Wildlife Trafficking - A Merciless Slave Trade And Ongoing Genocide

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The world is currently facing unprecedented growth in wildlife trafficking for hunting, medicine, and pets that is accelerating the extinction of many of the planet’s most iconic animals. According to the latest estimates by the World Wildlife Foundation (WWF), the illegal wildlife trade is worth about $19 billion a year. The non-profit animal rights organization PETA notes that selling protected wildlife and their parts in stores, auctions, or on the Internet is now one of the largest sources of criminal network earnings, behind only arms smuggling and drug trafficking. And it’s not slowing down.

Illegal poaching of critically endangered Rhinos in South Africa alone, for example, increased from 122 animals in 2009 to 1,215 in 2014, according to UN figures, and estimates are that it’s even worse today. Poaching is driven by outlandish prices for animal parts. The price of rhino horns has skyrocketed in recent years, with a kilogram fetching up to $65,000 on the black market, while reports from Save the Elephants put raw ivory at a price of $2,100 per kilogram at least (up from $750 in 2010).

As endangered animals like elephants, tigers, rhinos, and lions become rarer, it leads to even more pressure on their dwindling numbers from illegal trafficking.

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Much of the trafficking is supported by the perceived medical benefits of consuming certain animal parts. Rhinos, for example, are killed for their horns, which are toted as medicine to gullible buyers who have no idea that they could gain just as much benefit (none whatsoever) from chewing their own fingernails. Meanwhile, wild animals like lions are sold in plain sight online, both alive and for their parts. (Completely ineffective lion bone medicines are growing in popularity thanks to the difficulty in obtaining equally medically useless critically endangered tiger bones.)

“If you Google lions for sale, you will find many of these big cats being sold into private keeping. Of course, this happens with many other animals that are taken from the wild, from birds to reptiles and everything in between, not only for pets but of course largely also for consumption,” says Fiona Miles, South African director for Four Paws, an international animal rights charity with offices in 13 countries.

PETA has documented many animals destined for the pet trade that have been abducted from the wild in places such as Australia, Africa, and Brazil, subjected to cruel transportation means. They’ve seen parrots with their feet and beaks taped and stuffed into plastic tubes hidden in luggage. Baby turtles have been found stuck in their shells, taped up and shoved into tube socks, while baby pythons have been found crammed into DVD cases.

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If these exotic animals do manage to reach their destinations alive, the animals and their keepers may face many more problems.

“Firstly, keeping a wild animal as a pet can lead to the suffering of that animal, even without intent, as a human cannot provide the correct natural habitat, species-appropriate family group, or nutrition, amongst other things,” says Miles. “Habituating a wild animal to a human does not take away the wild instincts of that animal and can lead to very dangerous situations for humans. This inevitably leads to the animal being in the firing line.”

PETA’s website references dozens of attacks by captive large cats on humans in the past decade. In one incident, a tiger mauled his captor’s three-year-old grandson. In another incident, a lion killed several dogs and trapped a child in his room. Elsewhere, a Bengal tiger tore off the arm of a 4-year-old boy.

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Since 2000, there are at least four documented cases of people being mauled to death by wolf-dog hybrids. None of these incidents led to a happy ending for the animal or the misguided humans who attempted to tame them.

Then there’s the problem of disease. Seventy-five percent of all new infectious diseases originate from nonhuman animals, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

A monkeypox outbreak that affected dozens of people in the Midwest in 2003 was traced to a Gambian rat from Africa. The animal had been kept with prairie dogs in an Illinois animal dealer’s shed. Prairie dogs, by the way, have also been known to carry the plague and tularemia. The herpes B virus, which is nearly 70 percent fatal to humans, can be transferred from macaques to humans, and human contact with reptiles and other exotic animals accounts for 70,000 cases of salmonellosis each year. Parrots, another popular animal to traffic as a pet, can transfer psittacosis, which can also be deadly to humans.

Another major area of concern in the wildlife trafficking scene for animal rights activists is the trafficking and exploitation of sea animals like dolphins, sea lions, and whales.

Ric O’Barry, who was a dolphin trainer for the Flipper television series in the 1960s, is quoted as saying that parks and zoos “want you to think that God put [dolphins] there or [that] they rescued them. … If people knew the truth, they wouldn’t buy a ticket.”

O’Barry was referring to the abysmal conditions at marine parks, especially when compared to the natural habitats of sea animals, and the way that animals are captured from the wild.

Orcas (killer whales) and dolphins, for example, are normally part of large family groups called pods with vast territories of the ocean. Wild animals of breeding age are often captured by forcing the animals into shallow waters, surrounding them with nets, and pulling them onto boats, according to PETA sources. Some animals die of exhaustion swimming against the nets, while others have died of pneumonia from water entering their blowholes. Once captured, in parks, dolphins are confined to small tanks that may be as small as 24 by 24 feet and 6 feet deep, with few companions. PETA notes on their website that in such small spaces, their own echolocation bouncing off walls drives some dolphins insane.

This may be partly why dolphins at SeaWorld and other marine parks rarely survive more than 10 years. In captivity, dolphins usually die before the age of 20 even though in the wild they regularly live into their 40s and 50s, or even into their 90s. Otherwise healthy dolphins have seemingly committed suicide by failing to come up for air, or repeatedly ramming their heads into the sides of the tanks, according to PETA sources.

Orcas don’t fare much better, with a PETA representative recounting incidences to the California Coastal Commission in 2015 of calves being torn from their mothers, forced early pregnancies, and premature deaths. Breeding programs for orcas at SeaWorld and other parks regularly force animals to breed, with male orcas trained to float on their backs while their trainers masturbate them to collect their sperm, which is then used to artificially inseminate females. Sometimes these females are forced into breeding at unnaturally young ages compared to their wild counterparts.

Although trafficking animals from international waters or from other countries into unnatural habitats is a large concern, there’s also the problem of in-country trafficking and exploitation. Many endangered land animals, including lions and rhinos, are captured from the wild and subjected to “canned hunts” or “green hunts” in their home countries, confined to fake animal sanctuaries that sell tourists the chance to shoot endangered creatures within a fenced-in enclosure.

Canned hunting is when the animal is killed using bullets, while green hunting is when the animal is shot with a tranquilizer dart, so they can be hunted repeatedly. Many more animals are bred (often with a lot of inbreeding) directly within these operations. Lions, for example, are pulled from their mothers before they are weaned so the lioness can be impregnated again and again.

“It is an absolute factory farming setup with no legislation to control it. We urgently need a moratorium on breeding, and improved legislation to protect lions,” says Miles.

Tourists are told that canned hunting and green hunting leads to the protection of wild animals, not only preventing wild animal hunts but putting money back into conservation. Unfortunately, the statistics tell a different story. Using lions as an example again:

“Wild lion populations have decreased by 80 percent over the last 20 to 25 years versus the massive increase of captive lion breeding from just a few hundred lions 20 years ago to more than 6,000 lions in 200 breeding farms today,” says Miles.

Beyond these official government numbers, PAWS estimates there are thousands of more lions born in these types of facilities every year. Tourists are told that these “sanctuaries” rescue orphaned cubs, but Miles and her organization dispute this, since the number of cubs that would need to have been rescued to support these operations is completely unrealistic.

“There is no evidence to suggest that the proceeds of canned or green hunting benefit conservation efforts or community development,” says Miles. “The owners of captive bred lions have private enterprises that do not support conservation at all and certainly do not create many jobs. Volunteers and tourists are provided a false experience basically resulting in consumer fraud, as they are being told that lions need the type of protection that they offer to orphaned and abandoned cubs.”

Miles says the best alternative to fake animal sanctuaries like these that support practices such as canned hunting is probably eco-tourism in real conservation areas, which truly support the preservation and restoration of natural habitat for animals.

“Without a large public demand for the protection of wildlife, their habitat, and welfare, the demand for unethical tourism practices, legal and illegal trading of animals and their parts will continue to flourish. People need to want to see animals in their natural environment not only for the animals but also for our own future,” she says.