Knowledge Is Power: Fighting Illegal Wildlife Trade

Juan Carlos Cantu, Manager of Programs in Mexico

Many issues threaten species of wildlife found here in Mexico and around the world. Habitat loss, climate change, pollution and more. But few of these devastating issues are as upsettingly avoidable as the illegal wildlife trade, in which animals like parrots, monkeys, lizards, snakes, horned toads, owls, tortoises, ocelots, coatis and many, many more are taken from the wild and sold as pets, or killed and sold for the products they can provide.

Yellow headed parrot chicks in their nest

Yellow headed parrot chicks in their nest.

Like any trade, the illegal trade of wildlife is ruled by the laws of economy: supply and demand. Consumers are the motor that puts in motion the whole illegal trade process, and thus they are an integral part of this illegal activity. As long as consumers demand these species of wildlife, traffickers will ensure that there is a supply of it, but if demand decreases so will the supply. To really bring down the demand for wildlife as pets, the single most important thing we can do is to make sure that consumers know about all the negative effects of each step of the illegal wildlife trade.

Too Many Taken
Those who illegally trade wild animals are motivated by profit, and take these creatures from their habitat in large numbers to increase that profit. The trade can cause overexploitation of populations of wild animals, causing what is known as “silent forests.” For example, there are areas in southern Mexico where the habitat is healthy, but there are no more parrots or macaws due to poaching. Many States in Mexico and other countries have entirely lost species due to illegal trade.

The exhibit we helped create shows the impact of logged nesting trees on parrots.

The exhibit we helped create shows the impact of logged nesting trees on parrots.

Damaged Habitats
Illegal trade can also destroy the natural habitats that these animals rely on. One example we deal with here is that poachers cut down parrots’ nesting trees in order to reach the nestlings. In many parrot populations, the nesting site is the most important factor for population growth. Finding a good nesting tree is so difficult that in some species, most of the reproductive adults have to wait for many years for a nest to be available. So when poachers destroy a nesting tree, they are causing more damage than if they just took the nestlings – they are also making it even more difficult for any remaining parrots to reproduce.

Low Survival
Another particularly damaging aspect of the illegal wildlife trade is the huge volume of animals taken from their natural habitat, with little care taken for their welfare. A large number of these animals often die, and traffickers don’t care because they know they will get enough revenue from the survivors. Mortality rates from 50% to 95% are common which means tens of thousands of animals die before even one reaches the hands of a consumer. This is particularly true of parrots. Eight out of every 10 parrots trapped illegally will die before final sale to a consumer. And of course, when the items traded are animal parts like horns, tusks, skin or meat, the mortality is 100 percent.

The transmission of diseases from wild animals to man through illegal trade is common. Experts estimate that more than 70% of all contagious diseases originating from an animal come from wild animals. Some diseases can be deadly, such as rabies, ebola, H5N1 avian influenza, SARS, monkey pox and hepatitis B, among many others, all of which cause tens to hundreds of thousands of cases annually. The link between wildlife trade and disease has been clearly illustrated. For instance, a 1975 ban on the sale of small aquatic turtles in the U.S. has prevented the spread of Salmonella to 100,000 children a year , but millions of turtles are exported annually to the rest of the world where there are no bans or sanitary controls.

python WikimediaInvasives Out of Control
The illegal trade can also release exotic invasive species into other countries, and these animals can harm native wildlife, introduce exotic diseases that infect people and livestock, and cause billions of dollars of losses to the economy. In the U.S. alone, economic losses from invasive species were estimated to be 120 billion in 2005 . The effect on biodiversity can also be severe; the release of Burmese pythons into the Everglades in Florida has caused the disappearance of 87 percent to 99 percent of small mammals like rabbits, raccoons, opossums, bobcats, foxes and even deer.

Dangerous for Both Pet and Owner
Wild animals are cute when they are babies, but when they become adults, they need special handling and can even become dangerous. Most people are unaware of this, and many injuries and even deaths are caused by wild pets. A dozen deaths have occurred in the U.S. since 1990 due to large constrictor snakes, and several more in the U.S. and Mexico due to large carnivores like tigers and lions. But the reality is that in the immense majority of cases, bad handling will provoke suffering and death of most wild animals before a year passes from the time they were bought as pets. And after they die, their owners go out to buy a new wild pet to replace the one that died, starting the whole process over again.

This problem is not a simple crime. The illegal wildlife trade is a complex process that goes through several stages from the moment wildlife is extracted from its habitat, to the hoarding, distribution, sale and finally the actual buying of these animals by consumers. It is a whole chain of activity – and its final link is the consumer.

At the opening of the exhibit, I spoke about the devastating impacts this trade has on wildlife, and that we hope to bring to more people's attention.

At the opening of the exhibit, I spoke about the devastating impacts this trade has on wildlife, and that we hope to bring to more people’s attention.

Getting the Word Out
On July 18th we helped open an exhibit called “Nature Protectors against Illegal Trade” at the Mexico zoo of Chapultepec. The exhibit was made possible by the Environmental Enforcement Agency (PROFEPA), the Environment Ministry of Mexico City, Defenders of Wildlife, the NGO Teyeliz and the Museum of Natural History. It illustrates all the negative impacts of the wildlife trade, and will be in display for six months before moving on to other zoos and museums in Mexico City. It is expected that nearly 4 million people will see it, and we hope that each one of them remembers what they learn from it. The most powerful way to stop the illegal wildlife trade is also the most simple: stop the demand for wildlife and their products. Consumers – that means people like me and you – are the last link in the chain, and if they stop buying these animals then we can put a stop to the trade entirely.


8 Responses to “Knowledge Is Power: Fighting Illegal Wildlife Trade”

  1. Diane B. Goodpasture

    Demand really is the sine qua non of any illicit trade. Whether it’s trafficking in humans, ivory, or exotic animals demand is really what we need to concentrate on.

  2. vera

    Tem que haver uma lei para proibir mesmo a caça de animais , seja qual for , o mundo tem de fazer uma campanha para deixar os animais em paz viver sua vida, no seu habitat

  3. Sharon

    All animals from the wild should stay in their natural habitats (what’s left of them). It infuriates me when I see people “own” exotic pets, especially when those animals are singled out for their rarity in the wild. Most animals belong to packs and families. To take them out of that social structure in nature not only disrupts the individual but destroys the order of that pack.

  4. G Kaplan MD

    The solution is simple:

    Shops that sell these animals, must have proof these were bred in authorized organizations that are certified to breed wildlife in their country. No documentation, they get fined. For repeat offenders, close their shops.

    Rewards are given for “whistleblowers” who denounce people who harbor wild life. If these are illegal, the owners of said pets, pay jail time.



  6. gloria taber

    The best way to stop the illegal wildlife trade is to educate people abt this horrendous trade. Hopefully, that will stop the demand and stop the trade. These beautiful creatures are best left where they are.

  7. Chuck

    Not all of these animals and birds are singled out for their rarity a lot of the common parrots that are bred in captivity have been in captivity for decades and producing offspring for generations and are just now being considered endangered even though they are common in captivity.

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