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Prosperous East Asia fuels illegal wildlife trade across globe

The perishing wildlife in India and Africa has acquired a whole new market, although illegal, in cash-rich East Asia. Chetan Chauhan reports.

delhi Updated: May 17, 2012 20:11 IST

The perishing wildlife in India and Africa has acquired a whole new market, although illegal, in cash-rich East Asia.

While over 600 rhinos and 132 leopards were killed in South Africa and India respectively over the last one year, thousands of turtles were smuggled out of South Asia to feed the high demand for illegal wildlife products across Thailand, Hong Kong, Vietnam and Singapore.

This week, Maharashtra issued an alert that poachers from neighbouring Madhya Pradesh had arrived in the state to kill 25 tigers.

Kesav Varma, programme director of the World Bank-supported Global Tiger Initiative (GTI), raised the alarm among wildlife experts across the world on Wednesday when he announced that helicopter-laden hunters have killed over 600 rhinos for their tusks in South Africa in less than a year.

Though renting a helicopter costs about $10,000, poachers make over a million dollars in a couple of hours by killing rhinos for their tusks. “Even the South African army has expressed its helplessness over dealing with this alarming situation,” Varma said, adding that rhinos in Kaziranga, Assam, were also under threat.

The seizure of various illegal wildlife products, worth $2.2 million, by Hong Kong customs officials last November from a container shipped from Cape Town, South Africa, provides us with a glimpse of the dismal situation. While officials from China, Vietnam and Thailand have seized hundred of elephant tusks in separate incidents, yet another major haul was witnessed in Malaysia – considered a major transit hub for wildlife traders.

Wildlife enforcement agencies were shocked to find that a majority of the customers were young and upward-mobile East Asians. “They (youngsters) are willing to pay exorbitant prices for ornaments made out of rhino or ivory tusk. Supposed tiger meat, which is sold discreetly in Thailand, is also very popular,” said a senior executive of an international NGO on the condition of anonymity.

The market for wildlife products is expanding. “The trade has grown because people now have lots of cash and the transport infrastructure has become much better,” said James Compton, senior director for Asia-Pacific at Traffic, an international organisation that monitors wildlife trade. Illegal wildlife trade is now the third-largest global illegal activity after drugs and human trafficking, amounting to an annual business of a billion US dollars.

Even as wildlife trade rises, several nations have expressed their inability to deal with the situation and sought legalisation of the trade. While South Africa wants to legalise the trade of rhino body parts, the Vietnam government is considering a proposal to allow use of organs belonging to dead tigers for medicinal purposes.

With the rising demand putting pressure on nations across the world, saving endangered animals – including the tiger – could become a challenge.

First Published: May 17, 2012 20:08 IST