Wildlife crime is the fourth largest illegal organized trade worldwide, with a huge impact on biodiversity and beyond. Wildlife crime includes the illegal trade in timber and illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fisheries. Wildlife crime entails the decline of well-known species such as rhinos and elephants at a respective rate of three rhinos a day and one elephant every 15 minutes, but also contributes to the decline of lesser known endangered species such as giraffes by 40% in the last 30 years, 3 sharks every second, and a pangolin every 5 minutes.
Beyond these devastating losses to specific species and biodiversity in general, wildlife crime also has a huge effect on humans that is often unknown and underestimated by those not familiar with this type of crime. Highlighted here are four such ways in which wildlife crime impacts human rights.
Note: This article is meant as an introduction, and therefore does not touch upon the full complexity of the links between wildlife crime and human rights. Nonetheless, the nature of these links will immediately make it clear why these are not to be neglected when working with human rights. Which of these were you already aware of?
Multiple terrorist organizations have been proven to have ties with wildlife crime, in particular the poaching and trafficking of elephant ivory. Funding from ivory sales enables terrorist groups to buy arms and ammunition. Among the terrorist organizations proven to have ties to the illegal wildlife trade are Al-Shabaab, Janjaweed, the Lord’s Resistance Army and Boko Haram. Allegedly, up to 40 percent of Al-Shabaab’s funding comes from the illegal trade in ivory.
Slavery and piracy
About 15 percent of the world’s population’s survival is dependent on wildlife. The decline of wildlife populations therefore makes it difficult for people to sustain themselves, either because they depend on such wildlife for their income or their sustenance. To maintain yields, increased labour is needed. An obvious example is that of depleting fish populations. In Ghana, depleting fish populations have made it more difficult and thus more expensive and more dangerous for fishermen to catch enough fish. Consequently, forced child labour is used for specific and dangerous tasks in order to reduce costs. The Ghana example affects thousands of children, but in cases from Cambodia, Thailand and Burma children and men are bought and sold for free labour in the fishing industry. According to researchers, “starvation, physical abuse and murder are common on these [fishing] vessels.”
A related issue is the link between depleting fishing populations and Somali piracy. Depleting fishing populations, fish being the sole source of livelihood for many, have led to people taking drastic measures to protect their yields: “what began as an effort to repel foreign vessels illegally trawling through Somali waters escalated into hijacking fishing – and then non-fishing – vessels for ransom.” The same phenomenon occurred off the coast of Nigeria and ‘other little-governed coastlines’, where it is increasingly common that fishermen literally arm themselves to defend their yields against foreign competition, and have even turned to piracy as a way to supplement their income.
Several global cases of disease and epidemic outbreaks are linked to wildlife crime and the illegal wildlife trade. Two ways in which wildlife crime exacerbates this threat to public health: first, the illegal wildlife trade is illegal and therefore unscreened and unregulated, and animals are not quarantined. Second, consumption of bushmeat, the meat of wild animals, when contaminated, leads to the transmission of diseases to people. Examples of bushmeat linked to disease outbreaks include consumption of civet cats contaminated with respiratory viruses, or primate meat containing HIV. The Ebola epidemic is also linked to the consumption of bats and primates. Past outbreaks in Monkeypox, Avian Flu and SARS are all associated with wildlife crime and the illegal trade as well. In a different fashion, loss of plant species includes the loss of many medicinal species, including those yet to be discovered or yet to be attributed medicinal qualities.
Wildlife crime is disruptive for communities. In the short run, poaching can seem a quick, high-profit/low-risk source of income. In the long run, however, poaching harms wildlife-based tourism, thus damaging a massive source of income for many countries rich in wildlife.
Apart from the consequences of terrorism, slavery and public health threats, communities are disrupted by the fact that poachers and rangers as well as environmental defenders are killed on a regular basis. Reduced habitat has increased human-wildlife conflict, also disrupting community life. As a result, the relationship between wildlife and communities is often incredibly complicated. Involvement of local communities is therefore vital to achieve sustainable wildlife conservation.