Why Wildlife Poaching Is A Big Problem, Even If You Don't Care About Rhinos

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Wildlife poaching has exploded in recent years, endangering some of the most magnificent beasts of Africa, South America and Asia. But a new report maintains that this is much more than an animal problem: Poaching networks have begun to threaten the stability and security of countless human communities around the world.

The World Wildlife Fund, or WWF, a global environmental conservation organization, presented the study on Wednesday at a United Nations briefing. Researchers hope to convince government officials to take the threat of illicit wildlife hunting more seriously.

It might be a tough sell. For those who make political or humanitarian issues their bread and butter, it’s easy to brush off environmental causes. Why focus on plants and animals when so many humans are fighting, starving and suffering?

In the United States, the environmentalist movement had its heyday during the 1960s and 1970s with the passage of such monumental pieces of legislation as the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act. But the fervor has since waned, and today's environmentalists are often pigeonholed as animal enthusiasts, botanical buffs or tree-hugging hippies.

No surprise, then, that wildlife preservation initiatives are often a low priority for policymakers, which is what WWF researchers discovered while conducting interviews with global government figures in recent months. The organization's new report hopes to change that by emphasizing the link between animal conservation and human safety. Their pitch isn’t aimed at conservationists -- it’s aimed at national security officials.

“The current global approach to fighting illicit wildlife trafficking is failing because governments do not give the issue high enough priority and have not succeeded in implementing an effective response -- at either a national or an international level,” says the report.

“The absence of an effective response hinders social and economic development, including potential economic loss for governments, and has direct consequences on the environment as well as national and international security.”

The problem has to do with the criminal networks that are increasingly cropping up to facilitate illegal wildlife trade.

Take South Africa, where growing demand for rhinoceros horns in Asia has led to an illicit hunting spree. Hundreds of rhinos have been killed over the past year, and more than 90 percent of the entire rhino population has been decimated within the past half century.

These days, the average poacher targeting rhinoceroses in South Africa or elephants in Gabon isn’t working alone. Sophisticated organized crime rings have evolved to maximize poacher profits, operating under the radar to avoid government regulations. The growth of these criminal networks corresponds with an increase in illegal weapons, violent crime or even terrorist activities.

These rackets work best in countries with corrupt or weak governments, since poaching networks often rely on bribes to get their products -- most often ivory, rhino horns and animal skins -- across national borders.

According to the report, many of these criminals “engage in the international management of shipments and do not hesitate to use violence or threats of violence against those who try to stand in their way. They constantly adapt their tactics to avoid detection and prosecution, making national borders increasingly irrelevant. In Africa, ongoing armed conflicts and illicit wildlife trafficking seem to be interlinked, and wildlife trafficking is often used to finance terrorist activities and launder money from other illegal trafficking activities.”

That’s serious stuff, and the WWF isn’t the only group taking notice.

In November, U.S. officials unveiled new plans to ramp up efforts to monitor poaching around the world. The U.S. now views poaching as more of a national security threat than had previously been the case.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton commented on the issue.

“It is one thing to be worried about the traditional poachers who come in and kill and take a few animals, a few tusks, a few horns, or other animal parts," she said, according to the Guardian. “It's something else when you've got helicopters, night vision goggles, automatic weapons, which pose a threat to human life as well as wildlife."

Even drones are now part of the picture. The WWF engineered the use of unmanned aerial vehicles for surveillance purposes earlier this year, and in December, Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) awarded the organization with $5 million to beef up the program.

This apparent increase in awareness is helpful to the WWF and other anti-poaching organizations, but Wednesday’s report emphasized that the solution will have to be a joint effort between private consumers, corporations, national governments, international organizations and humanitarian groups. Breaking up entrenched poaching networks won’t be easy -- but given the security threat these systems pose, it is increasingly necessary.

“It is time to change the approach to fighting illicit wildlife trafficking by creating the right incentives for all stakeholders to make the issue a priority,” said the report.

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