A global phenomenon threatens some of the most endangered animals on the planet. Poaching and illegal trading are targeting dwindling populations of elephants in Africa; majestic big cats such as tigers in Asia; and rhinoceros populations in several parts of the world.
China is the No. 1 destination in this illegal trade, where rising incomes are driving a demand for exotic pets, trinkets, traditional medicines and rare foods, with the United States coming in second. But the worldwide trade is so widespread, so pervasive that it's now estimated at up to $20 billion per year, second only to arms and drug smuggling, according to the U.S. Department of State.
One of the most critical situations is the slaughter of elephants in Central and Eastern Africa. Poachers are killing tens of thousands of the animals every year, fueling the illegal trade in ivory.
In late October, customs officers in Hong Kong confiscated nearly 4 tons of ivory, worth more than $3 million dollars in the biggest such seizure ever. Earlier this summer, authorities fined two men after finding nearly a ton of ivory in jewelry stores in New York City's Diamond District. And in mid-July, customs officers in Bangkok, Thailand, seized more than 150 elephant tusks hidden in crates aboard a flight from Kenya.
Thailand is a top transit hub for the illegal wildlife trade. All manner of animals, from lizards and turtles to baby panthers, leopards and tigers have been discovered, even in passengers' checked luggage. Late in October in northern Thailand, police intercepted a driver with 16 tiger cubs in the back seat of his truck. This week, customs officials at a checkpoint seized 600 cobras from a truck transporting them from Malaysia for use in food and traditional medicine.
Governments and private organizations are doing what they can to stem the trade. In 2005, the State Department created the Coalition Against Wildlife Trafficking, a public-private partnership of government agencies and non-governmental organizations, with the stated goals of improving enforcement, reducing consumer demand, and catalyzing high-level political will to fight the illegal wildlife trade.
At the recent "Partnership Meeting on Wildlife Trafficking" in Washington, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the illegal trade a "national security issue, a public health issue and an economic security issue," calling on the intelligence community to study the impact of large-scale wildlife trafficking on security interests. She also called for the creation of a global system of regional wildlife enforcement networks, pledging $100,000 from the State Department to help get it started. In Russia, President Vladimir Putin has undertaken various stunts to draw attention to threatened animals (most memorably, a motorized hang glider flight over Siberia to lead endangered white cranes on their migration route).
This week Christiane talks about the insidious trade in animals and animal parts with Robert Hormats. He's the Under Secretary for Economic Growth, Energy and the Environment at the State Department.