Years ago, when I was still a young grasshopper, I had a favorite book that my parents would read to me over and over. The Great Kapok Tree: A Tale of the Amazon Rain Forest is a tale of a man that goes into the forest to cut down a magnificent tree. As he started working, he got tired and fell asleep. The forest’s inhabitants gathered and whispered to him their stories. When he woke, he was a changed man and left the forest, without the tree but richer nonetheless. Below is my adaptation of the book to tell the story of the global wildlife trade.
The jungle was different here, quieter. The young man had been walking for hours, alone. He had relied on his senses, allowing the ancient teachings of his tribe to guide him to his destination. Now, he was close. He felt it in his racing heart. He sensed that the ancient giants towering above him felt it too. In defiance, he tightened the grip on the net and looked down. Well hidden in a pile of leaves, he saw them; sleeping and unaware of his presence. The Indochinese Tiger, a creature both revered and feared for centuries. No one had believed him when he told them. They said they were extinct, killed years ago. But he had seen and now he was here. He would take them, the sleeping cubs. People craved to possess the rare and the precious. His reward would be great and his mother could finally be moved to a better hospital; he would not allow her to die.
He reached out, firm in his resolve. Wait…He froze. Someone had followed him! He turned, frantically searching for the source. You have come a long way. Who are you he whispered. I am a tree. The young man looked up. He did not believe in spirits. This was not real. I know why you have come. I can not stop you but I will tell you a story…if you will listen. This can not be. And yet it is. I know your heart is burdened. Your father is long gone and your mother dying of cancer. I have a proposition to make. Listen to my tale and I will give you what you desire. I have what I desire he said, pointing at the sleeping cubs. You would risk nature to save your mother? I don’t understand. That is why you must listen. I will now tell you a story. A story about life…..
Our planet is home to between 5 and 15 millions unique species; plants, animals and micro-organisms. Few are understood and most still unknown. Your species has been destroying nature at an expanding rate: Harvesting forests and minerals, polluting water and air, changing the climate and taking more of nature than can naturally be replaced. You use nature to feed yourselves, heal your sick, create clothing, build houses and harvest energy and you do so wastefully. Can you imagine that one species, your species, is now responsible for having accelerated the natural rate of extinction by up to 1000, if not 11,000 times? One out of every four mammals and one in three amphibians are threatened with extinction. Every day, up to 200 species will vanish from this planet, forever! One day, if you are not careful, this world will become a very lonely place.
The young man listened intently but asked sceptically: What does this have to do with me?
Everything! I know what organization you are working for. The man is called Wong Keng Liang or simply ‘Anson’ to the ones that hunt him. He operates many companies and zoos but his main organization is called Sungai Rusa Wildlife.
How do you know this? He tensed at the mention of the name.
That man has brought many more like you into this jungle. Some pretend to be tourists, others wildlife guides but they all take! Taking….always taking! They take life from this jungle and sell it as meat, fur and skin. They take it for ornamental value, to make perfume, cosmetics or medicine. They take it for magic and religion. They take it for money and for power. Wong Keng Liang is part of a system that imports and exports wildlife in value of USD300 billion per year. And this is only an estimate for legal trades. Numbers for illegal wildlife trafficking are hard to estimate, but some of your organizations place the value of imports at USD2.5 billion per year. At the end of the 20th century, 1.5 million live birds, 640,000 live reptiles, 300,000 crocodilian skins, 1.6 million lizard skins, 1.1 million snake skins, 150,000 furs, almost 300 tonnes of caviar, more than 1 million coral pieces, 100 million tonnes of fish, 440, 000 tonnes of medicinal plants and 21,000 hunting trophies were traded each year. Over a decade, the United States alone saw an import of more than 1.5 billion live species from all over the world.
I was not aware that this many species even existed, the young man marveled and tried to get a sense of what those numbers meant. He quickly gave up and shook his head, asking: If most of the trade is legal, what is there to worry about?
Not everything that is legal is right. Sometimes the lines between right or wrong, legal or illegal, sustainable or unsustainable are not comprehensible and are entangled in politics and economics. Most people would agree that the poaching of elephants and rhinoceroses for ivory or the slaughter of tigers for bone and fur is wrong. It is therefore declared illegal. While condemning this however, your species is allowing what you call legal trade. I must admit that this trade can be sustainable but history tells us different. Unlimited desires to consume and to possess have often resulted in overexploitation. Forests are cleared, oceans are over-fished and entire ecosystems see their complex communities disrupted as the demand for quality wood, exotic food and wild pets removes wildlife from nature. Legal or not, wildlife trade is considered the second biggest threat to biodiversity today. In China alone, 70 percent of the nation’s mammals are endangered due to hunting and wildlife trade.
The young man looked at the sleeping tiger cubs and wondered about what the tree had revealed. He said to the tree: These are only two cubs….what can it hurt if I take them? Surely the forest will still be here after they are gone.
In nature, everything is connected. These tigers are what your scientists might call keystone species. There are merely 2500 individuals remaining in the wild that live in only 7 percent of their historical range yet to this forest, they represent guardians and retain a sort of balance. Over time, tigers have developed as an integral part of this ecosystem. They were shaped by it and have helped to shape it. They feed on others and prevent their numbers from becoming too large for this forest to sustain. Remove them and this ecosystem will change. I can not tell you how it would change, but know that it would change. The same is true for all other species you see around you. Each plays its role and is significant in its own way. Remove one or two or three species and the complex ecological web will start to unravel in unpredictable ways.
My culture has spoken of very similar tales. The elders teach that each individual species is important. Yet, as you say, there are thousands of species and billions of organisms that are illegally traded and are threatened. They are just too many to save, to keep track of. How do we choose which ones to protect and which ones to let go?
That is a good question. You might not realize it, but some of the most important species to this ecosystem are insects. They continuously decompose and break down forest litter and animal wastes, providing valuable nourishment for this entire ecosystem. Yet, few people would come to their rescue. They have little sentimental value. So, how can they be saved if no one cares? Look at those sleeping tiger cubs. They are the solution! Your society calls them “flagship species”. They are iconic. They are deeply entrenched in your myths, customs and religions. People are fascinated by them. A world without tigers is something few people are willing to accept. That is why they are what people fight to save; if tigers are saved, so will the insects and all the other species living in the tiger’s habitat be saved. If the tigers are gone and merely reside in stories, how long before the insects and the forest will be gone as well?
The young man pondered that question for a while and drew lines through the soil. Finally he said the following: Tree, what you have told me has all been very depressing and thought provoking. Before you go on with your story, however, let me tell you of my tale. It is a depressing tale as well, for it is the tale of the developing world….
I will listen to what you have to say said the tree and was happy that the young man had stayed.
I come from a small village. It is very poor. When I was young, I saw my sister die from malaria. She was very sick from an illness that is preventable and curable. But we had no money. A doctor told me that every 30 seconds a young child, just like her, dies of malaria. Some days, I would look out on the street and see children, undernourished and too weak to play. In the world today, 27 percent of children in developing countries suffer from a lack of food and 25 000 die, each day, from poverty. Every second child on this planet suffers, just like the children in my village. I have heard that the United Nations have promised to help. I have been told they have created Millennium Development Goals and that these goals will rid us of disease, hunger and poverty…I laugh when I hear that! They say they want to help, but at the same time they punish us for wanting to help ourselves. Our village, our people depend on the wildlife and the trade of wildlife for food, medicine and money. Our forests provide a poor family with 20 percent of their annual income. In East and Southern Africa, wild meat trade provides a family with 34 percent of the household earnings. In fact, globally, up to one billion people rely on wild resources to supplement their meager income. In Uganda for example, the fish trade provides work for 835 000 people: fishers, processors, craftsmen. Every year, the trade generates USD200 million. That is 2.2 percent of Uganda’s Gross Domestic Product.
I know your pain said the tree. I even understand your anger. There is much suffering in this world. Tell me more about your village. I want to hear…
The man nodded and continued his story: Wildlife trade offers us great value. As you said, it is worth USD300 billion, of which we retain a small part of. Our wild resources can give us food security. The meat is a valuable source of protein and the money we make can be used to buy other foods and medicine, to prevent death. The children would not need to be stunted, anymore. They would be able to play, like children should and might even be able to go to school. My sister would still be alive today, if I could have bought mosquito nets. Do you know, that up to 80 percent of the African population uses traditional medicine, harnessed from their surroundings, as their primary health care, as does our village? Now that you have heard my story, how can you deny me this better future?
The tree took a long time before responding and the young man became restless. Finally he spoke: I have thought about what you have said. I know how important, how valuable this forest and the natural resources are to your village, to its survival. I fear, however, that neither you nor your village truly understands. I fear you do not value it enough.
The man looked up in anger. Where you even listening to what I have said? How can you accuse me of not valuing these resources when I have just told you that they are so important to us!
If you truly valued these resources, then you would realize that what you are involved in, the illegal trade of natural resources for consumption, cosmetics, aesthetics and social standing, is taking more from your community, from your natural environment than it is providing in return. International wildlife traders like Wong Keng Liang pay you incredibly small amounts of money compared to the profits they receive from the trade. You have to realize, that cutting down forests or killing tigers in your own country for the illegal market might provide relief in the short term, but in the long term, creates a significant risk to your survival. Why you might ask? The answer: The illegal wildlife trade is unsustainable. It is based on short-term gain, on exploiting a natural resource before someone else does, before it is gone. The rarer a species, the more it is worth, the harder people will try to obtain it. Therefore, forests are clear-cut, 75 percent of world fisheries are overexploited and individual species hunted to extinction. What, I ask you, will your village do when the forests that you have relied on for centuries to provide food and shelter, is gone? Now consider the alternative. Sustainably managed, legal wildlife trade can provide subsistence for a very long time. It is estimated that due to an unsustainable, illegal trade of timber products, the developing world is loosing 12.3 -18.4 USD billion annually; USD1 billion is lost due to illegal fish trade. To go one step further, do you realize the substantial variety of services the natural world provides for you? This ecosystem purifies and cleans the air and water that you pollute, establishes a habitat for the insects that pollinate your crops, provides natural predators to those pests and diseases that would harm your crops, regulates the local climate, decomposes waste to essential nutrients, prevents their erosion and even provides you with much needed rainfall. Answer me this, who if not this forest and its wildlife will provide all this and only in return for respect and understanding?
For the first time since he had entered the forest, the young man allowed his senses to take everything in, not for a self-oriented end, but merely for the sake of understanding, for wanting to understand. He protectively placed his hand on the back of the sleeping tiger cub and uttered his wish for the tree to tell him more. He wanted to know what could be done to protect these creatures, to protect his village and to prevent the world from becoming an empty place.
Let me continue my story then, the tree pronounced. This next part is called “who and how”…..
Forty years ago, members of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) came together to discuss means by which the trade in wildlife products and the resulting decline of species all over the world could be controlled. This initiative lead to the creation of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which came into force in 1975 with an original membership of 80 nations. Today, 175 countries have signed on and have agreed, as Parties to the Convention, to adhere to CITES regulations. While these do not supplant national law, they require signatories to produce national legislation that meets the CITES framework.
The young man had heard of CITES before and was eager to hear more. How does CITES regulate wildlife trade he asked and thought of the complexity of that notion.
It seems complicated, I agree, the tree said. Here is what has been done. CITES lists over 30 000 species in its database. It then subjects the international trade – import, export and introduction – of these species to specific controls. All trade of species has to be authorized by a national Management Authority, which provides licenses or permits according to three Appendix criteria. Species in Appendix I are absolutely off limit to trade. It includes those that are deemed to be threatened by extinction, such as the Siberian Tiger or the Giant Panda. Appendix II includes species that are not threatened by extinction but whose trade has to be monitored unless they become so. Finally, Appendix III lists species that are protected in at least one member country which has asked CITES to provide assistance in controlling its trade. Overall, there are currently 800 animals and plants in Appendix I, while Appendix II lists 4000 animals and 25 000 plants. Every three years or so, the Conference of the Parties, CITES’s principal decision making body, meets and each member nation can propose changes to the Appendices, which are only made after they have been submitted to a vote.
Sorry for interrupting, but I still don’t understand how member nations are held accountable under CITES, the young man asked, recalling that countries seldom comply with regulations if these are merely voluntary.
That is a good point. In fact, CITES has often been accused of having “no bite”. CITES is funded through a Trust Fund, into which member states make yearly payments. Funding is not significant, however and as a result, CITES has few staff members. Monitoring and enforcement therefore falls to national agencies, whose funding, structure and enforcement ability is largely a result of the current political attitude. As a result, many developing nations have weak enforcement regulations, lack staff members, training and equipment. Nevertheless, each nation provides an annual trade report, which the Secretariat of CITES analyzes. Any form of non-compliance or infraction by member states is analyzed by an Enforcement Officer, who can suggest a series of measures to be taken, that include: formal warnings, cautions, political pressure, payment plans and finally a ban of trade with the non-complying nation. These measures are all however, subject to vote and take a significant amount of time before coming into effect. Therefore, illegal shipping of wildlife can continue while actions are stalled in bureaucracy.
Unfortunately, this is not where the problem ends. Custom officials on the other side of the border are often ill equipped to determine if a shipment is legal or not. This is largely due to the current coding system, or Harmonized Commodity Description and Coding System (HS) that was developed in 1983 by the World Customs Organization and which helps classify 98 percent of international trade. The HS system gives 6 digit codes to trade items. Regrettably, the HS code often lacks further necessary description. It was determined, for example, that single shipments of amphibians, invertebrates and aquatic plants to 59 percent of Canadian importers, were given the HS code for ornamental fish. Under such circumstances, custom officials, who rarely have any other means for identifying wildlife shipments, will be unable to distinguish between CITES banned and CITES allowed species. Finally, due to lack of staff, only 2 percent of shipments are physically inspected. For the remainder, officials rely on the HS code.
That sounds like a loophole for illegal trade the young man observed and felt a sudden surge of irritation. He looked up at the tree. He had just remembered something the tree had said earlier. You told me that the rarer a species is perceived to be, the more it will be hunted. If that is true, will labelling a species as Appendix I, not be dangerous for it?
I am sad to say, that this is true. After a nation has proposed to upgrade a species from Appendix II to Appendix I, it can take between 240 and 420 days for this to come into effect. Studies show that during this lag time, trade volume often increases. Some estimates show an increase of 135 percent when compared to normal years. I can tell you of one prominent example. Two years before the African rhinoceros was due to be upgraded to Appendix I, the price for its horn increased by 400 percent, selling at up to USD20 000/kg, while illegal hunting and trade experienced a dramatic upward surge. This phenomenon represents a significant worry for CITES officials. This does not mean, however that the upgrade should not be made. It is a fact that after the proposal has come into effect, trade decreases significantly below normal levels.
It would appear that CITES needs all the help that it can get, the young man uttered. With so much uncertainty in trade regulations and the constant motivation to cash in on this vast market, no wonder that wildlife trade remains a huge problem. Are there any success stories that you can share with me he wondered?
I am glad you asked that question, for even as wildlife trade is emerging as a bigger and bigger problem, there have been successes. Ivory trade, in the form of elephant tusks had been a serious problem and had threatening species survival. In the early 1980’s, 50 000 – 70 000 elephants per year were slaughtered for the valuable material. Their numbers fell by 60 percent of pre 1980 level. In 1989, CITES finally responded and banned all international trade of ivory. Official export immediately stopped and today, elephants have recovered to the extent that culling operations are now sanctioned to control their numbers. On a different note, in the early 1990’s little was being done to protect the trade of tiger and rhinoceroses, particularly for medicine, in Taiwan. While CITES had demanded that importing nations take rapid enforcement actions or face trade bans, little results were visible. Due to the work of CITES in bringing this issue to the forefront of the public however, the U.S. government decided to act. In 1994 it applied an embargo on Taiwan’s wildlife trade in value of USD24 million annually. Within two years, Taiwan enacted stringent new wildlife trade laws, increased enforcement and initiated widespread consumer awareness campaigns; very soon, few tiger products could be found in Taiwan markets.
The young man nodded thoughtfully. That does sound like an achievement, he said. I have heard that some conservationists are advocating for wildlife farms. They claim this would take pressure of wild populations. I do not know what to think. Can you help me understand?
Yes, I too have heard this claim. Some people estimate that it costs USD200 to 500 per hectare in Africa to protect wildlife from poaching. This represents a significant cost. The argument is that if we were to breed animals, tigers for example, in captivity and then sell these for their parts – bones, fur, claw, canines, whiskers, tail and penis – that wild populations would face lessened poaching pressures. Today, over 4000 tigers are held in such breeding facilities in China. Their owners are pressuring the Chinese government to allow the trade and sale of farmed tiger products, arguing that this will help protect wild populations. Critics argue however, that this would only revive demand for tiger products. They fear that since poaching is considerably cheaper than farming, owners of breeding facilities will be encouraged to pass of illegally hunted tigers as farmed individuals. The solution is therefore not to farm tigers, but to increase their protection in the wild.
Even I, the young man said, can not bear to think of tigers as being farmed like cows; they are majestic, proud animals…He was now eager to learn more about what could be done to prevent wildlife trading. Tree, what can be done? What can I do, he demanded to know.
The tree felt a deep, resounding happiness. He knew that this young man would now cause no more harm. Here is what can be done…
CITES is the most promising organization that this world has to combat illegal wildlife trade. It needs all the help it can get. Today, numerous organizations such as the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), TRAFFIC and Fauna and Flora International (FFI) are working with CITES to increase research, regulation and enforcement of wildlife trade; they provide information on illegal trade routes and activities, observe biodiversity trends and work with local NGO’s (non-governmental organizations) to promote public awareness. Together, these organizations must be supported by national governments and offer one of the primary means through which the public can combat the illegal trade. Unfortunately, too many people are like you, and don’t understand the significance of what is happening to our species. We require public outreach campaigns that spread awareness about the dangers of the loss of wildlife to their country, their community and family; we must change the public attitude towards wildlife products and provide alternatives; we require initiatives that provide the poor families with alternative means to earn a living; where wildlife trade is possible, we require a focus on sustainable methods; we require harsher punishments for individuals and nations that remain involved in the trade..
Yes, yes…and we have to make sure that custom officials have a better way of monitoring the trade in wildlife products, the young man added enthusiastically. We also have to provide funding for anti-poaching units and ensure that captive breeding centres, like the one my ex-employer, Wong Keng Liang, owns are tightly monitored and prevented from reviving the demand in endangered animal products. By now he was pacing in circles, caught up in the moment. His gaze fell on the pile of leaves, where just moments before the small cubs had been sleeping. He froze in mid stride. Four yellow eyes were intently watching his every move. They had no fear. They were still innocent… Most importantly he whispered, a lump in his throat, we have to make sure that forests like this one are saved so that my grandchildren will one day be able to find joy in knowing that creatures as incredible as these tigers still reside in this world. He looked up at the tree and the tree saw that the young man had resolve in his eyes. Tree, I now know what I have to do he said. I will leave here today and gather my village. I will tell them of what I have heard here today and prepare them for a new path. Then, I will travel to the city and ask the IUCN to come to my village. I will ask them to fund community projects and help us access bigger markets for our products; we make beautiful art and clothing. We will also require workshops. My people need to know that they do not have to cut down the forest or hunt animals for meat to make money. I have heard that the developed world is always in need for medicinal plants and forest fruits and nuts. I want my village to grow these, sustainably, on the forest edge. Our village has many strong men, courageous men. I will organize anti-poaching units and help the government track illegal activities. I now know that this forest and these creatures are a gift. They have to be protected, for their and for our own sake. Finally, I want our message to spread. Other villages require assistance and will help us in our effort. Together we will take control and voice our concerns. The government will hear us and understand that species have to be protected.
The tree was overwhelmed. When he had seen the man in the forest, he had only expected to save the lives of two small tiger cubs, to save them from becoming but an ornament. Now, this man standing before him was seeing the world from very different eyes. The tree wondered if there was still hope for his forest.
Tree, I must thank you for what you have given me today. You have given me motivation and faith. I will cherish your story and promise to tell it as long as I am able. But now, I must go.
Wait, the tree said. The young man looked up. Do you not remember our bargain? I promised to give you what you desired? But you have given me what I desire. I am thankful for that, but I meant something entirely different. Far up in my canopy, there grows a purple flower. It is a special flower, for if you harness its nectar, it will make your mother well. The young man was stunned. A flower he asked incredulous. Yes…..a flower… the tree said!