tagged w/ Animal Teeth
The New York Times
December 19, 2010
As Incomes Rise, So Does Animal Trade
By BETTINA WASSENER
HONG KONG — Four suitcases full of ivory, intercepted by customs at Suvarnabhumi International Airport near Bangkok. Rare tortoises, openly for sale at a fair in Jakarta, the Indonesian capital. More than 2,000 frozen pangolins — scaly anteaters — seized from a fishing vessel off China.
Oh, and a 2-month-old tiger cub, alive but sedated, found inside a suitcase, also at the Bangkok airport.
If you think all of this sounds like old news — didn’t we see this in the 1970s and ’80s? — think again.
Every one of these incidents, documented by Traffic, the wildlife trade monitoring network, took place within the past few months. They provide just a glimpse of the massive trade in endangered animals — and their bones, skins and other organs — that is taking place across Asia.
And they illustrate that half a century’s worth of efforts by governments, international organizations and conservationists have failed to stem wildlife trade and the extinction of numerous animals and plants.
Yes, conservation projects have helped preserve individual species, but over all the trade in rare creatures has grown, not shrunk — thanks largely to rising demand from an increasingly affluent Asia.
“I’ve been doing this job for close to 20 years,” said Chris R. Shepherd, who helps oversee Traffic’s Southeast Asia operations, “and I can say it’s never been anywhere near as bad as it is now.”
In the 1970s, when international conservation efforts began to take off, the issue was one of largely niche demand from wealthy consumers in the West. Now, however, the picture has changed radically.
Rapid growth across developing Asia over the past decade or two has caused wealth to increase quickly across much of the region. Credit Suisse, in a recent study, estimated that parts of Asia, including China, India and Indonesia, have seen the average wealth per adult soar between 100 percent and 400 percent since 2000.
Along with many of its neighbors, China is now a giant consumer of items like machinery, cars, washing powder, clothes and — yes — python-skin handbags and tiger penises, bear bile and other ingredients for traditional medicines or meals that once belonged to the aristocracy.
“Over the past 20 years, the nature of the demand has changed, thanks to a rising middle class in Asia,” said Colman O’Criodain, a wildlife trade policy analyst in Switzerland for the environmental group W.W.F. International.
James Compton, senior program director for Asia at Traffic, said from Beijing, “Whether it’s high-end luxury stores or the man on the street corner selling dried sea horses — you can see animals and animal parts being sold quite openly. Wildlife trade is now quite pervasive in Asia.”
The problem, experts say, is often not a lack of top-level political will. Many Asian countries, like those elsewhere, ban the trade of rare plants and animals. Rather, the problem is enforcement on the ground and growing demand from populations that are often simply not fully aware of just how endangered the creatures they are consuming are.
Wildlife species with high commercial value have declined drastically, and many are now rare, endangered or even locally extinct, Traffic wrote in a report about Southeast Asia in late 2008.
Figures are hard to come by, as only select species can be closely monitored. But here are a couple of examples to illustrate the scale of some the population declines:
•Some species of sharks are thought to have declined 90 percent. Considered a status symbol in Chinese culture, the soup made from pricey shark fins is now within the reach of many, many more people than it once was.
• There are now thought to be as few as 3,200 tigers left in the wild globally, down from 100,000 a century ago. Despite their acute rarity and international bans on tiger trade, officials throughout most of the tiger range countries, which span Russia and much of Asia, are intercepting the claws, skins or bones of about 100 tigers every year, a report published by Traffic last month found.
On the upside, attitudes are starting to change. Shark’s fin soup, for example, is becoming a decidedly uncool meal to serve in Hong Kong, the main hub for trade in the fins.
And in mainland China, where there was barely any coverage of animal welfare and related topics a decade ago, the media are now engaged, said Jill Robinson, founder of the Animals Asia Foundation, which campaigns for animal welfare and the conservation of endangered animals.
The sale of bear bile — often harvested from animals kept in tiny cages, and used in traditional medicine to cure ailments as varied as headaches and hemorrhoids — is legal in China, and demand is booming. But many doctors are starting to turn away from its use, not least because of a growing realization that bile from bears farmed in such conditions is often diseased, Ms. Robinson said.
Unfortunately, these efforts, commendable though they are, make only a small dent. Unlike in the West, where generations of children have grown up with nature programs, populations in Asia are not yet sensitized to issues like conservation, said Mr. O’Criodain of the W.W.F.
And while some countries have pretty advanced projects for preserving terrestrial species, “most consider the resources of the high seas — including overfished species of fish — as up for grabs,” he added.
Often, said Mr. Compton of Traffic, it is actually the rarity of the animal that makes it attractive to consumers, driving up its price.
For example, in Vietnam, where it is illegal to sell bear bile, a milliliter, or one-fifth of a teaspoon, of fresh, liquid bear bile can fetch as much as $30 on the black market, Animals Asia said.
Such prices mean fines and other penalties are an insufficient deterrent to often impoverished local populations.
“Wildlife crime is becoming more and more organized and sophisticated, and enforcement capacities are not managing to keep up,” said Mr. Shepherd of Traffic.
“The political will is changing; we’re seeing a lot of high-level commitments. But we need to see that translate into action on the ground. Otherwise, it will just be business as usual.”
For some species, even the welcome change in awareness may already simply be too little, too late.The New York Times
December 19, 2010
As Incomes Rise, So Does Animal Trade