The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) established World Wildlife Day with the specific intention of combating “wildlife crime,” which is largely driven by “a voracious demand for illegal animal parts and products.”
It is not just animals who suffer as a result of wildlife crime. A great majority of wildlife poachers are controlled by dangerous crime syndicates, with poaching proceeds often used to finance terrorist groups. What’s more, those on the front lines are often threatened by heavily armed poaching gangs, and many of them have paid the price with their lives. The WWF estimates that every four days, a wildlife conservationist or park ranger is killed during the course of their duties.
To spread more awareness about what’s happening with poaching around the world, please meet five of its major victims below — animals who are now endangered because of human activity and are all in desperate need of our help today.
1. Mountain Gorilla
These gorillas, who typically live at altitudes of between 8,000 to 13,000 feet, have increasingly been driven to live further up mountains in recent years because of human encroachment on their territories, which can leave them vulnerable to dangerous weather conditions, food shortages, and poaching. An emerging market for baby gorillas, in particular, has proved to be especially threatening.
The WWF reports that despite years of civil unrest in the Congo Basin – a key gorilla habitat – their conservation efforts have met with success. The gorilla population of the region has increased from 620 in 1989 to around 880 today. Matt Lewis, WWF’s African species expert, says, “Although they face many threats – habitat loss, disease, and snare entanglement, among others – this subspecies of the eastern gorilla can have a future on this planet.” While this may be an encouraging sign, we cannot afford to sit back and relax just yet.
The prospect of oil exploration in the Virunga National Park (Democratic Republic of Congo) has the potential to set back the gorilla conservation movement by several years. WWF fears that this activity could threaten the park’s biodiversity, which would affect not only the newly-flourishing gorilla population, but also elephants, hippos, and the rare okapi antelope.
In October, David Attenborough, in collaboration with Fauna and Flora International, launched a crowd funding campaign on Indiegogo.com to help save the mountain gorilla. Speaking about this campaign, Attenborough says, “By supporting this campaign and promoting it through your networks, you will not only be helping to secure a future for mountain gorillas, but also the tens of thousands of Rwandan, Ugandan and Congolese people who have come to depend on them for their livelihoods and well-being.”
2. Black Rhinoceros
The entire black rhinoceros species is considered critically endangered, while one subspecies – the western black rhino – was declared extinct by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in 2011. The rhino poaching industry has largely been fueled by a belief in the medicinal properties of its horn, as ground rhino horn has been used in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) for thousands of years. Last month, we reported that 746 rhinos had been killed by poachers in 2013, up from 2012’s total of 668, and that the poaching of these animals has increased by a shocking 5,000 percent since 2007.
However, there are reasons to be hopeful. In 2003, WWF – in collaboration with Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife and Eastern Cape Parks and Tourism – established the Black Rhino Range Expansion Project, with the aim of increasing the numbers and growth rate of the black rhino population in South Africa. This project has led to the successful introduction of no fewer than eight new rhino populations into lands stretching across KwaZulu–Natal and Limpopo, totaling over 160,000 hectares. To date, it is believed that over 40 calves have been born on these lands and only three have been poached. In the early 1990s – the lowest point for the worldwide black rhino population – there were just over 2,000 left. Today, thanks to intensive wildlife protection efforts, that number has doubled to 4,000.
3. Sumatran Tiger
The Sumatran tiger is critically endangered. According to the WWF, less than four hundred of them are left, “holding on for survival in the remaining patches of forests on the island of Sumatra.” Despite increased conservation efforts in recent years – including tougher legal sanctions for poachers, who hunt the tigers for their skins, teeth, claws, and bones – the substantial Asian market for tiger parts and products is still driving these majestic animals toward extinction. They are also suffering habitat loss as a result of the unscrupulous practices of the palm oil industry.
WWF’s Tiger Protection Units are attempting to alleviate the situation by patrolling vulnerable areas, gathering intelligence about poaching efforts in these areas, and removing traps and snares. These units have helped eliminate or significantly reduce the prevalence of poaching in areas where they operate.
4. Bluefin Tuna
Illegal pirate fishing of bluefin tuna, largely driven by the demand for this fish from high end sushi markets in Japan, has been a major factor behind their decline in recent years. A recent fish stock assessment by the International Scientific Committee for Tuna and Tuna-like Species shows just how severely the bluefin tuna population of the Pacific Ocean has been affected by this voracious demand. The fleet as a whole has now been reduced to four percent of its 1970s size.
Since 2008, the WWF has been attempting to combat this shocking decline by tagging all Atlantic bluefin tuna in the Mediterranean Sea, in an effort to learn more about the species’ migratory patterns. The organization has been using all data collected so far to advise international fisheries managers on how best to protect the species.
5. Hawksbill Turtle
These turtles are critically endangered due to the voracious demand for their beautiful brown and yellow shells, which are often used as ornaments or turned into jewelery products. Eastern Asia is currently the most popular market for tortoiseshell products, having replaced Europe and North America in the mid-twentieth century.
There are laws protecting these sea turtles in most Asian countries, but they have largely been rendered ineffective due to a chronic lack of enforcement and low levels of public awareness about the cruel reality of the poaching trade.
The WWF is combating the decline of hawksbill turtle populations by using sophisticated satellite technology to track the animals and find out more about their migratory patterns. As with their tuna tracking initiatives, the organization hopes to use all data gathered from the turtle tracking projects to assist international fishing authorities in developing a solid conservation plan.
The WWF reports that these projects – located in the Eastern Pacific and off the coast of Malaysia – have “become an important education and awareness tool, inspiring conservation among fishermen.”
Here’s How You Can Help
WWF is currently leading a global campaign to stop wildlife crime, using a three-pronged approach:
- Push governments to protect threatened animal populations by increasing law enforcement, imposing strict deterrents, reducing demand for endangered animal products, and honoring international commitments made under CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora).
- Speak up on behalf of those on the front lines being threatened by armed poachers so they are properly equipped, trained and compensated.
- Reduce demands for illegal wildlife parts and products by encouraging others to ask questions and get the facts before buying any wildlife or plant product.
You can support the Fund’s efforts by donating to their park ranger protection program, sending an e-card to “these frontline heroes”, or signing the wildlife protection pledge. Here are some more ways you can help endangered animals:
- The WWF is currently running an online petition urging petroleum companies to keep out of Virunga National Park. Sign it for the gorillas!
- Adopt an animal with the WWF.
- The Indiegogo mountain gorilla campaign set up by David Attenborough and FFI ends on Dec. 11, so you still have time to donate.
- In addition to WWF, there are many other animal protection groups, such as the African Wildlife Conservation Fund, Sea Shepherd, and the Wildlife Conservation Society, who urgently require financial assistance.
- For all of you ambitious undergrad or postgrad students out there who have a burning passion to carve out a career in the wildlife protection sector, why not consider interning with a professional body such as CITES, HSUS or the Wildlife Conservation Society?