By Uttara Mendiratta, photographs © FREELAND Foundation

Two jewelry storeowners recently entered into a plea agreement with the Manhattan District Attorney's office. The stores were selling illegal ivory in midtown Manhattan. The ivory seized from one of the stores (Raja Jewels, owned by Mr. Gupta) alone was estimated to cost $2 million. News reports claim that the packaging of the ivory suggests that it had been made in India. That was bit of a surprise. One would have expected the good old “Made in China” label. Guangzhou and Fuzhou in China’s are well known ivory centers (for both legal and illegal ivory); India banned all legal trade of ivory in 1970s.

Illegal wildlife trade is very big and very international. It is considered the biggest illegal trade after narcotics and human trafficking (ahead of illegal arms trade), and it might well be one of the fasted growing illegal trades. The demand markets for wildlife are growing and the values of wildlife products are soaring to unthinkable heights. The global worth of this illegal trade is estimated to be around $20 billion annually, or more; and Southeast Asia, which is currently the hub for this trade, harbors around half of this trade (estimated $8-10 billion per year in this region). China ranks as the world’s largest market for illegal trade in wildlife and wildlife products followed by USA. Organized crime syndicates now move literally tones and tones of illegal wildlife products across continents.

The reason it is so big and growing can be summed up in a single figures – 1,000 percent return on investment. I believe the experts who came up with that figure. It is not difficult or expensive to kill a tiger in the wild. The illegal trade is comparatively very low risk and high profit. The fear of getting caught is low, since enforcement is often inadequate, and even if poachers are caught the rate of conviction and level of penalties are not enough to deter a seasoned poacher or trader who would typically operate in this field.

And the reason it is high profit is that buyers are very rich and very eager to buy. Traditional Chinese Medicines (TCMs) that use parts of animals like tigers, rhinos, primates, geckos and pangolins have a massive cliental amongst not just the Chinese in China, but also a large part of Southeast Asia (especially in countries like Vietnam), all migrants from these areas to other parts of the world, and more recently also many westerners who are eager to move away from conventional healing medicines. And although many medical practitioners including TCM practitioners have repeatedly discredited the usefulness of these animal parts in healing, the market seems to only grow.

TCM demand is only part of the problem. Even though fur coats might be out of fashion at the moment, the fashion and the ‘art’ industry, which has failed to restrain itself from use of items such as those made from ivory and shahtoosh, continues to be a part of the problem. Tourists visiting wild and exotic destinations are still bringing back curios made from endangered species (knowingly and often unknowingly); many choosing to ignore the fact that their amazingly soft ‘toosh’ shawl came from amazingly adorable (and critically endangered) animals that were killed for their wool. Not to mention, until very recently you could just go to midtown Manhattan and buy illegal ivory. Add to this the problem posed by the exotic pet trade.

Not everyone is content with a faithful dog or a classy cat. Exotic pets ranging from spiders to lions have a market. Birds and fishes are perhaps the most popular pets sourced from the wild, but there are also turtles, lizards, snakes and monkeys, while some rich ones might even go for the big cats. Laundering of wild caught animals as captive bred is common in this business. A recent expose of large scale laundering of exotic birds from ‘breeding facilities’ on Solomon islands discovered that a vast majority (if not all) of the thousands of birds exported from the island to markets such as those in Singapore were wild caught.

And let’s not forget the good old market for wild meat. Consumers are not just those who live in the back of beyond and hunt for survival, but also those sitting in upmarket restaurants across the globe eating wildlife – be it bird meat in restaurants in Milan, or pangolin meat in Hanoi, or shark fin soup in Beijing. Wild meat seems to have made a comeback as a luxury dish.

Wild animals are no longer sourced from local vicinity – they are killed wherever they are and moved thousand of kilometers across continents to reach the final customer. Raw ivory may be shipped from Africa to Malaysia via Singapore to finally reach the carving units in China or Thailand. The finished product would then take on a similar journey to reach — lets say, Manhattan. Profits increase exponentially as the wildlife product moves away from its origin.

Recent prosperity in countries of East Asia and Southeast Asia has created a massive market for wildlife products. Items such as tiger wine, ivory carvings and rhino horn tonic, which have traditionally been items that everyone wanted, but only some could afford, have suddenly become affordable with growing incomes. But let this not give you the impression that wildlife products come cheap – gram for gram, a lot of wildlife products such as rhino horn powder, rare fungus that grows wild high in the Himalayas or musk pods from the endangered musk deer can cost more than gold (even twice as much). The traditional desire for these products is so entrenched in culture that it has been a real challenge to stamp down this demand. Studies have shown that within the last decade, ivory prices in parts of China have gone up tenfold; the sales have gone up by 50%. Recently, new and baseless medical uses of rhino horn have been claimed in Vietnam pushing the demand and the prices for this keratin powered through the roof. Some years back a survey found that it was the rich, young and educated in China who were the biggest customers for wildlife products. Curbing demand for wildlife is not going to be easy.

In the meanwhile with every ivory bangle sold in Manhattan, with every shahtoosh shawl that finds a customer, with every bird that is caught for the pet trade, and every tiger wine bottle auctioned to the rich, our plant becomes poorer. Species are pushed closer to extinction and species are lost. We all become poorer as our common resources – wildlife, forest, rivers and oceans — are abused and exploited by criminals who plunder and sell what belong to all of us.

An edited version of this article was published in the 4 Aug 2012 edition of Times Crest and can be accessed here.