The cases of natural park rangers killed by rebel groups around the world are a sad reality. Among the victims associated with the safeguarding and visibility of poaching, we must add the lives of three journalists since this week, among them the Spaniards David Beriáin and Roberto Fraile, killed in the surroundings of a natural park in Burkina Faso.
Ana Benítez (Córdoba, 1981) is a researcher at the Integrative Ecology department of the Doñana Biological Station (EBD-CSIC). His field of work is the study of impact of hunting activity in wild fauna in Latin America, Africa and Asia. His work focuses on determining the factors that determine the distribution and abundance of species, emphasizing anthropogenic effects and how these can lead local populations or species to extinction.
Why is illegal hunting still the great threat to wildlife?
The illegal hunting trade is a multibillion-dollar business that moves between 7,000 and 23,000 million dollars a year, comparable to that of drug or arms trafficking. It is a business because there are pieces that are listed on the market at a higher price than gold. For example, the rhino horn. Many pieces are in demand for their supposed healing properties. In other cases, consuming certain species is a sign of social status. Finally, there are species that are marketed as exotic pets, or for collecting, as is the case with many reptiles or parrots and parakeets, but also songbirds in cages, in high demand in Indonesia or China.
An illegal business that causes altercations and costs lives …
In recent years, in Africa alone, some 1,000 guards have been killed. One of the clearest examples is that of the Virunga National Park, which is one of the oldest parks in Africa, with a population of about 600 mountain gorillas.
How is it being fought?
The main instrument to combat it is CITES, which regulates the legal trade in living beings. When it is suspected that a species may be being trafficked in large quantities, and that its populations are in decline, international agreements can be reached to include it in Appendix 1 of CITES, which includes all species that are prohibited from hunting. For example in 2016 it was agreed to prohibit legal trade in the eight pangolin species and their inclusion in said appendix was proposed.
On a more local scale, many protected areas have ranger patrols to control poachers. Also, the most conflictive ports and airports are controlled to requisition possible shipments of exotic species.
What consequences does this activity have on biodiversity?
Massive illegal hunting involves population decline and the possible extinction of a large number of living beings, which is known as defaunation. Many of the species hunted are large animals with low reproductive rates. This makes them vulnerable since, when hunting pressure is very high, populations are not able to reproduce fast enough to compensate for this mortality.
In addition, a large number of these species perform very important functions, such as seed dispersal, nutrient redistribution or pest control. By removing species such as forest elephants, the ability to move large amounts of nutrients and seeds over great distances is lost, processes that are critical to the functioning of ecosystems. In addition, elephants are ecosystem engineers, since they modify the forest structure creating new habitats and microhabitats for other species.
What species of animals are the most vulnerable to this illegal practice?
One of the most flagrant cases is that of the rhinoceros. There are countries, like Vietnam, where their horns are in demand for cancer treatment. Due to these beliefs, and the increase in international demand, the price reached $ 60,000 per kilo in 2012, doubling the value of gold or platinum, and being more valued than diamonds or cocaine. Between 2007 and 2014, according to the WWF organization, the illegal hunting of rhinos in South Africa increased by 9000% for these reasons.
What other examples are associated with these beliefs?
Another case is pangolins, which are highly demanded in countries such as China or Vietnam for the use of their scales in the treatment of diseases such as asthma, rheumatism or arthritis. Asian pangolins are virtually extinct or highly threatened. In recent years, the pressure on African pangolins, which are illegally exported to Southeast Asia, has increased enormously. Today it is considered the most trafficked from the world. Estimates recent indicate that more than 2.7 million pangolins are hunted in one year in Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Republic of the Congo.
Is it a sufficiently visible problem?
The general population is aware that there are living beings that are highly threatened by illegal trade, such as elephants, tigers, rhinos or gorillas. However, these are just the tip of the iceberg for thousands of other species that are illegally traded. One of the clearest consequences for society is the risk of zoonotic diseases that can jump from animals to humans, being MERS, SARS or covid-19 quite clear cases.