Around the world, wildlife is under pressure. Habitat loss, hunting and poaching, invasive species, climate change – pressure is exerted on many fronts. One particularly insidious and ugly kind of threat is wildlife trafficking. Much like the illegal trade in narcotics, modern-day slaves, or counterfeited goods (and commonly connected to the same cartels), there is a vast and sprawling black market in animals – dead and alive – and animal parts. With Poached, journalist Rachel Love Nuwer presents an incredibly wide-ranging and thorough investigation of the drivers of this trade, its victims and measures to combat it.
Of all the victims of wildlife trafficking, elephants are probably the most well-known. Their ivory tusks have long been a desirable material that is turned into carvings and trinkets. Conservationist Richard Leakey got this topic into the public consciousness by convincing the Kenyan president to command the public burning of a large pile of confiscated ivory in 1989 (see Wildlife Wars: My Battle to Save Kenya’s Elephants). Ever since, conservationists have been fighting an uphill struggle in Africa that continues to this day (see for example Ivory, Horn and Blood: Behind the Elephant and Rhinoceros Poaching Crisis and Ivory: Power and Poaching in Africa).
But it is not just Africa, and it is not just elephants. Poached is an incredible, globe-trotting tour that must have cost Nuwer dearly in both time and money (not to mention sanity, seeing some of the cruelty she has witnessed). She tramps around Vietnam where pangolins (scaly anteaters) are being poached for their meat and scales, neighbouring Laos, where tigers are being farmed illegally for all sorts of body parts, Indonesia, where rare reptiles are being caught for the pet trade, and China, where bears are being kept in cages and “milked” for bile. In Africa, it is rhinos that are being targeted for their horns, and various big cats that are hunted for trophies. And these are just the notable flagship species. For others, like the vaquita, it takes the hard work of other journalists to highlight their plight (see my review of Vaquita: Science, Politics, and Crime in the Sea of Cortez and my interview with the author).
One of the many problems is that, although an international treaty called CITES exists that seeks to regulate the illegal trade, many species are not listed because we know virtually nothing about them or the status and health of their populations. But that does not stop the illegal trade. Nuwer sits in on one of their meetings where member states negotiate the level of protection granted to various species and witnesses first-hand the haggling and negotiating. If the slow progress at these meetings isn’t frustrating enough, there is very little in the way of power to enforce the decisions taken here. Countries can and do simply ignore them.
“Poached is an incredible, globe-trotting tour that must have cost Nuwer dearly in both time and money (not to mention sanity, seeing some of the cruelty she has witnessed)”
Corruption runs like a red thread through this story. From airport employees and border guards, all the way up to government officials and even heads of state – the illegal trade in wildlife is so profitable that many have no qualms turning a blind eye in exchange for money. Despite much public lip-service and promises to protect species and crack down on smuggling, little to no progress is made on the ground.
Nuwer puts herself in dangerous situations more than once during the course of her investigations – nosy journalists have faced intimidation, violence, and sometimes even death. Though I do not want to downplay the risks she has taken, it is remarkable how willing some people are to openly talk to her, whether they be poachers, middle-men in the supply chain, restaurant owners selling exotic meat such as snake, pangolin or civet, or other end users. It is another clear sign that there is virtually no law and order in many countries. These conversations are eye-opening, revealing a completely different worldview and mindset compared to conservationists. Poachers are often aware of the harm they are inflicting and see populations in the field crashing, but quote poverty and hardship to justify their choices. Further up the chain, plain greed and indifference often dominate.
Particularly troublesome are the superstitions that accompany traditional medicine, especially in Asia. No matter how often you show that rhino horn cannot cure cancer, or that tiger bones ground into paste do not alleviate aching joints, the placebo effect is powerful. Worse, even where synthetic or farmed alternatives are available, many people choose to believe that parts from wild-caught animals are imbued with natural vigour, so they will still preferentially obtain these. Ironic, as in some cases the natural substances are polluted, impure, or so soaked in stress hormones and physiological metabolites that they cause poisoning.
“Particularly troublesome are the superstitions that accompany traditional medicine […] No matter how often you show that rhino horn cannot cure cancer, or that tiger bones ground into paste do not alleviate aching joints, the placebo effect is powerful”
Are there solutions? Nuwer frequently quotes from Felbab-Brown’s book The Extinction Market: Wildlife Trafficking and How to Counter It that was published around the same time (this looks at lessons learned from the fight against the global drug trade – sounds very interesting, though I have not read it yet) and explores some solutions herself. This includes widely praised campaigns of dedicated individuals such as Jill Robinson who gives public talks on the horrors of bear bile farms. But Nuwer also talks to game ranchers in South Africa whose questionable approach to conservation takes the form of monetising farmed animals such as rhinos and lions to supply a legal and regulated trade. An example of the latter is the recent scandal around Cecil the lion, who was shot by an American big-game hunter who paid a small fortune for the “privilege” – money that ranchers invest as much in wildlife protection as in their own bottom line.
With Poached, Nuwer covers a large number of topics. The scope of her coverage is both impressive and depressing. This book does not make for comfortable reading, but it is an important story that needs telling. Nuwer remains remarkably cool and non-judgemental, even in the face of corruption, cruelty, and callousness. Fervent animal lovers might struggle with this, but Nuwer convincingly shows just how complex and multi-faceted this problem is, how many cultural divides it crosses. I believe her approach is probably the best to try and win as many hearts as possible to her cause.
Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own, however.
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