Wildlife trafficking is a multi-billion-dollar trade and one of the most lucrative and illicit markets in the world after drugs, human trafficking and arms.
According to wildlife conservation groups, at least 20,000 elephants were killed worldwide by poachers in 2013 for their ivory, 1,215 rhinos were killed in South Africa in 2014 and approximately 4,870 pangolins were slaughtered in China between 2010 and 2013. And the horror doesn't stop there.
Each year, more than 42,000 sea turtles are illegally caught, up to US$1 billion (S$1.4 billion) worth of illegally grown python skins are imported into Europe and an estimated 100 million sharks are killed , mostly to meet the demand for shark fin soup.
In Thailand, the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation has reported that about 10,700 live animals, 1,348 carcasses and 3,293 kilograms of animal parts were seized from traffickers in 2013. Pangolins, squirrels, elephants, tigers and gibbons were the most-seized critters.
"Thailand is the centre for the illegal wildlife trade in Southeast Asia," laments Kraisak Choonhavan, chairman of the Freeland Foundation, which took part in a recent event to introduce new champoions for the iThink campaign to combat wildlife trafficking. The iThink effort is supported by Arrest, Asia's Regional Response to Endangered Species Trafficking, which is backed by the US Agency for International Development (USAid).
"China and America, which used to be the biggest illegal wildlife-trafficking markets, especially in terms of the ivory trade, are now active participants in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora [Cites]," says Kraisak. "We at Freeland are constantly taking action against this trade. In 2004, we won after being sued by shark sellers in China for Bt290 million for promoting our anti-shark fin campaign of how shark-fin soup means death. Wild animals should live in the forest, not on the table or the menu."
Founded in 2012, iThink is an awareness campaign that offers an interactive platform to inform and empower people to say no to keeping endangered wildlife as pets. Its champions include government officials, prominent journalists and entertainment-industry figures.
"Wildlife trafficking is an issue that many of us don't know much about. Even fewer of us feel we can do much about it. The iThink campaign was launched to put that right and, thanks to celebrities and other well-known figures, the message is slowly getting out there to the wider public. If we all take small steps in the right direction, we can make a big difference. The planet belongs to everybody and we should all play a part in protecting it," says Kraisak.
"This campaign marks a big step forward in our efforts to inform the public about the illegal trade in wildlife - one of the most important issues of our time," adds Beth Paige, director of USAid's Regional Development Mission for Asia. "We need to follow the lead of these champions of wildlife. I think we all have to be bold enough to take a stand - we don't need ivory trinkets and shark fin soup."
The new champions, chosen for their personal empathy towards wildlife and their ability to reach a large spectrum of the public, are musician-actor Saharat "Kong" Sangkapreecha from "The Voice Thailand", actress Nuengthida "Noona" Sophon, National Parks Department veterinarian Dr Patarapol "Lotter" Maneeorn and marine biologist Dr Thon Thamrongnawasawat. All are helping to spread the message - in their own words - with the aim of reducing the demand for wildlife and wildlife products and putting a halt to the illegal trade.
"Now is a propitious time to keep our wildlife safe. It is also good for me to take part in this campaign; it isn't too critical for me to try to make time and to spread the word that people must stop taking wild animals to feed at home," says Kong. "I feel so sad every time I see someone holding and showing off a wild animal like a baby monkey because we are separating that baby from its mother, which would be killed. It is pathetic and stupid."
Noona agrees, though she admits she too used to go dewy-eyed at the sight of a wild baby beast.
"I was so excited when my friends bought and started looking after a nang ai [slow loris] at home and followed people who showed the little ones feeding on social networks. I hadn't even heard of Freeland before I became involved with this campaign. Now I'm determined to spread the word that keeping and feeding wild animals it not just wrong but it's also illegal," says Noona. "And the same applies to animals not protected by the law but imported from other countries. Although they are not classified as wildlife, they are affected by the very different ecological system. And because they cannot find the food they would eat as part of their normal diet, they end up eating what we eat and that kills them.
For his part, the wildlife veterinarian Patarapol is not just proud to be part of the campaign but sees it as his duty.
"I have always found a problem with past campaigns and that's giving people meaningful information and knowledge about the illegality of the wildlife trade. Thai people are by nature lenient and generous and believe that feeding wildlife is like making merit. But, it is seriously wrong. The campaign has a good slogan - 'Sat Pa Nai Kam Mue: Liang Kor Tai Khai Kor Bab' ['Wildlife is in the palm of our hand; feeding is killing, trading is a sin'] but can we really control everything in the palm of our hand?
"Look at the logo too - a slow loris. Did you know that more than 100 slow lorises have severe tooth decay because they are fed human food and sweets. We don't feed them properly or nutritiously. A slow loris' diet is composed of leaves and fruits and a small number of insects and worms, all of which they find in their natural habitat. They should be living in the forest not a city condo," Patarapol says.
Thailand has the world's largest unregulated ivory market, and is home to one of the world's biggest and most active ivory carving industries. Thais like to buy ivory in the form of small amulets and other good luck charms, and the wealthier ones purchase carvings of elephants and the occasional mounted polished tusk to display as status symbols. Thais also like to eat the meat of wild animals, believing it will make them healthy and strong.
"Everybody believes that the flesh of wild animals has benefits and properties," the veterinarian continues. "Many are convinced that they will be stronger sexually if they eat a tiger's sexual organ. A tiger takes just four seconds to breed so this is obviously rubbish. The meat has nothing to do with promoting health - that comes from the herbal ingredients."
Yet the effort to convince Thais that wild animals are not pets has had little success in recent years, and the helpless creatures can still be found for sale in Bangkok markets.
"Taking a wild animal to live in your home, in an environment that is contrary to their nature makes them tense. It loses it natural behaviour and is more susceptible to disease. A research study that looked at 100 animals in the forest showed that none had any kind of viral disease. Yet after keeping them in a cage for just one week, 60 per cent were infected with a virus. When an animal is stressed, its immunity is weaker and it gets sick. Feeding wild animals is not just risky for their health but also for you and your family members. We know that wild animals are the original reservoir for such diseases as bird flu, Sudden Acute Respiratory Syndrome [Sars] and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome [Mers]," Patarapol says. "Feeding wildlife at home even for a short time is dangerous.
Even if they are released into the wild, their lives are ruined as they have lost the ability to fend for themselves. And they are taking disease back with them, which affects other animals. An example is the 40 gaur we found dead in one of our national forests. Any animal that has been taken out or is born out of its natural environment must go into quarantine."
Noona says she has learned her lesson and is now determined to ensure that others do too.
"Dissemination of awareness and information about the campaign is very important for young people. These social network users are ready to spread the information and share what we tell them through their Facebook and Instagram as well as through #exoticpet. That way everyone can learn about these exotic animals," says Noona.
SET THEM FREE
- If you keep an exotic pet, consider taking steps to return it to the wild. For assistance, call the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation at 1362.