Racing Extinction: Ending Animal Trafficking

Near the end of 2015, Discovery aired a new documentary entitled “Racing Extinction,” produced by the same filmmakers responsible for the famous 2009 documentary “The Cove.” The program explored the scientific theory that we stand to lose half of the world’s species to extinction by the end of the century — many of them as a direct consequence of human activity. Not without hope, the documentary also promoted the idea that while people have brought the planet to the brink of disaster, we also have the power to turn things around. Launched in conjunction with the film, a campaign called #StartWith1Thing encourages each of us to make one small change for the betterment of the planet. In this series of articles, we’ll take a look at some of these suggested changes, focusing especially on those associated with the ocean.

Protest Against Animal Trafficking

The campaign’s name, #StartWith1Thing, is meant to show that no matter how overwhelming environmental issues may seem, each of us has the power to influence change through our own actions. One of the film’s most important themes is animal trafficking, as well as the first issue highlighted by the campaign.

As we begin the new year, Earth is in a time of crisis, during which we risk losing 30 to 50 percent of all remaining wildlife species by 2050. These figures may seem unbelievable, but our track record over the last 40 years proves that these dire predictions are entirely possible because — just during that time — we have already allowed almost 52 percent of the world’s wildlife to become extinct. In fact, the rate at which species are disappearing from the planet has led scientists to declare that we’re in the middle of the planet’s sixth period of mass extinction, the last of which wiped out the dinosaurs.

Along with better known environmental issues including climate change, pollution and habitat loss, the illegal wildlife trade is a major cause of potential extinction. Wildlife trafficking is the world’s fourth most lucrative illegal trade (after drugs, arms and human trafficking). It carries an estimated value of between $5 and $20 billion US dollars, and involves the illegal buying and selling of live animals, skins, meat, bones and various other wildlife products. The trade occurs worldwide, but is particularly prolific in China, Southeast Asia, East and Southern Africa, and certain areas of the South Pacific.

Due to the planet’s ever-growing human population, animal trafficking has increased exponentially in recent years. South Africa, for example, has seen a 9,300 percent increase in rhino poaching in the last 10 years, with 13 rhinos killed in 2007 compared to the 1,004 rhinos slaughtered in 2013. As the demand for products like elephant ivory and rhino horn rises and more animals are killed, targeted species become more scarce. The value of products from endangered wildlife increases proportionately, and so the incentive for killing the few remaining animals is magnified a hundredfold. As a stark example of this vicious cycle, the wholesale price of ivory in China has risen from $5 to $2,100 dollars in the past 25 years.

In Africa, an elephant is killed for its ivory every 15 minutes. As a result, the African elephant population has been halved since the 1970s, and the species is at risk of extinction in the next 10 years. There are approximately 3,200 tigers left in the wild — in comparison with the 5,000 captive tigers the World Wildlife Fund estimates are kept in American backyards. For divers, the most obvious examples of marine species affected by the illegal wildlife trade include sharks and sea turtles. Each year, around 73 million sharks are killed for their fins, while six out of seven sea-turtle species are classified as endangered or critically endangered, thanks in large part to poaching for their meat, eggs, skin and shells.

These are just a few of the most well-known species affected by the illegal wildlife trade. Countless other animals are similarly exploited, from pangolins, to abalone, to freshwater turtles. The ramifications of the trade go further than the extinction of those animals targeted, too. As species disappear, the natural balance is disturbed, leading to the collapse of food chains and the introduction of harmful invasive species. Often, the method by which an animal is poached causes even more damage, from the destruction of natural habitats to the accidental killing of non-target species.

What You Can Do

Given the industry’s sheer size, tackling the illegal wildlife trade can seem like a hopeless goal. However, the #StartWith1Thing campaign encourages all of us to take a stand, in the belief that even the smallest actions can make a difference when added to the similar actions of countless others. #StartWith1Thing provides a link to a petition encouraging President Obama to uphold his intention to ban the trade of African ivory in the U.S. There are other ways to take a stand, too, from signing another petition that champions a cause close to your heart, to spreading awareness, to — most importantly —  avoiding all wildlife products, from ivory trinkets to shark-fin soup and snakeskin leather. Let your friends and family know why you avoid such products, and if you encounter them for sale, let the shop owners know that you won’t be back as long as items like these are on the shelves or menu. Your actions may seem small, but when we act together do small actions become meaningful.

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