THE BLOG
15/05/2014 19:40 BST | Updated 15/07/2014 10:59 BST

Endangered Species - Oh How Things Have Changed... Or Not

Care for the Wild is 30 years old this year, and has spent three decades trying to rescue, protect and defend wildlife. Like many others, we've fought hard to stop animals becoming extinct. Surely after all that time and effort, the battle should have been won by now?

Apparently not.

If you look around, and as we 'celebrate' Endangered Species Day, it's easy to find the depressing signs of more animals 'on the brink'. We know that elephants are facing a crisis like never before - with one African elephant being killed on average each and every 15 minutes. Asian elephants too are down by 90% in the past 100 years. If you want to see an elephant in the wild, I wouldn't leave it more than 20 years.

Tigers are down to their last 3,000 or so in the wild, rhino poaching has risen from 13 killed in 2007 to over 1000 in 2013 in South Africa alone (that's an increase of over 7500%). Lions in some vast regions of Africa are literally down to their last couple of hundred, and are extinct in several countries already.

It's not just the famous ones: animals most people have never even heard of are facing such rapid rates of poaching and human-led destruction that they may be extinct before we've learnt to pronounce their names: pangolins, half of all turtle species, many lemurs and langurs.

So, why if we've been fighting this for 30 years is it just as bad or worse? The fact is, we are making progress, good things are happening and we can win the battle - but we simply mustn't give up.

What we're fighting now isn't the same old battle - it's a different fight. Same issues, in many cases the same species, but a different fight. There are new challenges on a scale that no one could have foreseen, and certainly no one could have stopped. Battles were fought and won, new battles started.

Population growth, industrialisation, and a massive emerging middle class in Asia, particularly in China, Thailand and Vietnam, equals bad news for most things that move. But, although I have no bones about saying that these countries are the main culprits for most wildlife issues right now, it's worth remembering that the populations of these countries are vast.

Just like anywhere there are good people and bad people, rich people and poor people, some care about wildlife and some don't. Not every Chinese person collects ivory and drinks tiger wine, and not every Vietnamese person ingests rhino horn to cure their hangover. Many don't want to, many can't afford to, and many just don't have an interest in these things either way. The problem is that it only takes a small percentage of a massive population to have a very extreme impact on wildlife.

The growth of wealth coupled with the whole 'nouveau riche' thing where people in emerging economies, in their first phase of a developing middle class, feel the need to flout their wealth, is a key root cause. As is the fact that China, in particular, is 'colonising' industry and infrastructure across Africa - roads, mining, factories. With this come Chinese businesses, Chinese labourers and Chinese business travellers. Suddenly the consumer and the source country just met - face to face. This is new. This wasn't happening in the 80s or 90s.

Criminality is another key factor. Like any commercial product it comes down to supply and demand. As charities like Care for the Wild have had great success in helping to strengthen national and international laws, to increase wildlife protection on the ground, to train and equip rangers - the positive result of that is that it is harder to kill and smuggle wildlife products internationally. So move over villager with your poison darts, and make room for the man in the helicopter with night vision and AK47s.

Animals go down in numbers as demand goes up, then the price of product rises - exponentially. It's a really vicious circle. The laws and enforcement however, take longer to catch up - especially in countries with deeper rooted problems like poverty and civil unrest. Why trade drugs and risk it all, when you can trade rhino horn (incidentally worth more than cocaine, or gold, gram for gram)? Less risk, same reward.

And then there is the corruption, directly linked to the above. Low wage staffed struggling to make an honest living tempted by a relatively low risk crime that could change their lives and those of their families for ever. It's awful, but we are not in their shoes so it's hard to fully understand.

Next there's development. Anyone that has been to Nairobi may have been equally surprised as I to see a wild giraffe wandering in front of a block of flats in the background. Or, you may have also heard about polar bears and bears rummaging through city bins, about leopards roaming the streets of India's suburbs. As humans encroach upon wildlife habitats, wildlife becomes more concentrated and in fact more of a nuisance to people who may have other priorities. Tolerance levels go down, killing goes up, poaching gets easier as it becomes almost a 'service' to communities.

Technology has been a blessing and a curse. Projects we support and fund use complex GPS tracking and monitoring systems like MIST and SMART to log poaching hotspots and plan patrols and intelligence. This has had a significant effect on the way we fight wildlife crime. Even drones are being used in the fight against poaching, the internet is becoming a resource to learn about the issues, raise awareness - just like our RIGHT-tourism.org website, and mobile communications mean for hastier responses to issues.

But, on the flip side, night vision and high grade military equipment make poachers more sophisticated, simple technology like mobile phones with a signal in the middle of the Savannah make it easy for look outs to warn poachers of anti-poaching patrols and rangers, and for spotters to call in the big guns to kill wildlife on mass.

Internet sales are a massive issue too - new markets that allow illegal wildlife products to get into the hands of a whole new audience. Although leading retailers like Amazon and eBay have banned the sale of certain products like ivory, tiger products and more, many other sites haven't - and ultimately you can't regulate forums where users can post about anything.

Plus, there are always code words - so, for example, if eBay bans ivory, then there are always words like 'elephant tooth' instead. But, the internet can also be used to track down illegal traders too, to set up sting operations, to monitor the size of the issue to help plan actions. Then there is the whole issue of legal trades in antiques globally, and in newer ivory in countries like China and Thailand. All of these can and do act as a mask for the illegal trade.

So, in summary - the work we do now is just as critical as the work we've been doing for the last 30 years. In fact, it's even more critical as we face the race against time to extinction for many flagship species. But, this doesn't mean we haven't been winning battles. Without our work, and the work of other leading charities, countless more animals would have been killed, governments would have been ignoring the issue, communities wouldn't be engaged, websites wouldn't have banned ivory sales, consumers wouldn't be aware that their actions are damaging wildlife and funding crime and terrorism, elephants, rhinos and tigers would likely long be extinct. We need to look beyond the bad news and remember the good news and ultimately we need to never give up. And for the record - we won't.

Endangered Species Day is Friday 16 May. To find out more about our work, take a look at the Care for the Wild website.