The evils of the international drug trade, weapons smuggling, and human trafficking are well known. Drug turf wars devastate neighbourhoods while addicts leave behind the shattered lives of their families. The illicit weapons trade arms terrorists, brutal militias, and street gangs, while people smugglers fill leaky boats with desperate refugees and brothels with enslaved sex workers.
Yet few bother to think of the illicit trade in wildlife and the devastation it causes, even though it ranks up there with the trade in drugs, guns, and human lives, reaping in the order of $20bn a year. The impact is disastrous, causing immense suffering to animals and people and destroying ecosystems.
It is the slow, lonely death of a rhino with its face hacked off by poachers who have taken its horn for distant markets, or the carcasses of an elephant family mown down with automatic weapons for their ivory and left rotting in the sun. It is the industrial-scale illicit harvest of the pangolin—the world’s most trafficked mammal—for its meat and scales.
Wildlife trafficking is driving some of the world's most iconic species, as well as those you may never have heard of, towards extinction.
The good news is that we can stop this through persistent and collective efforts.
There is a strong and long-standing global collaboration that exists through the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). The latest meeting on 24th September in Johannesburg will be one of the most critical meetings in the Convention’s 43 year history.
Much of the international attention will focus on the ivory of the African elephant and the horn of the Southern White Rhinoceros, and on combating their illegal trade, as the recently released African elephant survey showed serious declines in the savanna elephant population of over 100,000 since 2007 – this reinforces the urgency of the situation.
But elephants and rhinos will be sharing the headlines with robust debates on CITES trade controls of species as diverse as baobabs, frogs, geckos, lions, pangolins, rays, rosewood, and sharks, and all for the first time against the backdrop of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.
Since the mid-1970s, CITES has regulated the global marketplace for wild animals and plants, ensuring that international trade in species is legal, sustainable, and traceable and that commercial trade is allowed only where it presents no threat to a species’ survival.
While commercial trade is prohibited in some species due to their conservation status, the well-regulated international commercial trade in some species—such as the legal trade in alligator and python skins, the meat of the queen conch, the wool of the vicuña, and the bark of the African cherry tree—can have benefits for both wildlife and people.
The unity of our collaboration within and outside of the UN achieved over the past five years means that today we are confident that the world is united in its understanding of both the scale of the threat and how to tackle this illicit wildlife trafficking. The global response is taking place with a clear legal framework of action provided by CITES and its 182 members.
Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2016 finalists
Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2016 finalists
1/11 'Termite tossing' by Willem Kruger (South Africa)
Termite after termite after termite – using the tip of its massive beak-like forceps to pick them up, the hornbill would flick them in the air and then swallow them. Foraging beside a track in South Africa’s semi-arid Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, the southern yellow-billed hornbill was so deeply absorbed in termite snacking that it gradually worked its way to within 6 metres (19 feet) of where Willem sat watching from his vehicle. Though widespread, this southern African hornbill can be shy, and as it feeds on the ground – mainly on termites, beetles, grasshoppers and caterpillars – it can be difficult for a photographer to get a clear shot among the scrub. The bird feeds this way because its tongue isn’t long enough to pick up insects as, say, a woodpecker might, and though its huge bill restricts its field of vision, it can still see the bill’s tip and so can pick up insects with precision.
2/11 'Swarming under the stars' by Imre Potyó (Hungary)
Imre was captivated by the chaotic swarming of mayflies on Hungary’s River Rába and dreamt of photographing the spectacle beneath a starlit sky. For a few days each year (at the end of July or beginning of August), vast numbers of the adult insects emerge from the Danube tributary, where they developed as larvae. On this occasion, the insects emerged just after sunset. At first, they stayed close to the water, but once they had mated, the females gained altitude. They filled the air with millions of silken wings, smothering Imre and his equipment in their race upstream to lay their eggs on the water’s surface. Then they died, exhausted, after just a few hours. This ‘compensatory flight’ – sometimes as far as several kilometres upstream – is crucial to make up for the subsequent downstream drift of the eggs and nymphs, and luckily for Imre, it was happening under a clear sky.
3/11 'The disappearing fish' by Iago Leonardo (Spain)
In the open ocean, there’s nowhere to hide, but the lookdown fish – a name it probably gets from the steep profile of its head, with mouth set low and large eyes high – is a master of camouflage. Recent research suggests that it uses special platelets in its skin cells to reflect polarized light (light moving in a single plane), making itself almost invisible to predators and potential prey. The platelets scatter polarized light depending on the angle of the sun and the fish, doing a better job than simply reflecting it like a mirror. This clever camouflage works particularly well when viewed from positions of likely attack or pursuit. What is not yet clear is whether the fish can increase its camouflage by moving the platelets or its body for maximum effect in the ocean’s fluctuating light. The lookdowns’ disappearing act impressed Iago, who was free-diving with special permission around Contoy Island, near Cancun, Mexico.
4/11 'Nosy neighbour' by Sam Hobson (UK)
Sam knew exactly who to expect when he set his camera on the wall one summer’s evening in a suburban street in Bristol, the UK’s famous fox city. He wanted to capture the inquisitive nature of the urban red fox in a way that would pique the curiosity of its human neighbours about the wildlife around them. This was the culmination of weeks of scouting for the ideal location – a quiet, well‐lit neighbourhood, where the foxes were used to people (several residents fed them regularly) – and the right fox. For several hours every night, Sam sat in one fox family’s territory, gradually gaining their trust until they ignored his presence. One of the cubs was always investigating new things – his weeping left eye the result of a scratch from a cat he got too close to. ‘I discovered a wall that he liked to sit on in the early evening,’ says Sam. ‘He would poke his head over for a quick look before hopping up.’ Setting his focus very close to the lens, Sam stood back and waited.
5/11 'Thistle-plucker' by Isaac Aylward (UK)
Try keeping a flying linnet in sight while scrambling down rocky embankments holding a telephoto lens. Isaac did, for 20 minutes. He was determined to keep pace with the linnet that he spotted while hiking in Bulgaria’s Rila Mountains, finally catching up with the tiny bird when it settled to feed on a thistle flowerhead. From the florets that were ripening, it pulled out the little seed parachutes one by one, deftly nipped off the seeds and discarded the feathery down. Isaac composed this alpine-meadow tableau with the sea of soft purple knapweed behind, accentuating the clashing red of the linnet’s plumage.
6/11 'Crystal precision' by Mario Cea (Spain)
Every night, not long after sunset, about 30 common pipistrelle bats emerge from their roost in a derelict house in Salamanca, Spain, to go hunting. Each has an appetite for up to 3,000 insects a night, which it eats on the wing. Its flight is characteristically fast and jerky, as it tunes its orientation with echolocation to detect objects in the dark. The sounds it makes – too high‐pitched for most humans to hear – create echoes that allow it to make a sonic map of its surroundings. Mario positioned his camera precisely so that it was level with the bats’ exit through a broken window and the exact distance away to capture a head-on shot. The hard part was configuring the flashes to reveal the bat and highlight the edges of the glass shards. His perseverance paid off when he caught the perfect pose as a bat leaves the roost on its night‐time foray.
7/11 'Collective courtship' by Scott Portelli (Australia)
Thousands of giant cuttlefish gather each winter in the shallow waters of South Australia’s Upper Spencer Gulf for their once-in-a-lifetime spawning. Males compete for territories that have the best crevices for egg‐laying and then attract females with mesmerizing displays of changing skin colour, texture and pattern. Rivalry among the world’s largest cuttlefish – up to a metre (3.3 feet) long – is fierce, as males outnumber females by up to eleven to one. A successful, usually large, male grabs the smaller female with his tentacles, turns her to face him (as here) and uses a specialized tentacle to insert sperm sacs into an opening near her mouth. He then guards her until she lays the eggs. The preoccupied cuttlefish (the male on the right) completely ignored Scott, allowing him to get close. A line of suitors was poised in the background, waiting for a chance to mate with the female (sometimes smaller males camouflage themselves as females to sneak past the male.
8/11 'Blast furnace' by Alexandre Hec (France)
When the lava flow from Kilauea on Hawaii’s Big Island periodically enters the ocean, the sight is spectacular, but on this occasion Alexandre was in for a special treat. Kilauea (meaning ‘spewing’ or ‘much spreading’) is one of the world’s most active volcanoes, in constant eruption since 1983. As red-hot lava at more than 1,000˚C (1,832˚F) flows into the sea, vast plumes of steam hiss up, condensing to produce salty, acidic mist or rain. Alexandre witnessed the action and returned in an inflatable the following evening to find that a new crater had formed close to the shore. Capturing the furious action in a rough sea was no easy task. From 100 metres (328 feet) away, he was blasted with heat and noise – ‘like a jet taking off’. In a moment of visibility, his perseverance paid off, with a dramatic image of glowing lava being tossed some 30 metres (98 feet) into the air against the night sky.
9/11 'Splitting the catch' by Audun Rikardsen (Norway)
Sometimes it’s the fishing boats that look for the killer whales and humpbacks, hoping to locate the shoals of herring that migrate to these Arctic Norwegian waters. But in recent winters, the whales have also started to follow the boats. Here a large male killer whale feeds on herring that have been squeezed out of the boat’s closing fishing net. He has learnt the sound that this type of boat makes when it retrieves its gear and homed in on it. The relationship would seem to be a win-win one, but not always. Whales sometimes try to steal the fish, causing damage to the gear, and they can also become entangled in the nets, sometimes fatally, especially in the case of humpbacks. The search for solutions is under-way, including better systems for releasing any whales that get trapped. Having grown up in a small coastal fishing community in northern Norway, Audun has always been fascinated by the relationship between humans and wildlife.
10/11 'Golden relic' by Dhyey Shah (India)
With fewer than 2,500 mature adults left in the wild, in fragmented pockets of forest in northeastern India (Assam) and Bhutan, Gee’s golden langurs are endangered. Living high in the trees, they are also difficult to observe. But, on the tiny man-made island of Umananda, in Assam’s Brahmaputra River, you are guaranteed to see one. Site of a temple dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva, the island is equally famous for its introduced golden langurs. Within moments of stepping off the boat, Dhyey spotted the golden coat of a langur high up in a tree. The monkey briefly made eye contact and then slipped away. Today, there are just six left on the island, and, with much of the vegetation having been cleared, the leaf-eating monkeys are forced to depend mainly on junk food from visitors
11/11 'Playing pangolin' by Lance van de Vyver (New Zealand/South Africa)
Lance had tracked the pride for several hours before they stopped to rest by a waterhole, but their attention was not on drinking. The lions (in South Africa’s Tswalu Kalahari Private Game Reserve) had discovered a Temminck’s ground pangolin. This nocturnal, ant-eating mammal is armour-plated with scales made of fused hair, and it curls up into an almost impregnable ball when threatened. Pangolins usually escape unscathed from big cats (though not from humans, whose exploitation of them for the traditional medicine trade is causing their severe decline). But these lions just wouldn’t give up. ‘They rolled it around like a soccer ball,’ says Lance. ‘Every time they lost interest, the pangolin uncurled and tried to retreat, attracting their attention again.’ Spotting a young lion holding the pangolin ball on a termite mound close to the vehicle, Lance focused in on the lion’s claws and the pangolin’s scratched scales, choosing black and white to help simplify the composition.
We know that this action has to be for the long term. We have the regional enforcement networks and the International Consortium on Combating Wildlife Crime, bringing CITES Secretariat, INTERPOL, UN Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the World Bank and the World Customs Organisation together to provide coordinated enforcement support.
In addition, there is a new financing mechanism through a “Global Partnership on Wildlife Conservation and Crime Prevention for Sustainable Development”. In this the UN Development Programme (UNDP) is working closely with the Global Environmental Facility (GEF), the World Bank, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), Asian Development Bank, International Union for Conservation of Nature, and the World Wildlife Fund in ensuring that much needed financial and technical support gets to the ground. Further exciting United Nations agency collaborations are in development.
These highly complementary and related initiatives are seeking to fight wildlife crimes through enforcement support from source through to destination, targeted demand reduction measures, and by ensuring local communities benefit from the wildlife they live amongst. And it is having an impact on the front lines where it matters most—be it in the field, in the court room, at national borders, or in the illicit markets.
Illicit wildlife trafficking is about people—people drive it through greed, ignorance, and indifference, people suffer from it, and people alone can fix it. Like other illicit trafficking, wildlife crime greases the palms of corrupt networks, draws upon over-stretched law enforcement, and robs ordinary people and communities in poorer countries of jobs and their governments of money. Armed and hardened poaching gangs add to insecurity in places where a lack of the rule of law allows these crimes to flourish.
Since the last conference, in Bangkok in 2013, there have been a number of very high-profile gatherings adding momentum to the global campaign against the scourge of illicit wildlife trafficking. This unity of purpose, together with widening the deployment of proven tactics to fight serious crimes, gives us confidence that the transnational organised criminal groups driving this industrial scale illicit wildlife trafficking can and will be beaten.
Helen Clark is the Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and a former Prime Minister of New Zealand.
John Scanlon is Secretary-General of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).