International Wildlife Trafficking Concerns Us All

By Michael Mitchell, Retired Game Warden and an El Camino Real chapter founder, now living in Austin

Michael Mitchell

Corona virus has sent tremors around the world, grounded a billion people, cost trillions, and killed millions. Originating perhaps in a wet market in Wuhan China, many people attribute the origin to an illegally traded wildlife animal. Even if an alternate human-caused theory is viable, the occurrence of SARS (2002 and 2003), Swine Flu (2009), MERS (2013) and other recent zoonotic diseases still demonstrate the enormous risk that illegally trafficked animals present to humankind.

Zoonotic diseases are ones which can be passed from animals to humans. The source animals are typically vertebrates. But zoonotic diseases are not something to sneeze at. Over 75 percent of new diseases discovered in the last decade are zoonotic. Frighteningly, 61 percent of all human diseases are zoonotic in origin. And it is estimated that there are currently 1,500,000 diseases in wildlife that we know nothing about.

I’m concerned that we will have an acceleration of zoonoses as populations grow, climate change looms, farming systems intensify, health systems strain, deforestation increases, antimicrobial resistance extends, and agricultural trade boosts.

These turtles could be sent anywhere in the world as part of the pet trade.

The exact wild animal, and the science linking the animal to the human outbreak with COVID, remains in debate. But the world’s attention should be drawn to the practice of illegal wildlife trafficking. The pangolin, for example, is the world’s most illegally trafficked animal. While the Corona virus has brought this to the world’s attention, more must be done as human lives, endangered species, and zoonotic disease risk are at stake.

The US has a role in all of this. It is one of the 176 countries involved in trafficking, often acting as a prominent destination of illegal animals. These days live birds and reptiles are the dominant US illegal imports. But we also have unusual problems that we create, such as a lack of corporate transparency in, say, Delaware corporations. We also tend to lead the way in, say, technologies (think of major online auction sites as an example) that inadvertently create marketplaces enabling trafficking. Fortunately the Coalition to End Wildlife Trafficking Online now consists of 47 member companies across the tech sector and is making progress in this lattermost area.

Wildlife trafficking is the world’s fourth largest transnational crime, lagging behind drugs, counterfeiting, and human smuggling. It generates something between $8 and 20 billion annually. The cost is very difficult to pinpoint. Over 7,000 species of plants and animals are impacted worldwide.

Visiting Africa to learn about wildlife trafficking

These wildlife challenges are widespread. In Africa we saw the last northern white rhino in 2018. But right here in Texas, we saw the last native San Marcos gambusia in 1983.

There are no moats around modern countries in our modern world. International conservation efforts must stop the devastation of species, such as pangolins, rhinos and elephants, birds, reptiles, timber, medicinal plants, and more. Over 250 non governmental organizations (NGOs) have called for a commercial end to wildlife trade in 2020. It’s not about one particular country…it’s all of us who are involved in a cycle of demand, trafficking, and poaching.

Game wardens are not the only people who should be alert to wildlife trafficking

Wildlife trafficking is big business. But the stakes for the world couldn’t be higher. The time to act is now, and the reasons are stronger than ever. I’m very proud of the work of Texas, United States, and other countries in fighting the problem. Here’s some things you might consider doing wherever you are:

  • Reduce meat consumption.
  • Become educated of the origin of our foods. Sources, locations, processes. From apples to chicken, from chiles to fish.
  • Become involved in sustainable food production, upholding animal welfare and a merciful death. Their health is our health.
  • Empower environmental agencies, institutions, and organizations.
  • Don’t just document the disgrace. Take action: if we are not part of the solution, we are part of the problem.
  • Children can get all the toys in the world, but they will always marvel at a living thing.
  • Establish environmental education at primary and secondary schools.
  • Work to bridge the gap between hunters and non-hunters, as well as those opposed to harvest activities.
  • Increase access to private lands.
  • Support private land conservation initiatives.
  • Maintain public lands.
  • Establish broad-based funding.

This is the kind of stuff that really makes me think. And weep. It reminds me of the old African proverb, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

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