Save our skins: The new boom in illegal trading driving the world's rarest species to extinction

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

A decade ago, it seemed the world was winning its war on the illegal international trade in wild animals. In the past five years, however, a sudden revival of poaching, driven by fanciful beliefs in pseudo-cancer cures and a rise in rapacious ostentation in Asian markets, has put many of our most endangered species on the brink once more…


The horn of a rhino can make an interesting souvenir, though at $8,000 it might seem a little pricey. It can be polished to make a novelty beaker, it can be the focus of an exciting though improbable holiday anecdote, or it can be ground into dust for a mildly effective remedy for fever.

In China it has for a long time been reputed to improve sexual performance, offer protection from evil spirits, and act as a prophylactic against hangovers. Western pharmaceutical research pooh-poohs all these claims except the one about reducing fever. But even that is not regarded as anything to write home about. Paracetamol is cheaper, and more readily available.

What nobody knew until a few years ago is that rhino horn is also a miraculous cure for cancer.

They didn't know it because it isn't true. Rhino horn has no effect on cancer. But suddenly, some time in the past 10 years, large numbers of people in Vietnam decided the claim could be true. For the rapidly dwindling world population of rhinos, this was bad news.

Rhinoceroses have been trundling around for some 50 million years. But with exploding human populations and shrinking habitats, many species are already extinct. In fact, only five species remain with us today.

Forty years ago, their peril was so stark that they became the focus of a determined international undertaking to save them – one which bore remarkable fruit.

The effort by the world's governments to control the illegal trade in wildlife is co-ordinated by a body called Cites, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. Back in 1975, seeing the way the rhino population was going, Cites mandated the first, limited restriction on the trade in rhino products. But the trade in horn remained legal in Asia until 1993, when the ban was tightened and extended. Crucially, and for the k first time, China joined in, issuing an official ban. Legal action was enforced by public awareness campaigns, not only in the People's Republic but also in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore, where the appetite for horn and the belief in its efficacy were most widespread.

The effect was dramatic. Demand across Asia plummeted. Across Africa, populations recovered: the Southern white rhino subspecies, whose numbers had sunk to around 50, climbed to around 20,000. It was an exciting moment. A combination of internationally co-ordinated legal action, effective propaganda and intensified controls in wildlife parks and ports appeared to have halted the extinction of the rhino in its tracks.

Perhaps the Sixth Great Extinction, the one caused by us, was not, after all, a dire certainty. Our intelligence had provoked it, so perhaps our intelligence could also prevent it, or at least reverse it. So went the hopeful thoughts of the optimists. Perhaps the commitment of the American organisation WildAid to "ending demand for [illegal wildlife] products in our lifetime", as their mission statement has it, was not, after all, so wildly unattainable. Then, five years ago, everything started to go horribly wrong.

"For 16 years," Cites reports, "between 1990 and 2005, rhino-poaching losses in South Africa averaged 14 animals each year. In 2008, this figure rose to 83." It has risen dramatically every year since. The figure for 2012 was a shocking 668, 220 more than 2011.

This was not caused by human intelligence, but human stupidity. People in Vietnam suddenly started believing that rhino horn could cure cancer.

These are the waves in which extinction progresses. It does not happen at a steady speed, in a single direction. There are checks, reversals, sudden disastrous plunges, then phases of k striking progress when lessons appear to have been learnt and the world community acts as one. But with the human population growing so fast, and its wealth and the sophistication of its technology exploding too, the big picture, as with the rhino, is consistently bleak.

The fate of the tiger illustrates how hard it is to fight our civilisation's logic. Nobody consciously wants the wild tiger to become extinct. Yet there are only around 3,200 left, and they are holed up in ever-smaller pockets, and the buffaloes and deer and all the other beasts on which they prey have been decimated, too. At the same time, the tigers' own predators, the poachers, grow steadily more resourceful, more numerous, better equipped. Often they are in cahoots with the men whose job is to protect the animals.

In number terms, the rhino's prospects are bright compared to those of the tiger. And while the only part of the rhino of interest to trade is the horn, "every part of the tiger", as Cites puts it, "is illegally traded". Their heads hang on walls, their skins are used as luxury rugs, their penises are ground into impotence cures, their bones are steeped in Chinese wine. And as with rhino horn, it is Asia, and China in particular, where the trade is hottest.

If the latest peril to our remaining rhinos comes from the cancer hocus-pocus, the danger to the tiger comes from a different and surprising direction: the exploding population of China's captive tigers. While the number of wild tigers in China has dwindled to fewer than 50, those in zoos and so-called "tiger farms" number around 5,000. And according to a report by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) earlier this year, a secret directive issued by the Chinese government in 2005 has given the green light to the legal trade in tiger products that the 1993 ban was supposed to halt.

This means that if you live in China and have enough money, you can quite legally buy a tiger-skin rug, a tiger head for your living-room wall or a health tonic in which tiger bones have been steeped. As the report puts it, "The use of big-cat skin rugs as luxury home décor has been actively promoted and is now a fashionable symbol of social status. Skins are often given as prestigious gifts or bribes and are seen as an investment."

If these skins come from captive animals, one may ask, where is the problem? To which the obvious retort is, who is to know whether the animal was captive or wild? The problem lies in the fact that the skins of captive cats cost up to three times more than wild ones. In this way the undercover legitimisation of the trade, in frank defiance of Cites' rules, has given a disastrous new spur to the poaching of the wild animals.

The struggle to prevent our most endangered creatures becoming extinct is an unequal one. While Western public opinion, the force of the media and the muscle of Cites are on the animals' side, ranged against them is a raggle-taggle army embracing both the poorest and the greediest: desperate indigenous villagers fighting to survive on the eroding margins of ancient forests, corrupt rangers, malleable politicians, a battalion of smugglers and dealers, and, at the top of the chain, those whose wealth and ostentatious greed drives the trade.

Over the past 10 years, the photographer Patrick Brown has trained his lens on every stage in this process: hapless, impoverished poachers caught in the act; hawkers of bear gall bladder and tiger penis on the streets of Burma; Vietnamese swillers of snake blood; the Guangzhou restaurant where a live crocodile is dragged across the tiles to the chopping block prior to cooking. Desperate need, perverse appetites, shrewd calculation, all yoked together, wreaking havoc on endangered wildlife which belongs to us all, to the whole world; and which, by this rapacious logic, belongs to nobody; and as such is fair game, until it's all gone.

To pre-order Patrick Brown's book, 'Trading to Extinction', visit

A 1930 image of the Karl Albrecht Spiritousen and Lebensmittel shop, Essen. The shop was opened by Karl and Theo Albrecht’s mother; the brothers later founded Aldi
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'
filmA cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
Arts and Entertainment
Flora Spencer-Longhurst as Lavinia, William Houston as Titus Andronicus and Dyfan Dwyfor as Lucius
theatreThe Shakespeare play that proved too much for more than 100 people
exclusivePunk icon Viv Albertine on Sid Vicious, complacent white men, and why free love led to rape
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Stir crazy: Noel Fielding in 'Luxury Comedy 2: Tales from Painted Hawaii'
comedyAs ‘Luxury Comedy’ returns, Noel Fielding on why mainstream success scares him and what the future holds for 'The Boosh'
Life and Style
Flow chart: Karl Landsteiner discovered blood types in 1900, yet scientists have still not come up with an explanation for their existence
lifeAll of us have one. Yet even now, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
Arts and Entertainment
'Weird Al' Yankovic, or Alfred Matthew, at the 2014 Los Angeles Film Festival Screening of
musicHis latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do our experts think he’s missed out?
New Real Madrid signing James Rodríguez with club president Florentino Perez
sportColombian World Cup star completes £63m move to Spain
Hotel Tour d’Auvergne in Paris launches pay-what-you-want
travelIt seems fraught with financial risk, but the policy has its benefits
Arts and Entertainment
booksThe best children's books for this summer
Life and Style
News to me: family events were recorded in the personal columns
techFamily events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped that
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Sustainability Manager

Competitive: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: Scheme Manager (BREEAM)...

Graduate Sustainability Professional

Flexible, depending on experience: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: T...

Programme Director - Conduct Risk - London

£850 - £950 per day: Orgtel: Programme Director - Conduct Risk - Banking - £85...

Project Coordinator/Order Entry, SC Clear

£100 - £110 per day: Orgtel: Project Coordinator/Order Entry Hampshire

Day In a Page

Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

A land of the outright bizarre
What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

The worst kept secret in cinema

A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

The new hatched, matched and dispatched

Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements
Why do we have blood types?

Are you my type?

All of us have one but probably never wondered why. Yet even now, a century after blood types were discovered, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
Honesty box hotels: You decide how much you pay

Honesty box hotels

Five hotels in Paris now allow guests to pay only what they think their stay was worth. It seems fraught with financial risk, but the honesty policy has its benefit
Commonwealth Games 2014: Why weight of pressure rests easy on Michael Jamieson’s shoulders

Michael Jamieson: Why weight of pressure rests easy on his shoulders

The Scottish swimmer is ready for ‘the biggest race of my life’ at the Commonwealth Games
Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

The 'scroungers’ fight back

The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

Fireballs in space

Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
A Bible for billionaires

A Bible for billionaires

Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

Paranoid parenting is on the rise

And our children are suffering because of it
For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

Magna Carta Island goes on sale

Yours for a cool £4m
Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn