Culture

For Elephants And Rhinos, Poaching Trends Point In Wrong Direction

Two adult white rhinos stand in an enclosure at South Africa's Entabeni Safari Conservancy in 2012. Entabeni is one of the world's only dedicated orphanages for rhino calves whose parents were poached for their horns — a trend that is rising. i i

hide captionTwo adult white rhinos stand in an enclosure at South Africa's Entabeni Safari Conservancy in 2012. Entabeni is one of the world's only dedicated orphanages for rhino calves whose parents were poached for their horns — a trend that is rising.

Stephane De Sakutin/AFP/Getty Images
Two adult white rhinos stand in an enclosure at South Africa's Entabeni Safari Conservancy in 2012. Entabeni is one of the world's only dedicated orphanages for rhino calves whose parents were poached for their horns — a trend that is rising.

Two adult white rhinos stand in an enclosure at South Africa's Entabeni Safari Conservancy in 2012. Entabeni is one of the world's only dedicated orphanages for rhino calves whose parents were poached for their horns — a trend that is rising.

Stephane De Sakutin/AFP/Getty Images

South Africa has a stable government that makes wildlife protection a high priority. But even in that country, there's been a dramatic surge in poaching, particularly for rhinos.

A decade ago, fewer than 100 rhinos were killed in a year. Last year, it was more than 1,000, says Dan Ashe, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

"When you're talking about something that is more valuable than gold, and it is easily accessible, you're going to create the atmosphere where people are going to take advantage of that," he says.

In this photo taken in November 2012, Miles Lappeman, owner of Finfoot Lake Reserve near Tantanana, South Africa, walks past the carcasses of a rhino and its calf. Poachers killed the animals for their horns. i i

hide captionIn this photo taken in November 2012, Miles Lappeman, owner of Finfoot Lake Reserve near Tantanana, South Africa, walks past the carcasses of a rhino and its calf. Poachers killed the animals for their horns.

Denis Farrell/AP
In this photo taken in November 2012, Miles Lappeman, owner of Finfoot Lake Reserve near Tantanana, South Africa, walks past the carcasses of a rhino and its calf. Poachers killed the animals for their horns.

In this photo taken in November 2012, Miles Lappeman, owner of Finfoot Lake Reserve near Tantanana, South Africa, walks past the carcasses of a rhino and its calf. Poachers killed the animals for their horns.

Denis Farrell/AP

Wildlife conservation groups from around the world are meeting in London this week to search for more effective ways to slow the trade in rhino horns, elephant tusks and other illegal wildlife products.

Britain's Prince Charles and his son Prince William helped convene this symposium, which has taken on added urgency as rhinos and elephants have been slaughtered at higher rates.

One pound of rhino horn now sells for tens of thousands of dollars, and that kind of money attracts poaching gangs that can afford high-tech weapons, silencers and night-vision equipment.

In many cases, the people who traffic these products are the same people who sell illegal drugs, weapons and even humans. But the consequences for selling wildlife products are far less severe, notes Jonathan Baillie, director of conservation programs at the Zoological Society of London.

"If you compare it to things like human trafficking, drugs [or the] arms trade, the illegal wildlife trade isn't seen as a serious crime, so these syndicates are getting away with doing it at a very low risk," Baillie says.

Multiple Proposals

There are many steps to addressing the problem. One approach involves changing laws, to make wildlife poaching a more serious crime.

Another strategy involves giving animals more physical protection on the ground.

A third step is to reduce demand for wildlife products. That trend line is also moving in the wrong direction, says Baillie.

"What we're seeing now is a massive increase in demand. But this isn't really for traditional medicine. This is more [for] the growing middle class or upper class in Asia," says Baillie. "It's being used for things like cancer cures or even mixed with cocaine and snorted. ... All sorts of crazy things that do absolutely nothing for anybody. It's just about status."

The world's leading countries have been slow to respond to this problem, but that's starting to change.

In November, the U.S. pulverized its stockpile of confiscated elephant tusks, dumping tons of ivory into an industrial grinder, where was crushed to splinters. Soon after the U.S. took that step, other countries followed suit.

John Robinson is with the Wildlife Conservation Society.

"The Chinese government recently destroyed six tons of ivory," Robinson says.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officers watch over confiscated ivory prepared for crushing at the National Wildlife Property Repository, at Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge, in Commerce City, Colo., in November 2013. The six tons of banned elephant ivory destroyed was accumulated from 25 years of seizures. i i

hide captionU.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officers watch over confiscated ivory prepared for crushing at the National Wildlife Property Repository, at Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge, in Commerce City, Colo., in November 2013. The six tons of banned elephant ivory destroyed was accumulated from 25 years of seizures.

Brennan Linsley/AP
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officers watch over confiscated ivory prepared for crushing at the National Wildlife Property Repository, at Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge, in Commerce City, Colo., in November 2013. The six tons of banned elephant ivory destroyed was accumulated from 25 years of seizures.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officers watch over confiscated ivory prepared for crushing at the National Wildlife Property Repository, at Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge, in Commerce City, Colo., in November 2013. The six tons of banned elephant ivory destroyed was accumulated from 25 years of seizures.

Brennan Linsley/AP

Hong Kong, meanwhile, plans to destroy its ivory stockpile of 28 tons over the next two years.

Many people are comparing this struggle to the war on drugs, or on human trafficking.

But there's one important difference. The world can fight the illegal drug trade forever. If the illegal wildlife trade continues, the fight will someday be over, because there will be none left.

Correction Feb. 18, 2014

The original on-air and online versions quoted a member of a U.S. wildlife group who incorrectly stated that Hong Kong had recently destroyed 25 tons of ivory. Hong Kong plans to destroy its stockpile of 28 tons over the next two years, but has not yet done so.

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