Guest Editorial By Dr. Lorin Swinehart
WILDLIFE CRIME—A Moral Outrage!
(Foreward: The recent passing of Nelson Mandela, a genuine hero whose life was characterized by tremendous courage, integrity, and self-sacrifice, serves as a reminder that there are many unknown and unsung heroes who continue to place their lives on the line in the never-ending struggle against cruelty, greed, ignorance and destruction. Among them are those devoted to the preservation of the earth’s vanishing species of wildlife and the habitat that sustains them. Around the world and around the clock, they wage these battles at great personal cost. All too often, they make the ultimate sacrifice.)
On September 27, 2011, Ranger Pierre Achille Zomedel, patrolling unarmed in the Republic of Cameroon’s Lobeki National Park, was captured by poachers, beaten, tied to a tree, shot full of holes, and abandoned to a slow and painful death.
Every four days, somewhere, a ranger is murdered. One thousand have lost their lives over the last ten years. Rangers who protect the world’s wildlife have the highest mortality rate of any law enforcement officers. The crusade to protect endangered wildlife is a war. The enemy is well armed and vicious. The good guys, rangers, are outnumbered and out-gunned, often equipped with only a few World War II Mauser rifles. Sometimes, one weapon is shared among a team of as many as five rangers.
Both Africa and Asia are plagued by a poaching epidemic. Wildlife crime is rampant, spurred by greedy traffickers eager to supply insatiable Asian and American markets with illegal animal products. It is one of the five most profitable criminal enterprises in the world today, bringing in $7-10 billion annually. The same persons who poach and traffic in wildlife often deal in arms, drugs and women and children as well. The toll on the world’s wildlife is horrendous.
The World Wildlife Fund estimates that 10,000 elephants are slaughtered for their tusks each year. Any ivory trinket purchased by anyone anywhere has been carved from the tusk of a cruelly butchered elephant. Entire herds have been massacred by poachers armed with AK-47’s, rocket propelled grenades, and heavy weapons mounted on vehicles. Night vision scopes enable poachers to kill night and day. Some elephants, terribly wounded by gunfire and mutilated by having their tusks hacked out, are left to die in agony.
It is estimated that only 3200 tigers remain in the wild, out of the hundreds of thousands that once roamed the mountains and forests of Asia. The Balian, Javan and Caspian subspecies have already been driven to extinction. The demand for tiger products is fuelled by the mistaken belief that powdered tiger bone will cure disease, or that being wrapped in a tiger skin will restore health. These treatments, grounded in superstition, are worthless.
Rhinoceros poaching has increased 5000% in South Africa alone since 2007, in response to demands for rhino horn, considered an aphrodisiac by wealthy Asian men insecure about their masculinity. There is a widespread delusion in Vietnam that rhino horn will cure cancer.
Mainland China and Vietnam are the most frequent destinations for illegal wildlife products, but the USA and other nations are far from innocent. Other creatures, even chimpanzees and mountain gorillas, are slaughtered to supply demands for so-called “bush meat” by wealthier residents of African cities. Countless sea creatures, such as sharks, turtles and manta rays, are illegally harvested every day.
Contributing to the problem are ineffective laws, lax enforcement, low penalties, corrupt officials, and poorly equipped rangers. Wildlife poaching is a low risk, high profit undertaking. Poachers assume that they can get away with it. All too often, they do. The massacre of endangered species has dire consequences for humans. Profits from poaching and trafficking often find their way into the coffers of insurgents and Islamist terrorist organizations. Local tribal and societal structures are corrupted by threats and bribes, causing impoverished regions to slide into anarchy.
On a recent African trip, President Barak Obama said, “The entire world has a stake in making sure that we preserve Africa’s beauty for future generations,” and pledged major support to end wildlife trafficking. Many Americans, uninformed or perhaps uncaring, provide a market for illegal wildlife products. Others cheer at the tricks performed by imprisoned orcas at theme parks. A few years ago, my family and I were outraged as an elephant at the county fair was forced to stand on one foot atop a tiny stool, his other three feet stretched out, while everyday Americans hooted and cheered at such a cruel spectacle.
Each of us is obligated to combat wildlife crime by refusing to purchase items derived from endangered species. Even small donations help. $15, for instance, will equip a ranger with a first aid kit. Go to www.worldwildlife.org, and take the pledge. You can make a difference. The world possesses the resources to stop wildlife crime. It remains to be seen whether we have the will.
(Ed. Note: Lorin Swinehart, a former National Park Service ranger, who has served at five different locations in five states, regards all rangers everywhere as brothers and sisters.)