In many ways 2016 was a landmark year for fighting wildlife crime and exploitation. The Great Elephant Census, the largest ever wildlife survey, was completed, providing new information that can be used to better protect elephants from poachers. Then there was the gathering of officials from more than 150 countries at the triennial meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora to ponder and decide how best to crack down on the illegal wildlife trade. Here are what we see as seven of the year’s biggest victories.
Domestic ivory markets are shutting down. While the international trade in ivory has been banned since 1989, many countries have thriving markets, both legal and illegal, within their borders, contributing to the deaths of some 30,000 African elephants each year. Last year the presidents of China and the United States jointly pledged to end their domestic markets. This year the U.S. introduced new regulations that shut down the trade almost entirely, and China just announced that it will close its domestic ivory market by the end of 2017.
The U.S. made it easier to punish wildlife traffickers. The illegal trade in wildlife is often called a low-risk, high-reward business because the profit can be comparable to drug trafficking, while the penalties often amount to just a few months in jail or a small fine. The E.N.D. Wildlife Trafficking Act—bipartisan legislation signed into law this year—means that prosecutors now can charge some suspects under federal money laundering and racketeering statutes. It also means that the Presidential Task Force on Wildlife Trafficking, which coordinates the efforts of 17 federal agencies, is here to stay.
The world is finally getting serious about tiger farms. There are no more than 4,000 tigers in the wild but as many as 8,000 on “farms”—facilities that breed the animals for tourist entertainment and the luxury and medicinal markets. In September Laos announced that it would phase out its tiger farms, and the international community passed a resolution that will strengthen monitoring requirements to ensure captive tigers and their parts don’t enter the illegal trade. One of the world’s most famous tiger farms, Thailand’s famous Tiger Temple, run by Buddhist monks, was raided by authorities earlier this year under suspicion of trafficking.
International businesses get involved in fighting wildlife trafficking and exploitation. The U.S. Wildlife Trafficking Alliance, a coalition of nongovernmental organizations and businesses, secured commitments from JetBlue, Royal Caribbean Cruises, Google, and others to fight wildlife trafficking. Companies are coming around to the idea that protecting the environment, and wildlife in particular, is a part of corporate responsibility. And after National Geographic reported on TripAdvisor’s problematic approach to wildlife tourism, it ended the sales of tickets to certain cruel attractions and is now developing a portal to educate users.
That scaly anteater-type creature you’ve never heard of, the pangolin, got important new protections. Pangolins are believed to be the world’s most trafficked mammal, in high demand in Asia, where their scales are made into soup. This year, the international community voted to end all commercial trade in pangolins. These new protections for all eight pangolin species are likely to give them a better chance at evading extinction and show that countries are taking the threat seriously, said Julian Newman at the Environmental Investigation Agency in London.
Creative new solutions have emerged for fighting wildlife crime. For instance, there’s the National Whistleblower Center’s project, which will allow people to anonymously report wildlife crime, DNA testing to identify pangolin poaching hot spots, a new tablet-based platform to help wildlife inspectors keep an eye out for suspicious shipments, and a computer modeling system to flag when illegal wildlife is put up for sale online. These were the grand-prize winners of the Wildlife Crime Tech Challenge, organized by the U.S. Agency for International Development and supported by the National Geographic Society. Plus, drones, thermal imaging, and a creative use of recycled cell phones have also gained ground as useful tools to combat wildlife crime.
There was a growing debate over the ethics of keeping animals in captivity. In 2016, Ringling Brothers retired the last of its circus elephants, and SeaWorld announced an end to its orca breeding and theatrical shows. The National Aquarium too announced the retirement of its dolphins to an ocean sanctuary. It was also the year of Harambe, the gorilla who was shot dead after a child fell into his enclosure, sparking a debate over zoo accidents. On the news, on blogs, and on social media, debate raged over which wild animals, if any, could be ethically kept in captivity and under what circumstances.