The future of wildlife is in our hands…

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and their future is linked to ours

In today’s Anthropocene era, which is shaped by humankind, we are living in a time of unprecedented risk but also unparalleled opportunity for the future of our planet and our society.  A time when the world’s wildlife has been halved in less than a generation; extinction rates are estimated to be 1,000 and 10,000 times higher than natural rates*; the ocean, rivers and forests are struggling to cope with our growing pressure upon them; and when we are still on a path toward catastrophic climate change.

With all the problems facing the planet and our society, why should we care about wildlife? It’s simple. These species are a vital part of the ecosystems that sustain life on Earth. They are the barometer of what we are doing to our planet and the natural systems that all life on Earth, including people, depend on. We ignore their decline at our peril.

The biggest threat to wildlife is still habitat loss, such as the conversion of tropical forests to oil palm plantations, cattle ranches or farms. However, unprecedented levels of poaching and wildlife trafficking, fueled by surging demand and driven by international organized criminal syndicates, pose the most immediate threat to many of the world’s most iconic species, including elephants, rhinos and tigers.

The situation is no different in the ocean, with rampant illegal and unsustainable fishing driving a steep decline in both target and bycatch species, such as tuna and turtles. And in the medium term, climate change is predicted to become the most powerful driver of extinction.

African elephant (Loxodonta africana) herd on the move. In the middle, cow elephant with exceptionally long tusks. Amboseli National Park, Kenya. Distribution Sub-Saharan Africa.African elephant (Loxodonta africana) herd on the move. Amboseli National Park, Kenya.

With wildlife crime at an all-time high, the world is finally taking notice

For years, wildlife crime was regarded as a “secondary” environmental issue. But the world is finally taking notice and uniting to address this critical challenge. 2015 was a historic year with all 193 members of the UN adopting the first-ever resolution against wildlife crime and adopting  the Sustainable Development Goals, which include a specific target to end poaching and wildlife trafficking. This momentum, which must be followed by concrete action, is crucial for the future of the planet, people and wildlife.

On World Wildlife Day, we must build on this momentum and take this opportunity to make 2016 the turning point in the fight against poaching and wildlife crime.

There is much to do, but the signs are encouraging

2015 was another dire year for wildlife crime, particularly for iconic African species like elephants and rhinos. Controlled by dangerous crime syndicates, wildlife is trafficked much like drugs or weapons. Wildlife criminals often operate with impunity, taking advantage of an illegal trade that has generally been a low-risk, high-profit business. Today, it is estimated to be the fourth largest transnational criminal trade in the world.

Yet, there are also encouraging signs which we need to build on. For the first time since 2007, South Africa announced a decrease in rhino poaching last year, with 1,175 animals killed – 40 fewer than the record set in 2014. After seven years of ever-increasing losses, even this slight reduction is welcome and testament to the high-level political will, public pressure and the tireless efforts of rangers, law enforcement officials and conservationists to stop the poaching. Still, the rate of poaching in Africa is still unacceptably high and the improvement in South Africa is more than offset by an alarming increase in the number of rhinos killed in neighbouring countries.

Black rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis); ZimbabweBlack rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis); Zimbabwe © Martin Harvey / WWF

We can win…

The shining light is Nepal, which has shown that it is possible to stop poaching altogether. Nepal has already celebrated three years of zero poaching of rhinos since 2011 and is close to a fourth – a remarkable achievement, and one that other countries can emulate.

In Thailand, over a million people joined WWF’s “Chor Chang” anti-ivory campaign for elephants. Thailand now regulates its ivory trade. Then China and the US announced that they would take steps to halt their domestic commercial ivory trades. And now Hong Kong has committed to phase out its domestic ivory trade. These bold actions will help, but legislation alone is not enough. More work needs to be done to reduce demand for ivory as well as the wide array of illegal widlife products – a critical pillar of WWF and TRAFFIC’s Wildlife Crime Initiative.

In Africa, elephant poaching was lower in 2013 and 2014 than in the peak years of 2011-2012. But it is still too high. Could 2016 be a breakthrough year for elephants across the continent? With governments such as Tanzania, Kenya and Gabon taking strong positions against poaching and unprecedented public pressure, we can win.

The latest censuses in India and Bhutan have shown significant increase in tigers. Amur tigers in Russia continue to benefit from intense on-the-ground efforts, even moving into northeast China, where they have started to breed. The Chinese government and local communities have enthusiastically welcomed their return and are making new commitments to protect them.

Political will and on-the ground-efforts 

This shows what is possible! In all cases the key was strong political will and effective work to strengthen anti-poaching efforts and involve local communities. We cannot stop wildlife crime only by trying to stop poaching and trafficking, we also need to address demand and stop people from buying illegal wildlife products. Our collective action can be the difference between a species surviving or disappearing. The struggle to stop poaching and species extinction is part of the broader challenge to build a future in which people prosper in harmony with nature. At WWF, we believe we must and we can close this destructive chapter in human history.

*Experts actually call this natural extinction rate the background extinction rate. This simply means the rate of species extinctions that would occur if we humans were not around.

Marco Lambertini is Director General of WWF International. 


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