns—might offer a solution, the experts agree. That could include offering economic incentives to local populations to conserve wildlife.

In Kenya, for example, local elephant conservationist William Leleshep launched the Kirisia Community Forest Association in 2010 to encourage healthy forest practices. Today, almost 30 scouts—half paid, half volunteers—patrol the forest for illegal activity, including elephant poaching. Since the program launched, poaching within their territory has fallen from about 10 elephants a year to two.

“Conservation can be a principle where people pursue their livelihoods in a manner responsible to the environment, the same environment wildlife relies on,” says Mordecai Ogada, former executive director of the Laikipia Wildlife Forum in Kenya. “Otherwise, it’s just business.”

Making a Difference

When photographer Nick Brandt returned to Kenya’s Amboseli National Park in 2010, he was dismayed to find that many of the elephants he had documented for the past eight years had been slaughtered for their tusks—including 49-year-old Igor, seen in this portrait. Poaching had been escalating across Africa since 2008, and almost no resources were available to fight it. With help from some longtime collectors of his photography, Brandt established Big Life Foundation. Three years later, the organization employs 315 rangers in 31 outposts to protect 2 million acres of wildlife habitat—significantly reducing poaching in the region. Learn more at

What You Can Do...

If You Have a Minute…

If you have knowledge of poaching activity or the illegal trafficking of wildlife products, the organization WildLeaks has created the first secure, online platform for reporting wildlife crime to investigators. Use your social media networks to share the website and encourage friends to speak up when they see a crime against nature.

If You Have an Hour…

Become an educated consumer and learn how to spot and avoid illegal wildlife products. Especially before you travel abroad, spend some time learning how to check the origin of exotic souvenirs, and determine whether you need permits or other paperwork to bring them into the United States.

If You Have a Month…

Donate your time or skills to the Elephant Earth Initiative, which supports anti-poaching scouts for the Kirisia Community Forest Association. Or join one of the group’s fundraising expeditions—past trips to destinations like Thailand, Laos, and Kenya have included educational encounters with elephants while raising money to support elephant protection.

If You Have $100…

Give to TRAFFIC, a wildlife trade monitoring network. Donations support programs to raise awareness about poaching, facilitate international policy changes, and train and distribute wildlife-detection dogs at major airports, seaports, and postal distribution centers.

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