Last week has once again highlighted how precarious the balance is for so much of the world’s wildlife, in sharing this planet with humankind.
In addition to the constant battle to protect the growing list of endangered species, the alarming escalation in illegal wildlife trade has taken a number of species to the brink of extinction.
The three biggest casualties are elephants, rhinos and tigers. All hunted, butchered and sold for their body parts by a global criminal industry that matches arms, drugs and people-trafficking for its size and brutality. The insatiable demand for tusks, horns and pelts, meat and body parts has seen criminal activity grow to over US$19 billion per annum.
This matter has now been addressed. At the unprecedented high-level London Conference last week, 46 countries agreed a declaration to tackle illegal wildlife trade.
Estimates are that elephants are being killed at a rate of over 50,000 a year, which means they could be extinct in a matter of decades.
Rhino poaching has increased by 5,000% over 5 years, with African rhinos reduced by 96% over the past fifty years. Their Asian cousins are equally threatened as China and Vietnam’s desire for rhino horn fuels a market witnessing three rhinos poached per day.
Tigers now number as few as 3,200 worldwide, as their numbers have dropped by 95% over the past century.
Apart from misguided Asian medical practices, there is the second issue of wildlife habitat loss. Together, these two phenomena compound the threat to these animals’ very existence.
For example, on Sunday a leopard sent panic through the local markets of Meerut in Uttar Pradesh in India, as it came in from the wild and found itself the centre of more attention than it had bargained for. It would have felt far from alone with so much massed attention as it traversed rooftops, a local timber yard and the Meerut Cantonment Hospital. Injuring seven people in the process, the big cat managed to escape back into the wild despite authorities scrambling together the local army, the police force and a wildlife team with tranquiliser darts.
Incidents such as this are becoming more common as human encroachment spreads further into tigers’ and leopards’ natural habitat. Last week, in the same state, a leopard mauled a five-year-old boy to death in Chattisgarh. Officials also report that at least nine other people have been killed by tigers over the past six weeks.
How do we address this dual issue of ‘poaching’ (to satisfy Asia’s misguided thirst for body parts), as well as ‘habitat protection’ to the benefit of both animals and people?
Step forward ‘tourism’.
Tourism, when well managed, is best placed to address the challenges of protecting the world’s most endangered species while simultaneously benefiting the local community. With peaceful, wildlife-loving tourists ever keen to delight in experiencing these rare and beautiful animals in their natural habitat, elephants, rhinos and tigers can switch from being a threat to communities, to being part of their prosperity.
As highlighted in a recent blog of mine, the success of the African silverback mountain gorilla projects is a heartening example of how tourism serves as both protector and provider. So much so that a similar gorilla-style eco-tourism initiative has recently been championed as the best hope for the world’s most threatened primate, the Madagascan lemur.
If these ‘big game’ animals are to survive, our tourism industry’s ability to deliver much needed finance, alongside a benefit to all stakeholders has to be appropriately harnessed as quickly as possible. The good news is that world tourism numbers are growing exponentially. The bad news is that time is fast running out.
Indeed, time will ultimately tell whether we are able to ring-fence the survival of not only elephants, rhinos and tigers but of so many other wildlife species. The hope is that we can indeed keep these animals in their natural environment. The alternative is that we could only see a limited number of them in zoos.
Which as a healthy young giraffe in Copenhagen Zoo discovered this week, is not ideal: it was killed by zoo keepers as it did not comply with ‘breeding programmes’.