Wildlife crime worth as much as $10 billion annually threatens the existence of mammals, birds and trees ranging from rhinos to Spix’s macaws and rosewood, the United Nations said.
“Wildlife and forest crime is one of the fastly growing forms of transnational crime,” Yury Fedotov, executive director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, said in an interview on Monday. “It’s not just a crime against flora and fauna, it’s a crime against people” that sometimes connects to terrorism and is usually supported by corruption and money laundering, he said.
Poaching of African elephants for ivory, which is reducing the population of the animals faster than they can reproduce, is worth $165 million to $188 million a year when the products are sold in Asia, while the rhino-horn trade last year was valued at between $63 million and $192 million, the UN Congress on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora figures show.
Wildlife crime has grown into one of the largest transnational organized-criminal activities, according to the UN. Over the three years through 2012, as many as 100,000 elephants were poached, while 1,215 rhinos were illegally killed in South Africa last year, the UN said in a statement on Tuesday, which has been designated as Wildlife Day.
“Illegal wildlife trade undermines the rule of law and threatens national security,” said UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon in the statement. “It degrades ecosystems and is a major obstacle to the efforts of rural communities and indigenous peoples.”
Rhinos are killed for their horns, which are ground into powder and sold as a putative cancer cure in Vietnam and China. Kenya on Tuesday burned 15 metric tons of elephant ivory and rhino horns as part of efforts to curb poaching, the Kenya Wildlife Service said. Kenya has about 38,000 elephants today compared with 167,000 in 1973.
The illegal activity affects the survival of a wide array of animals, with many dying during capture and captivity.
A minimum of 220 chimpanzees, 106 orangutans, 33 bonobos and 15 gorillas have been lost from the wild over the past 14 months as trafficking spreads, according to estimates by the Great Apes Survival Partnership.
The majority of the remaining 80 Spix’s macaws, native to Brazil and portrayed as the characters Blu and Jewel in the children’s animated film “Rio,” are kept by bird keepers in Europe, according to the UN. Pangolins, known as “scaly anteaters” because of their overlapping scales, are among the world’s most trafficked mammals, with more than 1 million taken from the wild in the past decade, the UN said. They are eaten as a delicacy in Asia and a single animal can be sold for $7,000, according to the National Zoological Gardens of South Africa.
Every year, wildlife crime including illegal logging is estimated to be worth between $8 billion and $10 billion, Fedotov said. Timber smuggling also criss-crosses the globe.
Precious rosewood is taken from Madagascar, Southeast Asia and Central America. In the three years to June 2014, more than 4,800 tons of the timber were seized by authorities in East Africa and Asia, according to the UN. Hong Kong customs last year seized 92 tons of Honduras rosewood arriving from Guatemala via Mexico. Illegal trade in Siamese rosewood from Southeast Asia has also escalated in recent years.
The UN Development Programme said it is focusing on “law enforcement, regulations, and engaging the private sector and strengthening collaboration between governments within and across” Africa and Asia.