There is still hope in tackling the world’s illegal wildlife trade

As China relaxes its ban, Rachel Love Nuwer plunges into the dark world of illegal wildlife trade and finds that, against the odds, there is still hope

In 2010, while checking my email at a woefully outdated internet café in rural Vietnam, I received news from a colleague that would change my life: “Don’t tell anyone, but we just got word that Vietnam’s last Javan rhino was found dead with its horn hacked off.”

I was dumbstruck. As an aspiring ecologist conducting research in Vietnam on natural resource use, I knew that poaching affected animals ranging from otters and bears to pangolins and turtles. I had also read news stories about escalating elephant and rhino poaching in Africa. But I had no idea that the situation was so bad as to drive some species to the very brink of extinction.

Over the next months, my thoughts frequently returned to Vietnam’s last Javan rhino – who killed her and why. Most importantly, what was being done to stop other animals from succumbing to the same fate?

Multi-billion dollar industry

I began researching the illegal wildlife trade, a multi billion-dollar industry that is now one of the world’s largest contraband markets. Over 1,000 rhinos of the remaining 30,000 are killed each year, and savanna elephant populations in Africa plummeted by 30 per cent from 2007 to 2014, largely due to poaching for ivory. Millions from thousands of other species are poached each year for jewellery, traditional medicine, trophies, meat, pets and more. The trade also impacts more than just wildlife: it undermines nations by breeding corruption, crime and instability, and regularly costs rangers their lives. Yet despite its scope and severity, illegal wildlife trade is often overlooked by governments and enforcement agencies.

The more I learned, the more I wanted to do something. I thought about becoming a conservation biologist, but after completing my ecology degree I realised that my skills would be better put to use raising awareness about poaching and wildlife trafficking rather than researching it (statistical analysis is not my strong suit). I changed career tracks and became a science journalist.

I’ve since reported dozens of stories on the illegal wildlife trade for The New York Times, National Geographic, BBC Future and others. But I felt what was really missing from the conversation was an overarching explanation of illegal wildlife trade and the complex forces that drive it.

Poached: Inside the Dark World of Wildlife Trafficking is my attempt to provide this resource. My research took me to a dozen countries, from the killing fields of South Africa to the traditional medicine black markets of China. These journeys of discovery were eye-opening and almost always defied expectations.

Most surprising of all was my encounter with a wealthy Vietnamese rhino horn-user named Hoài. We met in a trendy Hanoi restaurant, where Hoài handed me an Oreo cookie tin. When I opened it, I was shocked to find not cookies but a smelly nub of rhino horn. Later in the evening, in full view of the staff and other patrons, Hoài took the horn out and demonstrated how to grind it into a powder to mix with water and take as a shot. This is supposedly to prevent hangovers – a newfangled use of rhino horn that has nothing to do with culture or tradition. He even offered me a taste, which I politely declined, and further surprised me when he admitted that he knew rhino horn didn’t actually work to prevent hangovers – he just used it because all of his friends do. He added that he has no qualms if rhinos go extinct. 

My encounter with Hoài epitomised a resounding and unsettling theme throughout my reporting: the impunity with which traffickers and illegal wildlife users operate. Hoài thought nothing about taking his rhino horn out in a crowded restaurant because he knows that there will be no consequences for his actions. Despite many impressive vows to combat illegal wildlife trade Vietnam has yet to make significant arrests of rhino horn traffickers, much less issue punishments to users like Hoài. This is not so shocking, given that Vietnamese government officials are often the ones patronising illegal wildmeat restaurants and purchasing rhino horn and other illicit animal products.

These problems are not unique to Vietnam, and it’s easy to feel overwhelmed with despair when considering the enormity of the challenge. But change is possible. International sanctions can be issued against countries that continue to fuel demand for illegal wildlife products and do little, if anything, to stop it.

Corruption can be weeded out, and governments, including the UK and US, can contribute more resources and expertise to tackling the trade around the world. In addition to not purchasing wildlife goods or frequenting tiger cub-petting zoos and other shady facilities that contribute to illegal trade, individual citizens can educate friends and family about the problem, donate to conservation organisations and inform their leaders that this is an issue they care about. It’s not too late to save tigers, rhinos, elephants and a host of other species from extinction – if only we all decide together, as a planet, that our wildlife is worth it.

1333 Author feature book jacket, Poached, Rachel Love Nuwer
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Poached: Inside the Dark World of Wildlife Trafficking by Rachel Love Nuwer is out now (Scribe, £16.99)

Illustration: Joseph Joyce