Actress and model Lily Cole campaigned against the use of a substance extracted from sharks in beauty products. Denis Makarenko/Shutterstock.com
When we think of wildlife trafficking, estimated to be a $19 billion per year business, we mostly think of elephants and rhinoceros, as in the recent high-profile photos of Prince Harry joining anti-poaching patrols as part of a specialist army unit in South Africa’s Kruger National Park.
But the trade in animals doesn’t just concern big game poaching, and it isn’t always illegal, even when it is harmful. It also impacts rare botanical species, marine life, and smaller animals and insects that are sought after – as pets, for their skins, or for ingredients in beauty, cosmetics and health products.
A new UN resolution represents a historical shift in the way illegal wildlife trading is classified, upgrading it from an “environmental issue” to the status of “serious crime,” and calling on all 193 UN member states to take on a series of actions to “prevent, combat, and eradicate the illegal trade in wildlife.”
This paves the way for member nations to roll out legislation to combat the serious and irreversible threat to the species concerned and to the local communities this affects.
Wildlife Conservation Society vice president for international policy Susan Lieberman praised the UN leadership for the move, saying, “We commend the member states of the UN for recognizing that the wide-ranging impacts of wildlife trafficking go far beyond just wildlife; they negatively impact human livelihoods, health, and local and national security.”
But despite this wide-ranging call for action, the trade in wildlife – perpetuated by global demand including from the fashion and beauty industries – remains a serious one. And tackling both the legal and illegal trades requires the will of consumers everywhere.
Looking after the environment is on everyone’s minds these days – with all the stories in the news and brand marketing campaigns – but token public awareness, however, is just not enough. Conservation is a chain in which the links are intimately interconnected as a function of the whole.
Even if species is not on the endangered list by its own right, once the resources of what they feed on are depleted, or the environment they reproduce in is polluted, the chain starts to unravel.
Take the example of squalene, a substance obtained from the liver of deep-sea sharks, used in cosmetics. After extensive campaigning in 2010 to 2012, with supermodel Lily Cole lending her face to the cause, the big names in the industry reacted by phasing out squalene and using a product with a remarkably similar name to replace it: squalane.
The loophole in the EU labeling requirement lies in the fact that squalane can be obtained in two forms, animal or vegetal. Vegetal squalane derives from olive oil or sugar cane, while animal squalane still uses the problematic deep-sea shark liver.
There is no way for a consumer to tell from the label whether the squalane ingredient is of animal or vegetal origin.
According to a study conducted by the Le Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) in Lyon published by the Bloom watchdog association in April, of 62 face creams, one in five still contains shark squalane.
Bloom estimates that more than 3 million deep-sea sharks are killed every year, and in some shark species over 95 percent of the population has been wiped out. Granted, sharks are not the cuddliest of sea creatures, but as the top predators in the food chain, once you eliminate them, the whole marine food chain falls out of kilter.
“The commerce of endangered species whether in cosmetics, beauty, fashion products or for any other purpose is illegal on an international scale,” says Stéphanie Morelle, head of biodiversity for France Nature Environnement, “so a priori we shouldn’t find any of these species used in cosmetics or any other application, nor use of any ingredients issued from species in danger of extinction.”
“That is the theory,” she continues. “The challenge, however, is that it is not always the case, as exemplified by the publicized traffic of rhino horn used in medicinal products, but also in the case of lesser known species such as the trafficking of the pangolin, that has become the target of highly aggressive poaching.”
The pangolin, also known as scaly anteater, is a small nocturnal mammal threatened with extinction because it is used for its meat and for its keratin scales, made of the same substance as human hair and nails, the same thing that makes rhino horn marketable.
Despite a commercial trade ban since 2000, they are the most illegally trafficked wild mammals according the Zoological Society of London. Its price in the black market can climb up to $1,000 per animal, and over a million have been snatched from the wild in the past decade.
“So while there is an international convention in place that regulates endangered flora and fauna, and the new UN resolution from a political and diplomatic point of view is good decision,” says Morelle, “it must be translated into concrete human and financial resources to increase surveillance, and dismantle the networks.
“The question also remains whether it will be followed by an awareness campaign to inform consumers and tourists of the impact of what products they buy, or the souvenirs they collect.”
A SLITHERY PARADOX
Illegal trade perpetrators are highly creative and adaptable, and every time they get caught engaging in one practice they will quickly come up with another, always a step ahead of the customs checks and trade controls.
Franck Courchamp, director at the French National Centre for Scientific Research, Institut écologie et environnement, has studied the effects of trade on biodiversity dynamics for years. In 2005, he identified a very singular paradox: the rarer a species becomes, the more valuable it becomes in the luxury, fashion and traditional medicine markets.
As soon as a resource is classed as “at risk,” it accelerates the process of extinction, because illegal trade rushes to obtain it before it becomes banned.
“It is a vicious cycle that becomes evident in cases as diverse as demand for rhino horn, antelope skin, or reptiles or birds sought as exotic pets,” he says. “It also applies to plants and flowers. It is a really serious problem. Individuals may think that it couldn’t hurt if they take just one tiny bit of something, but when you add it all up, it has an enormous effect on the natural population, and constitutes a major risk for the extinction of species in the world.”
Courchamp says that since black rhinos in West Africa were declared extinct a couple of years ago, there has been an explosion in poaching of another type of rhino in the region, a phenomenon that has also been seen among pangolins and seahorses.
And from the very moment that a species is announced as endangered (there are 5,600 species of animals and 30,000 species of plants currently on the list), Courchamp says, there is a two-year gap until the ban becomes effective, generating a two-year hike in legal sales.
“From the moment it becomes effectively banned, there is a marked spike in illegal black market sales for a few years thereafter,” he says. “So, paradoxically, when we put a species on the endangered list to protect it, we are increasing its risk of extinction. It is bizarre but it is the way mankind functions at this time, like spoilt children that have not yet matured in their respect for nature.”
The proliferation of online commerce brought an even bigger challenge.
France Nature Environnement is working on a campaign to combat online sales, starting by identifying private ads or auction listings selling endangered animals as pets. They are addressing the website host to request these ads to be brought down.
While there have succeeded on some websites banning sales of turtles, for example, it is on a case-by-case basis, limited by the resources and time available. Under French law, for example, the police can’t ‘pretend’ to be a buyer, because it is considered entrapment, so there is a limit to what they can do to obtain the information on the seller to tap into the organizes crime networks that are supplying the animals.
It is a little-known fact that for every specimen supplied there is a multiplying factor of 10. Franck Courchamp pointed out that for every parrot ‘successfully’ sold as an exotic pet, there are ten parrots that perish as collateral damage during capture, captivity and transport. Poaching is an environmental, economic and social threat, and WWF lists the illicit wildlife trade as the fourth largest illegal trade in the world. Another side effect is the myriad sanitary problems the hidden trade carries with it in the unchecked introduction of dangerous viruses, mycosis, or diseases that can pose a threat to agriculture, animals, and humans.
Biodiversity loss is a serious concern not merely because of the impact on the population of the endangered flora, fauna, or the physical damage to ecosystems but also for the adverse effect in the native culture and sense of identity, and loss of local know-how.
Denis G. Antoine of Grenada, speaking to the General Assembly ahead of the consensus adoption of the UN resolution, said “Illegal wildlife trafficking not only threatens species and ecosystems, it affects the livelihoods of local communities…and compromises efforts towards poverty eradication and the achievement of sustainable development.”
WHAT CAN YOU DO?
Courchamp recommends a few simple things to start with, “first of all, avoid having as pets any animal that is considered an ‘exotic’ species.
“Obvious but worth a mention, is follow fashion with your eyes open. Fur is back in vogue. Any fur that comes from wild animals poses a problem for many species. There is no such thing as a wild species with a population in such healthy numbers that can absorb the impact of people wearing their skins for adornment.
“The fact that these species are not yet listed as endangered doesn’t mean that they are necessarily in good health. It is the kind of thing that can push the entire species into a downward spiral.
“Celebrities, models and people in the public eye, need to be particularly aware that anything they wear, even once, is going to be instantly be replicated by the public. They have a double effect, not just in the animal that died for them to wear, but in those that will die as a consequence of inciting lots of people to wear the same.”
Taking responsibility for what we choose to wear, to eat and to consume can start with a few easy steps.