When It Comes To Killing Endangered Animals, We're All Part Of The Problem Says WildAid's John Baker

33,000 elephants a year are still killed for ivory

The footage of a mountain of ivory going up in flames in Kenya last month was seen around the world, and was a clear sign from the country that it would be tackling illegal wildlife trade. But the issue does not just lie with African countries - it’s a global one, says managing director of WildAid John Baker.

“So long as consumer demand in the West for wildlife products exists, we’re all part of the problem,” he tells HuffPost UK. “This includes the United States, where we’re working to crack down on the trade in ivory, sea turtle products and other illegal items that drive poaching."

A ranger stands in front of burning ivory stacks at the Nairobi National Park in April
A ranger stands in front of burning ivory stacks at the Nairobi National Park in April

The US illegal wildlife trade is thought to be worth up to $8bn a year, and it’s the second-largest ivory market in the world after China.

“Britain is hugely influential in the fight against the ivory trade given it’s political and economic ties,” Baker, who was in Tucson, Arizona to speak at the One Young World summit, explains. “In January, WildAid joined a coalition of conservation groups calling on David Cameron to support a total ban on ivory sales in the UK.”

Although trading in ivory is an issue that many will be aware of, many other species are under threat. Rhinos, elephants, tigers, sharks, manta rays, pangolins, and many other species like some sea turtles, freshwater turtles, birds and reptiles, are all facing being wiped out.

“A recent trend is entire frozen seafood cargo containers filled with pangolins - a gentle, reclusive mammal poached for its meat and scales.”

The pangolin is thought to be the world's most trafficked wild mammal.

A man in handcuffs squats down next to dead pangolins which were seized by authorities in Guangzhou, China, in 2014. Pangolins curl up into a ball when threatened.
A man in handcuffs squats down next to dead pangolins which were seized by authorities in Guangzhou, China, in 2014. Pangolins curl up into a ball when threatened.

Demand for pangolin scales, as well as pangolin meat, means tens of thousands are poached every year. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), at least 218,100 pangolins were seized between 2000 and 2012, a figure likely to represent only a fraction of those being illegally traded. The IUCN estimates at least 1m of the mammals have been traded over the past decade.

“It’s horrendous to see large shipments of any wildlife product,” says Baker. “I’ve seen tusks of so many animals, including young ones.”

The charity relies on celebrity support to highlight the trade of wildlife products; it counts Leonardo DiCaprio, Jackie Chan and Harrison Ford among its ambassadors. And although the death of Cecil the Lion in 2015 was a tragedy, it did bring trophy killing back into the spotlight, and ignited the public’s passion to campaign against the industry.

The lion’s death sparked various petitions demanding justice for the animal, which were signed by millions of people. Baker says social media is a help when it comes to raising awareness as it can influence attitudes. “I think Cecil may be an example of this. Social media engagement in a particular issue can help demonstrate public interest or support. But, it's just one of several strategies.

“Cecil’s death also helped highlight other problems that are major threats to lions,” Baker continues. “Wildlife populations, including lions, face many threats, such as habitat loss and the bushmeat trade. Some of our most iconic species - lions, elephants, rhinos and tigers - are in crisis."

For these threatened species, it is not enough wildlife trade being regulated, it must stop completely, says Baker.

We have done it before with ivory and rhino horn in the 1990s. It is achievable with a concerted effort including needed policies (such as national trade bans), effective enforcement and increased public awareness and changed attitudes. In China in the past few years, shark fin consumption has declined by 50-70%. There is much more work to do on many of these species but we can do it.”

The internet does not always lend a helping hand, however. “It’s easier to buy some wildlife products thanks to the relative anonymity that the internet offers,” explains Baker. “Companies such as Yahoo! Japan currently allow ivory sales, though we’ve seen companies including eBay and Alibaba step up and ban such e-commerce sales.”

“Cute” YouTube videos of wildlife can also be harmful. The widely circulated video of a slow loris being tickled has been viewed more than 1m times, and these kind of videos are thought to have contributed to the rise in the mammals being illegally trafficked as pets. Although the slow loris might look like it's enjoying being tickled, raising its arms, experts say this action is actually a sign of distress, as the animals secrete venom from a gland inside the elbow when they feel threatened.

Many animals, such as the slow loris, are bought as pets online but prove to be highly unsuitable to be kept domestically.

“This scenario can prove devastating to native species when people release pets they no longer want into the wild," Baker says. "For example, in Florida, the Burmese python, once a popular pet imported into the US, is a destructive invasive species that kills native wildlife. In 2012, the Obama administration banned Burmese python imports - as well as three other constrictor species.”

The key to achieving WildAid’s ambitions of stopping illegal wildlife trade, and in turn, preventing the deaths of thousands animals in the process, is a combination of governments, individuals and big corporations taking a stand.

“Strong government leadership is needed to institute necessarily policies and regulations, and then enforcing them," Baker says. "Top business leaders are needed to speak out.

"Of course, these programs also need some funding. But the cost of ending the trade in a few years is much lower than protecting the wild populations against rampant poaching over the next decade. Many species may not survive that long unless we can end the trade soon.

"In our campaigns in China, we leverage $200m per year in pro bono media placement and broadcast air time from our media partners there. We can make effective use of the funds."

And indeed they do. The charity has been pushing hard to raise the awareness of the impact shark fin soup has on the mammals. Former NBA star Yao Ming has spearhearded the efforts.

An estimated 100m sharks are killed every year with fins from up to 73m used for shark fin soup, primarily to supply the demand in mainland China.

When WildAid started its campaign, 75% of Chinese were unaware shark fin soup was made from sharks - the dish is called “fish wing soup” in Mandarin. Another 19% believed the fins grew back. Since the beginning of the charity's efforts, there has been a reported decrease of up to 70% in demand for the delicacy.

Despite the increasing awareness of these issues, there is still much to be done, and Baker is keen to drive home why people should care about stopping wildlife trade.

“For many species, there is an ecological and economic impact, such as the massive loss of sharks on some fisheries or the loss of elephants, rhinos or lions to tourism in some African countries. At the same time our humanity loses something significant when these animals are no longer with us. Can you imagine no more gorillas, tigers, rhinos, etc.? Also, while the illegal wildlife trade impoverishes us in several ways it only enriches criminals,corrupt officials and in some cases even terrorists.”

“The solution requires everyone doing their part: closing markets, strengthening trafficking enforcement and reducing consumer demand.”

John Baker was speaking at the first One Young World expert event, which focused on the environment and allowed young leaders to come together with world experts to create solutions to tackle one of our most pressing global problems.

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