It seems poaching is here to stay. As long as there are hungry people who’d do anything for money and enough people ready to buy from illegal traders, there will be illegal products sold. However, with the focus so intensely trained on the horrific loss of rhinos, many of us haven’t been aware of what’s going on with the rest of our fauna and flora.
Thousands of elephants are still killed each year for their ivory – 2011 showed the highest ever recorded elephant poaching rates across Africa – and more than 170 247 units of abalone are said to be stolen each year.
In South Africa specifically, the Cape parrot is edging ever nearer to extinction, as birds are caught for trade on the black market. Our tortoises aren’t safe either: in one incident, two men were arrested on the West Coast with suitcases containing more than 100 endangered angulated tortoises destined for the international market.
The muti market poses another threat to species such as endangered blue cranes – South Africa’s national bird – vultures and baboons and while most sangomas who harvest plants and animals themselves take only what they need, smugglers and poachers don’t.
Flora is affected too and cycads that are too big to be dug out are pulled out by helicopters. These plants have been around since the dinosaur era, but could very shortly become extinct in the wild, removing a valuable link in the ecosystem.
Chameleons and sungazers are being smuggled out, often along with all the other letters and parcels via the normal postal system, or sold on the side of the road. Their numbers have dwindled far enough to put them on the CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) Appendix A list, which offers the highest level of protection to and demands permits for the trade in around 30 000 species.
So why the big fuss? Chameleons, for instance, are not found worldwide, but they have captured imaginations around the globe with their strange-looking bodies and even stranger way of moving. They’re restricted to Africa, Madagascar, some of Africa’s neighbouring islands and the southernmost fringes of Europe, Arabia and India. About 80 per cent of those occurring in South Africa are endemic. Their stealth and their ability to change colour and move their eyes independently make them formidable predators, but they’re defenselsss against smugglers looking to make a quick buck.
However, the situation isn’t hopeless. For example, after it became clear that hoodia gordonii plants were being smuggled out of Tankwa Karoo National Park to be sold for their appetite-controlling properties, a project was launched by the SanParks Honorary Rangers to establish the number of plants left and map as many of these plants as possible to help monitor their illegal removal. Since these controls have been put in place poaching has been reduced, merely because people know they’re being watched.
Even ordinary citizens can stand up against poaching. By not buying illegal wildlife (not even from the pet shop around the corner!) or products derived from it and reporting any illegal activity to local police, you’ll be helping to stop the demand and thus kill the industry.
It’s time for us to become soldiers in the war against the depletion of our natural heritage.
Wildlife Crime Scorecard: Assessing Compliance with and Enforcement of CITES Commitments for Tigers, Rhinos and Elephants (WWF report, 2012).