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How Wildlife Declines Are Leading to Slavery and Terrorism

As wildlife numbers dwindle, wildlife crimes are rising—and that's fueling a raft of heinous crimes committed against humans.
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Rangers inspect a poached elephant. (Photo: enoughproject/Flickr)

Rangers inspect a poached elephant. (Photo: enoughproject/Flickr)

The United States is among the governments taking ever sterner law-enforcement approaches to protecting wildlife from poachers and traders. "We are currently involved, for example, in prosecuting cases developed through 'Operation Crash,' an ongoing multi-agency effort to detect, deter, and prosecute those engaged in the illegal killing of rhinoceros and the illegal trafficking of endangered rhinoceros horns," Assistant Attorney General Bob Dreher said during a D.C. Bar panel discussion in May. "This initiative has resulted in multiple convictions, significant jail time, penalties, and forfeited assets."

Meanwhile, the U.S. has also been working on ambitious wildlife conservation efforts, including the expansion of marine reserves—and crafting proposals to introduce new ones.

Each of these thrusts of wildlife protection is to be independently commended. But viewing the problems of wildlife crimes and wildlife conservation through independent regulatory lenses is woefully misguided. That's because declining wildlife populations are stoking wildlife crimes as prices for contraband animal bits rise, and as communities are forced to travel farther afield and clash with competing groups to find their dinner.

"Humans have always depended on wildlife, but the contemporary depletion of wildlife, combined with unprecedented market globalization, has heightened the economic stakes and desperation of consumers."

Those crimes, in turn, are fueling further declines in wildlife populations.

And the whole vicious cycle is triggering a heinous global crime wave, including everything from slavery and terrorism to piracy.

So argue researchers led by University of California-Berkeley associate professor Justin Brashares in an essay published Thursday in Science.

"Humans have always depended on wildlife, but the contemporary depletion of wildlife, combined with unprecedented market globalization, has heightened the economic stakes and desperation of consumers," the scientists wrote. "Harvesters of wildlife resort to acquiring trafficked adults and children to capture ever-scarcer resources while minimizing production costs."

For some cycles of declining wildlife populations and rising wildlife crime rates, the researchers looked to the seas. They point out that men are being increasingly "sold" to Thai fishing boats, where starvation, abuse, and murder of slaves is common, as crews are forced to sail farther offshore to capture dwindling yields. The researchers also discuss the rise of piracy off the Nigerian and other little-governed coastlines, where fishermen have armed themselves to defend their stocks from foreign vessels—and have resorted to straight-up piracy to supplement their incomes.

The researchers also discuss the impacts of rising ivory prices amid growing scarcity, linking revenues from the organized ivory trade with terrorism financing by the Janjaweed, Lord’s Resistance Army, al-Shabab, and Boko Haram in Africa.

"The audience we most want to reach is the policy-making international development and government agency groups who have terrorism on their radar; they have human trafficking on their radar," Brashares says. "They have a lot of these issues on their radar, and they're beginning to form these working groups to address these issues. But they're totally unfamiliar with the ecological processes that are really driving these issues that they’re putting their money into."