The illegal wildlife trade is one of the most dangerous and detrimental industries on the planet. Ranked behind the illegal drug and arms trade, the illegal wildlife industry is worth around $7-26 billion dollars and is not only rife with violence amongst people but is also driving the extinction of some of the world’s most endangered species. In the past 40 years alone, the world has lost 52 percent of its wildlife, primarily due to human causes.

The most shocking thing about this illicit trade is the fact that most of the world is completely unaware it exists. From a consumer standpoint, all we see is a shelf filled with ivory trinkets, a row of exotic pets for sale, or an aquarium stocked with tropical fish. What we don’t see is the brutality of killing animals to make products possible or the downstream impact of taking wildlife from their ecosystems. But the fact is, current rates of species extinction are about 1,000 times faster than normal and many scientists agree the world is being pushed into the sixth mass extinction.

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With this in mind, it is our responsibility to act and combat this illegal trade. Thankfully, there are many organizations and individuals working to do just that.

A recent investigation and rescue mission carried out by Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), photographed by Paul Hilton, illustrates the reality of the illegal wildlife trade.

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Two whale sharks were discovered in holding pens off of Indonesia’s Ambon Island, Maluku. According to WCS, the animals were destined for ocean theme parks in China.

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When officials responded to the report, they found the two sharks in a pen with a number of tropical fish.

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Whale sharks are listed as a vulnerable species. Mainly, these marine animals are targeted for food. Their fins are used for shark fin soup  and their skin is sold to make bags.

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These are the pens the animals were being held in.

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Upon investigation, authorities found the facility held the right to breed ornamental fish. Apparently, they had also applied to be listed as a “conservation institution” that would enable them to breed and export whale sharks.

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In addition, the facility sought to breed dolphins and mantas, two other species that are used for the illegal wildlife trade. Dolphins likely for sale to marine parks and mantas are valued for their gills which are used in Traditional Chinese Medicine.

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After a period of waiting, the sharks were finally ready for release.

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Luckily, they were entirely unharmed and could peacefully return to their ocean home.

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Divers helped guide the animals out of the pens.

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We can only hope now they’re back in the ocean that these animals will no longer have to fear human intervention.

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We can all help to ensure marine animals like these sharks stay wild by firstly refusing to pay for their suffering and boycotting all wild animal attractions. Second, you can learn more about how to help sharks by reading the articles below.

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Share this article and encourage others to learn more about the illegal wildlife trade and what they can do to stop this needless suffering.

All image source: Paul Hilton