It's sickening to imagine that some of the world's most iconic species, like elephants, polar bears and tigers, could go extinct on our watch. But data tracking the recent explosion in the illegal wildlife trade indicates that this seemingly absurd possibility is actually an inevitability, if something doesn't change and change quickly.
Fortunately, there are growing signs that governments around the world are beginning to wake up to the poaching crisis. Kenya recently passed strict new penalties for convicted poachers, and G8 leaders meeting in Lough Erne last week pledged to "tackle the illegal trafficking of protected or endangered species."
Now Russia, which wildlife experts have long lamented had one of the most egregious loopholes in its laws concerning protected species, has finally passed legislation with some teeth.
Dr. Sybille Klenzendorf, managing director of species conservation at the World Wildlife Fund USA, explained that before this new legislation, Russian law only permitted prosecution of poachers if they were actually caught in the act of killing a protected animal or if it could be proven that the value of the wildlife poached was $30,000 or more.
"It's really hard to prove the monetary value of an endangered species in a court of law," said Klenzendorf. "It is, after all, illegal to sell them, so you can't just go to the corner store and see how much a dead tiger retails for. A lot of people have gotten off in the past because the prosecution couldn't prove the price."
This totally unenforceable law has now been replaced by rules that make it a crime to possess endangered species, whether or not you are the poacher and regardless of the going price for a polar bear.
While the new law is a huge victory for groups like WWF, which have been working with the Russian government for over ten years to make this happen, the work to ensure that the new laws are actually enforced is just now beginning.
"Now that there is this law it needs to be enforced," said Kelnzendorf. "That seems obvious, but there is going to have to be a dramatic increase in wildlife rangers and law enforcement to make this happen. In the past, Russia has really cut back on these positions, to the point where in one of the major polar bear areas in the north, there are only three rangers responsible for a region the size of California."
"This is still a huge victory for conservation," added Klenzendorf. "It highlights the fact that you have to be persistent in this field of work. Conservation success often takes a long time, but when it does, we can make huge strides that change what the future of this world will look like."
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