Understanding Wildlife Trafficking

With the recent death of Nola, one of the last northern white rhinos on the planet and a special animal to all of us here at San Diego Zoo Global, the issue of wildlife trafficking really hits close to home. Nola’s magnificent species, along with all types of rhinos and many other animals across the globe, are pushed closer to extinction by the illegal trade in wildlife. International trade is prohibited for many rare animals, yet they are still killed for body parts used to feed markets half a world away from where the animal lives in the wild, devastating wild populations of species as diverse as the rhino, pangolin and tiger.

San Diego Zoo Global is committed to reducing demand for illegal wildlife products as a part of our broader efforts to end extinction. Recently, I had the opportunity to visit with staff from TRAFFIC, an NGO that is involved in facilitating both research into the drivers of demand for wildlife products as well as investigations of those involved in the illegal trade. I met with representatives of their South East Asia office in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to discuss their work and learn more about wildlife trafficking.

Part of our visit involved touring open markets in Kuala Lumpur’s China Town. While walking through the stalls of the famed Central Market, we noticed many wildlife products for sale. We passed by stalls with fabrics, trinkets, and food products, and saw lots of wildlife products. Dried fish, tea leaves, and spices abound in these markets, and much of the trade in these species is perfectly legal. One stall had insects and bats available in framed boxes, and I wondered about their status. I had seen the wrinkle-lipped bats swarming above Gomantong Cave in Sabah, Borneo just a few days before, and I was concerned that trade in this species might endanger them. Later research revealed, however, that wrinkle-lipped bats are a species of least concern, and with more than 10 million individuals throughout Southeast Asia, they are very abundant. For this reason, trade in their parts is not regulated.


Wrinkle-lipped bats in flight over Sabah, Borneo.

We visited an interesting shop with many trinkets carved from bone. In it, there were a few items that looked like they could be ivory products. Elephant ivory is definitely an illegally trafficked product, as supplying the ivory market has resulted in steep declines in wild African elephant populations. Our TRAFFIC experts examined one particular dagger handle very closely. It can be very hard for an untrained eye to tell the difference between products made with carved domestic Asian buffalo horn, which is legal, and elephant ivory. Ultimately, they determined that the handle was in fact of buffalo horn origin, and we moved on.

It was an interesting experience to traverse a market looking for signs of species that are threatened by wildlife trafficking. Our developing partnership with the folks at TRAFFIC will allow us to participate more fully in efforts to see the illegal trade diminish. In future months you’ll hear more about our initiatives to promote a reduction in demand for wildlife products, an effort that began with our May #Rally4Rhinos. We hope that you will join us as we encourage everyone to stop buying items made with rhino horn, elephant ivory, and other parts of rare species. In doing so, we’ll all play a role in preventing extinction.

Suzanne Hall is a research coordinator with the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research’s Conservation Partnership Development division. Read her previous blog, For World Wildlife Day: Talking Trafficking.