By Senuri Vidanapathirana

Wildlife plays a big role in defining how Sri Lanka is perceived, particularly in the context of tourism. Whether it be in the Jungle fowl standing proudly in a children’s scrapbook as the national bird or the photographs of the Sri Lankan leopard on the cover page of a travel magazine, our identity significantly depends on nature and the wildlife that inhabit it. However, the illegal trade of wildlife has the likelihood of severely altering this identity in Sri Lanka and almost all other countries that boost vast ecosystems.

A Look at The Numbers

Animals face a myriad of problems daily, and while the likes of pollution, deforestation and the loss of natural habitat cause damage, the trade of wildlife is a significant contributor to the problem through poaching and harvesting that contribute to the depletion of already endangered or at-risk species. However, while the legal trade of wildlife is practiced significantly around the world, with the legal global plant and wildlife market excluding timber being valued at USD 21 billion in 2005, the illegal trade of wildlife shows up to be a problem not only to the animals themselves, but also to the humans and environments they inhabit. Albeit extremely common, the very nature of the illegal trade of wildlife makes it difficult to assess the exact figures, however, the Humane Society International estimate the value to be between USD 8 and USD 20 billion annually.

Why Does Wildlife Trafficking Concern Us?

One of the most distinct implications arising from wildlife trafficking lies in the loss of endangered species. Out of the estimated 8 million species on Earth, studies demonstrate that at least 15, 000 species are threatened with extinction; noting that many endangered species still remain unknown,  indicating  the number to be much higher. The demand for more ornate species results in the targeting of the fittest of the breed and overexploitation. This could result in long term ecological problems such as the slowing down of reproduction of vulnerable species due to sex-ratio imbalances. Moreover, the targeting of keystone species – species that ‘have a significant direct and indirect effect on their surrounding ecosystems and other species within the ecosystem’ – and its effects can be seen in the way the exploitation of sharks have resulted in an increase in smaller fish while also contributing to a decline in shellfish. Furthermore, destructive practices to obtain wildlife such as the use of cyanide and dynamite in fishing, intending to capture fish by stunning them has seen the destruction of corals and other fish in its vicinity.

Aside from ecological damages, the illicit trade of wildlife often entails a large amount of animal cruelty.  The methods used by poachers often fall short of welfare standards resulting in the transport and concealment methods used ensuing many specimens falling ill, getting injured, starving or dying in transit.

Arguably one of the most direct implication on humans lies in the form of Zoonotic diseases. The trade of bush meat the commercial hunting and selling of wild animals for food, has a history of introducing viruses and bacteria to native species, livestock and humans. The Ebola Virus, which is believed to originate from the African Fruit Bat and Covid- 19 being examples of other diseases which are believed to be zoonotic. Nonetheless, it must be noted that the illicit trade in itself is not to be blamed entirely. The 2003 SARS pandemic was traced back to the wet markets in China wherein the virus jumped from bats to humans and was amplified in civet cats and jumped back to humans before spreading internationally to 51 countries.

Furthermore, the illegal trade of wildlife also contributes to threat and violence. With the use of firearms becoming more common, violence between poachers and law enforcement personnel, conservationists and rangers are proving to be common and increasing, with over 1,000 rangers being killed in the line of duty in Africa alone in previous decades. Moreover, the trade in wildlife has also proven to undermine states’ ability to manage natural resources, good governance and national security in certain instances in the past as well.

What Measures Are Implemented to Protect Wildlife Within Global Trade?

For the longest time the international trade of wildlife was unregulated. However, in 1973, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which is also known as the Washington Convention, was introduced. As a result, international trade expanded its mandate to ensure the trading of wild animal or plant species is restricted. CITES therefore introduced a legal framework that regulated “trade in specimens of wild animals and plant species, including fish and timber”.  In accordance with the preamble of the convention, CITES recognises that all nations have an individual responsibility to protect their own wildlife from being over-exploited through international trade.

The importance of safeguarding wildlife has also been highlighted in the WTO as its underlying aim of sustainable development complements the principles of CITES. In fact, the WTO has taken an active stance in supporting CITES, considering that the organisation notifies member states of the latest CITES measures that affects trade. An important point to note is that international trade has prioritised sustainable wildlife trade even before the WTO. For example, the multilateral trading system has recognised the conservation of wildlife long before, through the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). Specifically, the general exceptions listed under GATT protect measures implemented to protect human, animal or plant life or health, and measures relating to the conservation of exhaustible natural resources, even if it hinders global trade (GATT Article XX paragraph (b) and (g)). Additionally, the issue of wildlife trade has been an area that has gained attention within the WTO dispute settlement system, with US-Shrimp being one such example.

Does this Mean There is Nothing to Worry?

Although CITES keeps  international trade of animals and plants legal, sustainable and traceable, the large amounts of species being traded in reality is a cause for concern in many contexts as wild populations are at crisis (Sodhi et al., 2004). Whether it be in the form of elephant ivory, rhinoceros’ horns, shark fins or tiger products, the large volumes of these products suggest that illegal trade is robust and also show that efforts made are not entirely successful. With the illegal trade of animals becoming more and more creative in the manner that products are concealed, with experts finding live birds, eggs and reptiles being found in ceramic garden gnomes, hollow books and computer hardware or odour of two tons of dried seahorses being masked by dried chilies, the current state of the illicit wildlife trade is a cause for concern, not only to the animals themselves, but to the ecosystems that depend on it, including us.

The views and opinions expressed in articles submitted to the Comparative Advantage Blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Moot Court Bench.



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