Despite Progress Against Trafficking, World Still Hungry for Exotic Creatures

Tigers, like many rare and endangered species, can be sold for high prices on the black market.
Photo by LHDugger via Flickr

Earlier this month, the Chinese government invited law enforcement officers from the Association of South East Asian Nations Wildlife Enforcement Network (ASEAN-WEN) to meet with counterparts in China to discuss strategies to combat the illegal wildlife trade. Conservationists applauded the historic move, but say there is still much to learn. “It’s hard to gauge to what degree the trade may be getting better or worse,” notes Steven Galster of the PeunPa Foundation, a Thai group that works to end wildlife trafficking. “This is because monitoring of the trade has gotten better, revealing more flow and leading to more seizures. Does that mean it’s bigger than before, or [just] that we know more?”

Asia is a global hotspot for the illegal trade in wild animals and plants, according to TRAFFIC, a wildlife-trade monitoring network based in the United Kingdom. And China is the country that consumes the most wildlife worldwide, says Galster. Factors contributing to the trend include regionally high biodiversity, low public awareness of the problem, and inadequate government attention to addressing it, according to TRAFFIC. Eating certain rare animals, such as snakes, pangolins, turtles, tortoises, and salamanders, is a status symbol for many Chinese. And endangered species products such as bear bile, tiger bones, and pangolin scales are used in traditional Chinese medicine and can fetch a high price on the market.

But China is not the only country that has an illegal wildlife trade problem. “Americans are some of the world’s biggest purchasers in exotic pets,” says Galster. And the trophy trade—for tiger skins, rhino heads, pangolins, and other rarities—is still quite large, he notes. The trade in traditional Chinese medicine also exists in the United States, mostly in the Chinatowns of major cities. “All in all, China is the number one consumer of wildlife in the world, followed probably by the United States and the EU,” Galster concludes.

A new study from TRAFFIC, The State of Wildlife Trade in China, demonstrates that China has been taking steps to reduce wildlife trafficking, says Dr. Xu Hongfa, the group’s China Program Director. The report notes that the country has been at the forefront of efforts to control the illegal trade in tigers and other Asian big cats, thanks to a complete trade ban implemented in 1993, and that it has developed new standards for timber sourcing to help local buyers avoid wood products from illegally sourced timber. Last September, China adopted a regulation strengthening its oversight of endangered species imports and exports and clarifying the roles of specific government agencies in managing the wildlife trade, according to China Watch.

China’s efforts to bring to light the realities of wildlife trafficking are working, says Galster. “A growing layer of the Chinese Government is becoming more aware of the country’s consumer impact on wildlife populations. That awareness, however, needs to expand into the Ministry of Foreign Affairs before health, education, and enforcement agencies in China are mandated and unleashed to bring wildlife trade and consumption way down.”

Wan Ziming, director of the Chinese State Forestry Administration’s Enforcement and Training Division, agrees that more work needs to be done, but emphasizes the need for international cooperation. “Everyone is blaming China for consuming Southeast Asia’s wildlife and wants China to solve the problem,” he told TRAFFIC. “The fact is, we are trying but we can’t do this alone. We need to work together with other countries, [and] with ASEAN-WEN, to stop the illegal trade.”

This story was produced by Eye on Earth, a joint project of the Worldwatch Institute and the blue moon fund. View the complete archive of Eye on Earth stories, or contact Staff Writer Alana Herro at aherro [AT] worldwatch [DOT] org with your questions, comments, and story ideas.