Historical Perspective

In the time that it takes to read a website or a newspaper, the odds are that at least one elephant, bear or monkey will have been poached some where in the Asian region. In the total scale of things, that may not sound a lot. But repeated day by day, this culture of killing could threaten the very biodiversity of the world that we live in.

The wildlife trade, however, is not a new phenomenon. For hundreds of years, the trade in deer, tiger and leopard skins, rhino horns and ivory has flourished between China, Japan and Siam as well as Europe and the Americas. In 1663, one shipment of ivory between Siam and Japan reportedly totalled 3,000kg. Later shipments were significantly larger. In 1821, 18,000kg of ivory was exported from Siam to China by eight ships, which additionally carried unknown quantities of wildlife parts including rhino horns, elephant skins, buffalo skins, tiger skins and leopard skins.

Indian one horned rhinoceros. Nepal circa 1905

Indian one horned rhinoceros. Nepal circa 1905

Cultural and social factors, myth and folklore have all contributed to the trade in wildlife. In China and India, the tiger is believed to possess almost mythical powers. It is widely accepted amongst the older generation that anyone who eats the flesh of the tiger will acquire some of the animal’s strength. Other parts of the animal are also said to contain medicinal properties. The Chinese believe that tiger bones can help treat chronic ailments such as rheumatism, muscle cramps, typhoid fever and boils. Tiger’s penis, meanwhile, is widely touted as the ultimate aphrodisiac.

Those beliefs are not restricted to tiger parts. Many Chinese believe that shark fins, rhino horns and bears’ paws improve strength, longevity and virility. Despite scientific evidence to the contrary, dried bear’s gall, which can sell at more than 10 times the price of gold, is also widely seen as a cure against haemorrhoids, baldness and rheumatism.

Balinese tiger and Dutch trader.

Balinese tiger and Dutch trader.

There are other historical reasons behind the trafficking of animals. In the West, tiger skins and stuffed hunting trophies have long been popular amongst wealthy collectors whilst leopard skin jackets and rare fur coats were considered the height of taste amongst the rich and fashionable. It was only in 1976 that the Dangerous Wild Animals Act was introduced in Britain. Until then, this supposedly civilized country was one of the biggest importers of large cats and other exotic animals in the world.

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In Asia, the culture of killing continues for very different reasons. As recently as 50 years ago, many Asian communities forged a living out of the forests. In this harsh environment, it was only natural that wild cats, elephants, snakes, bears and monkeys should be hunted for food, hide and bone or simply because they posed a threat to the crops or the lives of the people living within those communities. Because the supply of wildlife was believed to be inexhaustible, conservation remained a wholly alien concept.

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These days, despite the obvious decline in the numbers of wild animals, these views continue to prevail amongst big segments of the population. Having lived in the jungle for hundreds of years, the killing of wildlife is now almost a part of the collective psyche. Barring massive education, it is likely to take many years to reverse this way of thinking.

Since the 1960s, demand for wildlife has risen exponentially as a result of the dramatic increase in international trade, the absence of effective trafficking laws and the high profits derived from certain wildlife species. A trader who buys a rhino horn from a poacher in India for US$350 may now sell it in Hong Kong or China for as much as US$450,000, whilst 1 kilogram of tiger bones purchased in South Asia for US$70 can command prices ten times higher in Hong Kong or China.

Growing numbers of organizations have sought to exploit this highly profitable and relatively low risk business. What was once carried out by individuals and small-scale wildlife trading companies is now a multi-billion dollar business often linked to well-organized criminal syndicates in China, Russia, Taiwan and other major centres around the region. These syndicates often have the financial and political clout to combat international efforts to halt the trade in endangered species.

The insatiable appetite for bones, skins, organs and other animal parts has decimated entire populations of elephants, rhinos and tigers throughout Asia. As recently as the 1950s, the number of Javanese Rhinos in Indonesia and Vietnam were believed to be in the thousands. Today those numbers have fallen to around 60, leaving them on the verge of extinction.

Mong La Tiger 1

Tiger trader Mong La, Special Region 4, Myanmar/China border.                                         Copyright © Adam Oswell

As trade reached crisis levels, governments belatedly realized the need to act. In March 1973, the United Nations drew up the UN Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). But despite its 154 member nations and hundreds of resolutions, difficulties with enforcement, lack of funding and the economic realities that drive many of the poachers to kill continue to stem effective implementation.