Sophisticated, organized criminal syndicates involved in the illegal trade of animal body parts are wiping out wildlife, to the point that several subspecies have already gone extinct, according to a paper in the journal Oryx.
The Sumatran rhinoceros is thought to have gone extinct in Thailand and Peninsular Malaysia due to poachers working in crime rings, and two subspecies of African rhino have suffered similar fates. Tigers, elephants, saiga antelopes, and even a little anteater known as the pangolin are all at dangerously low numbers due to relentless hunting by the criminals.
Author Elizabeth Bennett, vice president of species conservation for the Wildlife Conservation Society, told Discovery News that the crime syndicates "are likely to involve similar networks -- and even the same people -- as the organized crime networks involved in illicit arms and drugs smuggling. But they are networks, globally linked, like inter-connected spider webs."
She says numerous species are targeted, from turtles and snakes, along with much larger animals. Aside from people coveting exotic pets, many people believe in traditional "remedies." Rhino horns, for example, are mostly made of keratin, the same fibrous protein found in human hair and fingernails, but people in some cultures still think of them as an aphrodisiac.
The illegal wildlife trade would not exist were it not for such customer demand.
"The single greatest core driver is increasing wealth, especially in East Asia," Bennett said. "That is leading to greatly increased demand for high-value wildlife products. That demand can now be met because of greatly increased access, largely by roads often built to extract natural resources (logs, minerals) throughout wild areas."
Technology allows the criminals to stay in constant contact with each other. When alleged tiger poachers were recently caught in the Western Forest Complex of Thailand, for example, most had cell phones in hand, likely waiting for instructions. Bennett points out that these traders are light on their feet, frequently changing routes and modes of operation as enforcement commences in any one place.
She believes another key to their success "is that part of the system involves fake permits somewhere along the trade chain. An animal might be poached illegally in Africa, sent illegally to another country where paperwork (such as a CITES permit) is introduced or changed, so then an illegal animal become a 'legal' one, since the paperwork gives it legitimacy."
"So much of the legal wildlife trade in this country (the U.S.)," she added, "is probably from animals that were hunted illegally at the start."
Over the past few years, conservationists have become especially concerned about rhino populations. In 2010, a record 333 rhinos were killed in South Africa alone as a result of poaching. Already in 2011, at least 200 rhinos have been killed in the country, many from the world famous safari destination Kruger National Park.
"Poaching is being undertaken almost without exception by sophisticated criminals, sometimes hunting from helicopters and using automatic weapons," said Joseph Okori, World Wildlife Fund's African Rhino Program director. "South Africa is fighting a war against organized crime that risks reversing the outstanding conservation gains it made over the past century."
While the criminals are becoming wealthier, the poor global economy has weakened conservation groups' ability to counter the crimes.
"We are almost losing a rhino a day," Kevin Bewick of the Anti-Poaching Intelligence Group Southern Africa told Discovery News. "At this rate, they will soon be wiped out. Anti-poaching units are extremely underfunded and are not receiving support from the South African government."
Bennett, however, remains hopeful that citizens and governments can fight the crime syndicates and win.
"Scientifically based patrols and intelligence networks are relatively low tech and not too costly," she said. "Involvement of local community members as rangers and 'eyes and ears' is also not expensive. Development of apps to aid in species identification again is not too costly."
She concluded, however, that "the core costs will always lie with governments, who have the legal authority to enforce … The governments of the key wildlife consuming nations for these high-end products are not poor, and could allocate additional resources to customs and others as needed. Developed country governments with good technical expertise could contribute that, as well as funds, to support less developed countries with the key wildlife needing protection."