Poaching and wildlife trafficking decimated Africa's wildlife species by millions. Now that remaining populations are perilously small and the illegal wildlife trade grows ever more sophisticated, the survival of keystone species like the elephant and rhino has never been more threatened.
Organized wildlife trafficking syndicates are using high-powered weaponry and ruthless techniques to profit from the killing of Africa's iconic wild animals. Body parts ranging from elephant tusks and rhino horn to zebra skins and pangolin scales — and even to live cheetah cubs and baby chimps — can be trafficked faster across global smuggling networks to demand centers.
In spite of wildlife laws and regulations protecting threatened species, many consumers will stop at nothing to acquire illicit wildlife products. Demand must be tackled at the consumer level. Whether they are looking for a medicinal cure-all or a status symbol, buyers will pay exorbitant amounts for wildlife products — oftentimes not knowing the true cost of their actions. But if more people knew the impact of their demand, they would want to wash their hands of the crime and instead take part in saving these majestic species.
Demand markets for products from Africa's iconic species are driven by wealth and age-old customs. Affluent individuals in southeast Asia use rhino horn as a party drug while elephant ivory is carved into ornaments or jewelry and sold globally; the skins of some of the world's most beautiful animals are coveted for their patterns. As more upwardly mobile consumers look to exclusive wildlife products to mark their wealth, new centers are emerging as trading hotspots.
Not only is rhino horn used widely in the carving industry, it is also falsely believed to be a powerful cure for ailments ranging from cancer to common colds and hangovers. In countries like Vietnam — with thousands of new cancer cases per year and limited treatment facilities — rhino horn is a valuable and ready substitute to cure the disease.
Pangolins are suffering a similar fate. Recognized as the world's most trafficked mammal, this scaly creature is hunted for its scales, which are believed to hold medicinal powers, and its meat. Public awareness is needed to spread the scientific knowledge and dissuade the mistaken belief that rhino horn or pangolin scales have any medical value. In fact, both are made from keratin — the same substance that makes up human nails and hair.
As a key demand center, China has taken significant steps to limit trade in elephant ivory and rhino horn. In 2018, China officially shut down the domestic ivory market. In addition to closing carving factories and retailers, the government also banned the use of rhino horn in traditional Chinese medicine. Meanwhile in South Africa — home to one of the largest rhino populations on the continent — the government has permitted domestic trade in rhino horn. Although the law is isolated and limited, it sends mixed messages to the market and creates loopholes that illegal traffickers can abuse to get illicit products to ready markets.
Awareness-raising campaigns with WildAid and other partners showed both the brutality, and the futility, of using rhino horn as a medicine. Backed by Chinese and Vietnamese celebrities, the public service announcements and social media campaigns reached millions of people highlighting simple facts — rhino horn is made of the same substance as fingernails and hair — while also shedding light on the ruthless slaughter of the animal to get a single body part.
When stockpiled wildlife products are injected into the market, there are direct linkages to growing demand and increased threats to animals on the continent. AWF supports the burning of these illicit wildlife products to signal to the market that they are not tradeable commodities, even if acquired from naturally deceased elephants or farmed rhinos who are dehorned.
As ties between African countries and southeast Asia advance across various industries and sectors, AWF lobbies leaders in government, civil society, and the private sector to advocate for conservation-friendly business. Through the China-Africa Dialog, AWF facilitates high-level meetings between both African and Chinese business leaders to underscore why the protection of Africa’s natural resources and wildlife is essential to the continent’s economic growth.
Become a member
Join African Wildlife Foundation as a member for just $25. Your partnership is vital to our mission to protect Africa’s most precious - and imperiled - creatures.
Spread the word