The world watched the controversy over Cecil the Lion unfold when it was discovered that an American tourist had killed the beloved animal. What most people didn’t realize however is that there is an active global trade in endangered or exotic animals and Cecil was not the first, nor would he be the last victim.
In the United States, the Fish and Wildlife Service has jurisdiction over the sale or import of prohibited items, but most items are listed online via eBay or Craigslist and are difficult to track. In an interview with CNN, John Cruden, an Assistant Attorney General, said, "Each illegally traded horn or tusk represents not an antique object but a dead animal. Wildlife trafficking entails poaching, bribery, smuggling and organized crime."
Another issue concerns the by-products of rare animals. In the case of elephants, it’s the ivory that is highly prized. The number of African elephants slaughtered for their tusks has increased dramatically, with reports putting the number at over 100,000 elephants killed in a three-year period. With rhinos, it’s the horn that drives poachers. In some markets, a single kilogram of powdered rhino horn can go for up to $60,000.
Online retailer eBay has banned the sale of ivory items, however the site is so large and contains hundreds of millions of items for sale, and that makes enforcement next to impossible. Craigslist is even more difficult to regulate since it does not process payments or maintain a database of members, buyers and sellers. Craigslist has also amended its policy by banning the sale of any products with ivory. The site initially had vague language about endangered or protected species, but in response to demands from animal welfare groups updated the policy to specifically ban any products containing ivory.
Protecting exotic animals isn’t a new effort however. In 1973, the UN drafted the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in response to poaching and sales of endangered species. The treaty includes over 5,600 different animal species and nearly five times that many species of plants. While the treaty is a global effort, enforcement is difficult given the many different laws of each member country. Initially it focused on countries in Europe, however the demand there has decreased, while Asian countries have seen a dramatic increase in the market. Some experts believe that the demand is driven by the new economy in some Asian countries and the rise of a wealthier class of entrepreneurs and business moguls who will pay outrageous amounts for ivory, rhino horn and animal trophies. The more rare the animal, the higher price it will fetch in the Asian markets.
While enforcement is difficult, there have been some highly publicized investigations and seizures of endangered animal trophies and body parts. When the Fish and Wildlife Service catches anyone selling or possessing prohibited items, those items are stored in a government warehouse. Check out this video from CNN, which explains how the items were found and what the government is doing to protect animals from becoming commodities.
I'm a writer living in the Boston area. My interests include cancer research, cardiology and neuroscience. I want to be part of using the Internet and social media to educate professionals and patients in a collaborative environment.