Walk of the dead

Cheetah, the fastest moving land animal, sprints with an average speed of 102 kilometres per hour. When killed, it moves at six times the speed. Body parts and derivatives of dead animals move around the world fast. Cheetah is just an example; the bitter reality is that today’s world contains many organised and powerful smugglers spreading myths about animal parts, resulting in the growing market for these parts.

Given that the global wildlife and their derivative trade is worth about US$ 20 billion, the scale of this problem can be imagined. South Africa faces the terrible scourge of rhino poaching, with more than 50 rhinos killed in just the first quarter of 2014. Last year, 1050 were killed. In 2011 an estimated 25,000 to 40,000 elephants were killed in Africa and their parts moved around the world. Indeed, wild animals have been under attack in recent years by rampant poaching around the world.

In Nepal, dead animals move in several forms; mainly the pangolin scales, tiger hides, rhino horns, red panda skins and dried seahorse. Most of them are sent to China, with Kathmandu acting as a collection center. They usually end up in South East Asian countries, Arabian cities, and Europe.
The seizures of seahorses in Nepal clearly indicate the animal part trading is being conducted by international networks. Nepal has no sea connections and naturally, no seahorses are found here but dried seahorses have been seized a number of times. They must have been imported from Sri-Lanka, India, Bangladesh, Thailand or other parts where seahorses are found, with Nepal used as a transit. 

This trend of poaching is motivated by the use of body parts of wild animals as a decoration, a subject of pride, and as Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) for their supposed healing power. They are highly coveted in Southeast Asia. In Nepal, kings used to stand on tiger skins and pose in front of stuffed tigers for special occasions. Monarchy exists no more but some affluent Nepalis still have mounted tiger heads in their living rooms. 

Since 1993, China has banned the trade of rhino horn and tiger parts but the culture of using animal parts is strong. Many Chinese families and even non-Chinese are the consumers of TCM. This is why it’s still a big business. A consumer doesn’t care how much the animal suffered and what ecological crimes were committed while preparing the medicine. But these days alternative cures not derived from any animal and that are much cheaper have been found to work.

The true extent of this scourge remains unclear due to lack of universal frameworks to monitor wildlife crimes and its trans-boundary syndicates. The illicit trade will not go away as long as demand exists. Main factors that change demand are consumers’ incomes, their tastes and preferences; the number of consumers, expectations of the security of supply and future prices. The major consumer markets of wildlife parts viz. China, Vietnam, the European Union, newly industrialised Asian economies, and Sub-Saharan Africa have seen substantial increases in average incomes resulting in rise of the middle class. Demand reduction is a key challenge, and probably won’t be that easy here.

Every day the world is losing great gifts of nature. The list of endangered species is growing by the day. The effort to create parks, hunting reserves and conservation areas to conserve animals is taking a toll on many governments. In search of a new way to cripple black market, the South African government has decided to launch a legal once-off sale of parts of its billion-dollar stockpile of ivory and rhino horns. 

It plans to put forward a proposal at the next Conference of Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of wild fauna and flora (CITES) in 2016, requesting the removal of a decade-old ban on ivory and rhino horn trade. But this is absurd, just like pouring water in the sand. The liberalised trade regime will inevitably lead to an escalation of the illegal trade.

There is still time to save magnificent wild creatures, preserve beautiful wild places and bequeath the biological wealth to the next generation. Regional coordination with neighbouring countries could be an effective way to strengthen trans-boundary conservation and sustainable use of resources while good governance and political stability in the country could strengthen implementation of conservation programs at national and field level.

In early 2014, Nepal celebrated the second year of zero poachings in which not a single rhino, elephant or tiger was reportedly killed. Many national and international news agencies reported that Nepal had defeated the wildlife trade. But sadly, this euphoria was short-lived as recently there was a report of rhino poaching in Chitwan. Even though poaching of rhino, elephant and tiger have sharply decreased, we should not forget the terrifying status of other endangered animals like the pangolin, red panda, black bear, porcupine, owl and musk-deer. 

The secret of success of rhino conservation lies in a judicious combination of law enforcement and support of people at the buffer zone. But biodiversity is significant even outside the official conservation areas such as local and community forests. Poaching is even higher there but it doesn’t create as much buzz. The success of conservation effort inside the park should be extrapolated across local communities outside the park so that animals can walk without fear and there will be no more stories of dead animals walking.

This was originally published in Republica National Daily on 11 May 2014)

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