Home Sciences “Illegal hunting is a multi-million dollar business, like drugs or weapons”

“Illegal hunting is a multi-million dollar business, like drugs or weapons”

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Cordovan ecologist Ana Benítez has spent years studying the effect of anthropogenic factors that can lead species to extinction and the dangers associated with illegal hunting of wildlife. The cases of natural park rangers murdered by criminal groups around the world are a sad reality. Among the victims associated with the safeguarding and visibility of illegal hunting, we must also add the lives of three journalists, including the Spaniards David Beriáin and Roberto Fraile, murdered last year in the surroundings of a natural park in Burkina Faso.

Ana Benitez (Cordoba, 1981) is researcher of the Department of Integrative Ecology of the Doñana Biological Station (EBD-CSIC). His field of work is the study of the impact of hunting activity on wildlife in Latin America, Africa and Asia. His work focuses on determining the factors that determine the distribution and abundance of species, emphasizing anthropogenic effects and how these can drive local populations or species to extinction. This is the interview that he has granted to Agencia Sinc.

-Why does illegal hunting continue to be the great threat to wildlife?

-The illegal hunting trade is a multi-million dollar business that moves between 7,000 and 23,000 million dollars a year, comparable to drug or arms trafficking. It is a business because there are pieces that are listed on the market at a higher price than gold. For example, rhino horn. Many pieces are in demand for their supposed healing properties. In other cases, consuming certain species is a sign of social status. Lastly, there are species that are marketed as exotic pets, or for collecting purposes, as is the case with many reptiles or parrots and parakeets, but also songbirds in cages, highly demanded in Indonesia or China.

-An illegal business that causes altercations and costs lives…

-In recent years, in Africa alone, about 1,000 guards have been killed. One of the clearest examples is that of the Virunga National Park, which is one of the oldest parks in Africa, with a population of about 600 mountain gorillas.

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-How are you fighting?

-The main instrument to combat it is CITES, which regulates the legal trade of living beings. When it is suspected that a species may be being trafficked in large numbers, and that its populations are in decline, international agreements can be reached to include it in Appendix 1 of CITES, which includes all species that are prohibited from hunting. For example, in 2016 it was agreed to prohibit the legal trade of the eight pangolin species and their inclusion in said appendix was proposed. On a more local scale, many protected areas have guard patrols to control poachers. Also, the most conflictive ports and airports are controlled to requisition possible shipments of exotic species.

-What consequences does this activity have on biodiversity?

-Illegal hunting en masse implies population decline and the possible extinction of a large number of living beings, which is known as defaunation. Many of the species hunted are large animals with low reproductive rates. This makes them vulnerable since, when hunting pressure is very high, populations are unable to reproduce quickly enough to compensate for this mortality. In addition, a large number of these species perform very important functions, such as seed dispersal, nutrient redistribution or pest control. Through the extraction of species, such as forest elephants, the ability to move large amounts of nutrients and seeds over great distances, processes that are essential for the functioning of ecosystems, is lost. In addition, elephants are ecosystem engineers, since they modify the forest structure creating new habitats and microhabitats for other species.

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-Which species of animals are the most vulnerable to this illegal practice?

-One of the most flagrant cases is that of the rhinoceros. There are countries, such as Vietnam, where its horns are in demand for cancer treatment. Due to these beliefs and the increase in international demand, the price reached 60,000 dollars per kilo in 2012, doubling the value of gold or platinum, and being more valued than diamonds or cocaine. Between 2007 and 2014, according to the WWF, the illegal hunting of rhinos in South Africa increased by 9,000% for these reasons.

-What other examples are associated with these beliefs?

-Another case is pangolins, which are highly demanded in countries like China or Vietnam for the use of their scales in the treatment of diseases such as asthma, rheumatism or arthritis. Asian pangolins are virtually extinct or highly threatened. In recent years, pressure has increased enormously on African pangolins, which are illegally exported to Southeast Asia. Today it is considered the most trafficked mammal in the world. Recent estimates indicate that more than 2.7 million pangolins are hunted in a year in Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Republic of the Congo.

-Is it a sufficiently visible problem?

-The general population is aware that there are living beings that are highly threatened by illegal trade, such as elephants, tigers, rhinoceroses or gorillas. However, these are just the tip of the iceberg of thousands of other species that are illegally traded. One of the clearest consequences for society is the risk of zoonotic diseases that can jump from animals to humans, with MERS, SARS or covid-19 being quite clear cases.

Environment section contact: crisisclimatica@prensaiberica.es

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