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Most travellers are aware that trafficking protected wildlife is illegal. But what can we actually do to stop it? We ask Wildlife Crime Expert for the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) Christiaan van der Hoeven.
What does your work as a Wildlife Crime Expert entail?
“As a Wildlife Crime Expert, my job is to be a link between local wildlife organisations on the one hand, and WWF, our partners and donors on the other. I advise on where to invest and which projects will likely have the most impact. I’m actually a biologist, with extensive experience in the field of wildlife poaching and trafficking. I did a lot of research in National Parks in Africa, so I’m familiar with the parties involved in wildlife protection. I also know how complex the issue is and how many conflicted interests there are. My focus now is mainly on protecting wildlife in Southern Africa and the giant panda in China.”
So how does the protection of wildlife actually work?
The first step is obvious; we try to protect animals in their natural habitat, by helping local rangers and national parks in various ways, including research and financial funding. Secondly, we try to fight poaching and local trafficking, which is an incredibly sensitive and complex issue. The people in the areas we work in are often unaware of the importance of protecting wildlife and more importantly, they depend on selling wildlife products as a source of income. Giving the local population an alternative – for example by working in the national parks –and educating them are also focus points for us. You have to involve the local community and have them benefit, otherwise there won’t be a motivation to change.
What about the demand?
Obviously that’s also an important factor. Most illegal wildlife products, such as ivory and pangolin scales, are trafficked to Asia, to countries like China, Vietnam and Myanmar.
As long as there’s a demand, the traffickers will continue their business as usual. Consumers should be made aware of the impact of this trade, legislation should reflect the seriousness of this crime and punishments should be severe. In the 1980s, the first few countries signed the so-called CITES convention, an international agreement between governments, aimed to ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival. Now, 183 countries have signed up. This is very important and encouraging, but there’s still a lot of work to be done. It’s a matter of working on the entire chain, from poaching and local trafficking to fighting corruption and addressing demand, and setting up clear international laws that all countries will actually stick to. Because it’s a huge, illegal, billion-dollar business, involving well-organised criminal networks.
What can individual travellers do?
Most people know that a product such as ivory is illegal, but are less aware of the harm of coral corrosion and taking pictures with a sedated tiger or snake. That’s why we set up a clear list of dos and don’ts (see tips). In general, there are three types of travellers who transport illegal wildlife products; the naïve tourist who is truly unaware of the fact that a product is illegal, the fanatic collector who knows a product is protected but wants to have it anyway, and the active trader, who makes money from transporting illegal wildlife products. We want to make travellers aware of their own actions and also encourage them to report instances of trafficking animal abuse or other activities that harm animals or plants.
What role can airlines have?
Airlines should be extra alert on risk flights from or to notorious trafficking destinations, educate both their passengers and staff, and be extra cautious with their parcel services. Last year, 12 new air transport companies signed the existing United for Wildlife Buckingham Palace Declaration, an initiative by Prince William and Prince Harry. This is a huge step towards strengthening defences against illegal wildlife trafficking and showing their commitment to address trafficking of illegal wildlife products. The aviation industry can help fight wildlife crime this way.”
Do’s and don’t’s
- Do: Dive, snorkel and enjoy the natural beauty and colours of the sea.
- Don’t: Break off pieces of coral to take home, as it kills the organisms living on it and takes years to restore.
- Do: Visit elephants in a national park, their natural habitat or an orphanage.
- Don’t: Take elephant rides, as these elephants are often taken from their family herd as a baby and are trained under terrible circumstances.
- Do: Visit a national park in hope of spotting a tiger in a safe and protected environment.
- Don’t: Take selfies with tigers, as they are often sedated, tortured and treated badly.
- Do: Swim in the ocean or take a boat tour to try and spot some dolphins.
- Don’t: Go swimming with dolphins kept in captivity.
Learn more about wildlife protection at worldwildlife.org.
Foto credits: Martin Harvey/ WWF