(image by Roger Smith

by Carolyn Iwicki

The black market for wildlife is one of the most infamous and lucrative of them all.  A 2008 study by the Congressional Research Service estimated the annual value of the global wildlife black market between $5 billion and $20 billion, and this value has likely risen since then.  While the poaching of charismatic megafauna—think lions, tigers, and bears—has long captured the public’s ire, illicit wildlife use takes many other forms.  For example, illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing is technically a form of poaching, as is the illegal harvest of ginseng in national parks.  Perhaps one of the most alarming cases of wildlife poaching in recent years is the sudden uptick in rhino poaching across the whole of Africa.  In South Africa alone, the rate of rhino poaching has risen 9,000 percent since 2007, placing some local populations at risk for extinction.

The main problem with poaching is that it undermines the regulations placed on the harvest of wildlife.  These harvest regulations frequently approach the maximum sustainable yield (MSY), or the number of individuals of a species that could be sustainably harvested from a local population.  Poaching causes the actual harvest rate to exceed the MSY, which places the targeted population at risk of collapse due to over-harvesting.  This threatens the biodiversity and long-term stability of an ecosystem, especially when keystone species are targeted.  In the case of commercially exploited species, such as fish, poaching could also lead to an industrial collapse that costs many laborers their jobs.  There is also some concern that terrorist groups could use poaching and illegal wildlife trade to fund their operations, which makes poaching a national security concern as well.

There are several U.S. policies that target wildlife poaching.  The Lacey Act I mentioned in my previous post is the oldest on record, having been passed in 1900.  While the act originally targeted animal poaching, it was recently amended in 2008 to include the illegal trade and harvest of plants.  The Endangered Species Act of 1973 also creates some additional protections for species that are biologically endangered.  On an international scale, the United States is a signatory to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, better known as CITES.  CITES is essentially an international network that regulates and authorizes the trade of wildlife, particularly threatened or endangered species.  In general, CITES makes the decision to protect a certain species and regulate its trade, leaving the actual regulation and enforcement to national enforcement bodies such as U.S. Fish and Wildlife.

It’s arguable that the current policy framework combating wildlife poaching and trafficking is fairly effective.  Typically, it is the logistics of law enforcement that prove to be the most difficult step in preventing poaching, particularly for undeveloped and wilder regions.  It seems that the needed step forward in anti-poaching policy would be the creation of a mutual enforcement assistance policy, wherein nations will pledge to support each other nations’ enforcement abilities and hold member nations accountable for enforcing regulations.  With such an enforcement net in place, concerned nations could put a serious dent in poaching.

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