In a Jam: Wildlife Trafficking On The Rise
Traffic and trafficking. Two very different words, which spark thoughts of two entirely different scenarios. On the one hand there is traffic, thoughts of slow moving cars, being stuck on a road for what feels like an eternity and making us later and later for our intended destination come to mind. Then, there is trafficking, and suddenly we are aware of far darker and far more sinister thoughts. But when we think of trafficking, how many people think immediately of wildlife trafficking? Probably not many of us and although we are aware of it, for most it will not be at the forefront of our minds. Recently however, it was splashed across the headlines when we heard that wildlife trafficking across Latin America is not only going on on a huge scale, but the levels of such activity, is on the rise.
But what is wildlife trafficking? And why is it happening? Simply put, trafficking is the illegal trade of both living and dead wildlife specimens and parts. Parts? Not my favourite way of putting it, and when I say that word in such a context it makes me think of my dad breaking down one of his old cars for ‘parts’. Unfortunately however, such a word reflects how important, or indeed unimportant, some individuals see these animals. Latin America is the most biodiverse continent on the planet and is home to 40% of the Worlds animal and plant species. Unfortunately however, with such a great accolade comes great misfortune, as this fact alone means that the scale of wildlife trafficking across the South American continent is increasing. Although the illegal trade has been going on for decades across the continent, the need to address it has now been recognised and as a result, a High Level International Conference on Illegal Wildlife Trade in the Americas took place in Peru to deal with the escalating problem.
Wildlife trafficking is one of the most profitable organised crime activities in the world, making a massive $20 billion a year. Such a fortune means that wildlife trafficking, although not as lucrative, in monetary value, can be put up there amongst human trafficking and drug and firearms trafficking. But where is this demand coming from? Who could possibly be driving these activities? Well, the demand for living, impressive, exotic specimens comes largely from the Middle East, the US and Europe, whilst the demand for animal parts is manly from east Asia. One of the magnificent species most at threat from this trade is the Jaguar. The Jaguar who already faces many other threats to its survival such as climate change and habitat loss, must now also face increased levels of poaching, due to demand for their teeth, fur, claws and bones. This is the first time the threat to the Jaguar population has grown since the 1970s, with increased demand coming from the want for traditional Chinese medicines and exotic jewellery. Today jaguar populations cover only 40% of their historical range and in the last two decades, Jaguar populations have decreased by 25%. Jaguars however are not alone in their plight, with many exotic bird species, such as Macaws and Finches also being targeted by traffickers, some being caught live to be sold as exotic pets, whilst others are captured for their feathers, eggs and other body parts. Primates,reptiles, fish and amphibians are also highly prized in many countries, making them also a prime target for smuggling.
So how can this be allowed to continue? Why is it not being dealt with? As with many things, there are a multitude of problems facing this issue, but one major problem is summed up in one word. Corruption. Corruption is a massive challenge facing those trying to tackle this trade, causing problems in the policing and monitoring of this crime across many countries. In addition, countries that desire such specimens are prepared to pay big money for their prizes, financing the crime. Many countries also lack strong legislation and punishment for these illegal activities, with very low maximum sentences for perpetrators. In Panama for example, the maximum sentence is only 5 years, whilst in Uruguay, wildlife trafficking is treated as a very minor offence. However, things are beginning to change. Guatemala is an example of a country that is now developing a national strategy to link wildlife trafficking with other crimes such as firearms smuggling, so that penalties for wildlife trafficking can be increased. Peru was one of the first countries to exercise this strategy, whilst countries such as Belize, who are trying to tackle Jaguar hunting, are offering rewards for information on offenders, penalties have been raised and legislation has been strengthened.
The conference in Peru, attended by 27 Latin American and Caribbean countries was organised by the Peruvian government and organisations including the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES), aimed to tackle the issues surrounding wildlife crime. The conference culminated in 20 Latin American Countries signing the ‘Lima Declaration’, an agreement to implement up to 21 measures to tackle the illegal wildlife trade. These measures include increased communication between countries, a multi-faceted campaign to increase awareness of wildlife trafficking and to increase cooperation between security forces at borders. The next summit is to be held in Colombia in 2021.
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