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Ivory, sweat and blood. The fight against wildlife crime in a WWF photo feature

Photographer James Morgan travels through Africa and Asia to document the fight against wildlife crime for the WWF, uncovering its devastating effects on both animals and people.

The unlawful trade in wild animals, whether alive or for their parts, is a business worth $19 billion a year, the size of Nepal’s economy in 2014. Internationally, wildlife is the third most profitable form of contraband after arms and drugs, driven by sales in Asia and the growth of the black market online. China alone generates 70% of the global demand for ivory, of which elephant tusks are the most important source: an average of 96 elephants are killed daily to feed this appetite according to the Wildlife Conservation Society.

The market for ivory has seriously endangered elephants’ existence on this planet. Central Africa lost more than 60% of its forest elephants between 2002 and 2011 alone. Similarly, the demand for rhino horn, principally coming from Vietnam and China, caused the extinction of Africa’s western black rhino in 2011 and threatens all five remaining species with this fate. In just 40 years rhino populations in Africa have shrunk from 70,000 to 25,000 specimens of an animal that has populated the earth for 40 million years.

 

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Photographer James Morgan documented the work of an anti-poaching patrol in the central African country of Gabon’s Minkébé National Park for the WWF, offering an exclusive insight into the fight against wildlife crime in a country highly threatened by it. In fact, 11,000 elephants were killed in Gabon between 2005 and 2013 alone, or two thirds of Minkébé forest’s population.

 

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What Morgan saw wasn’t only the annihilation of some of the planet’s most iconic species, but the dramatic repercussions poaching has on local communities. Criminal syndicates control the trade and are dangerous adversaries for the those patrolling the park. Poachers are armed with automatic weapons and don’t shy away from shooting rangers. According to Morgan:

 

“This has brought more than just the death of a few individuals, it has brought about the disintegration of an entire way of life”.

 

Many Baka, an ethnic group inhabiting the Minkébé area, are poachers. Originally hunter-gatherers living sustainably off the forest’s resources, in the 19th century they were pushed into killing ever larger numbers of animals by French and German colonisers’ thirst for ivory. Nowadays, the lack of economic opportunities has led to high levels of alcolohism and domestic violence in Baka communities. It has also forced many of their members into taking orders from criminal syndicates who exploit the Baka’s intimate knowledge of the forest by recruiting them as poachers, eroding the ancient bond these people had with the forest that has always sustained them.

 

 

The problem of poaching has grown since the time of Europe’s colonisation of Africa, as globalisation has facilitated the expansion of illegal wildlife trading routes. Morgan visited Thailand’s Suvarnabhumi airport, in Bangkok, on his journey exploring the multi-billion dollar business. This is a major entry point for contraband in Asia, from which elephant tusks, rhino horns and live animals such as tigers are dispatched throughout the continent.

 

The demand for these commodities has deep cultural roots in Asia. Ivory, for example, has been a symbol of status and wealth in China since the Ming dynasty 800 years ago. Rhino horn is thought to have medical properties such as the ability to cure cancer: beliefs that have no scientific basis but give it a mystical aura in people’s collective imagination.

 

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Award winning documentary “Horn” traces the work of anti-poaching units in South Africa

 

The fight against wildlife crime is being played out in many countries and on a variety of fronts. Poachers are being hunted down and given tougher penalties for their crimes. The wildlife trade is being regulated more strictly in countries such as China, which plans to shut down even its legal domestic ivory industry. Local communities are being given responsibility over the sustainable management of their territories, an approach that has worked well in Nepal, where no rhinos, elephants or tigers were killed by poachers in 2014. Confiscated wild animal parts are being burnt in ceremonies such as the one documented by James Morgan in Gabon and the incineration of almost 1,300 kilos of ivory and horns in Mozambique in June.

 

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The David Sheldrick elephant orphanage in Nairobi: image from Google Street View in Samburu National Park, Kenya

 

The question remains whether such efforts will be enough if the desire for wildlife itself isn’t undermined. On the hand, there is the rational argument that purchasing goods such as rhino horn won’t heal anyone and will decimate the very animals that are their source. On the other, there is a compelling story deeply rooted in human beings’ arrogance towards nature that promises to transfer onto them some of the power and prestige of these ancient and mighty creatures.

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