The international trade in endangered species is a lucrative business, with some recent estimates putting its worth at up to $20 billion annually, making it one of the most profitable international crimes, behind the illegal drug trade, the illicit arms trade, and human trafficking.
The impacts of the illicit trade in wildlife are truly dire. It has a devastating impact on local ecosystems and global biodiversity, driving an increasing number of species, including elephants, Siberian tigers, rhinos, and pangolins, towards extinction. Its profits fuel international criminal syndicates and, possibly, terrorist organizations and militia groups. These effects, in turn, negatively impact local and, in particular, indigenous populations. These groups often rely on local ecosystems for subsistence, and so bear the direct brunt of their alteration. Ironically, indigenous populations are also often the victims of the conservation measures put in place to reduce poaching, such as the establishment of nature reserves, which force them from their traditional lands.
The practice is also illegal, of course. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) bans, or limits, the international trade of 1000s of plant and animal species, with different countries implementing bans in various ways. In Canada, for example, CITES is implemented through the Wild Animal and Plant Trade Regulations to the Wild Animal and Plant Protection and Regulation of International and Interprovincial Trade Act.
The problem, in its root causes, perpetuation, and resolution, is incalculably complex. And as the practice continues to thrive, current legal solutions appear inadequate to respond.
At least one company has turned to 3D printing technology as a means of curbing the illegal trade in rhino horns. Rhino horn is valued for its purported curative properties in some eastern medicine practices, which has been one factor driving illegal poaching of rhinos. The synthetic horn that would be produced by 3D printer is reportedly indistinguishable from the real thing (rhino horn is made of keratin, which is the same protein found in human hair, nails, and skin) and can be produced cheaply. The company hopes to replace the illegal trade by flooding the market with its vastly cheaper product, thereby luring away customers who would otherwise have opted for real rhino horn—in turn reducing the incentive to poach rhinos in Africa.
But some are concerned that this approach will actually exacerbate the problem, and that strengthening legal regimes, debunking claims as to the purported health benefits of rhino horn, increasing training, and implementing sanctions against states who flagrantly violate CITES are all safer bets.
In the past, the partial loosening of trade bans has proven disastrous for protecting elephant populations from poaching. Back in 2008, accredited Chinese and Japanese traders were permitted a one-time purchase of stockpiles of ivory that had been confiscated and stored by the governments of Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe, and South Africa. The plan was supposed to enable these African countries to generate revenue to support conservation and local communities from the stockpiled ivory. Importantly, it would also flood the market, thereby undercutting the price of illegal ivory and de-incentivizing illegal poaching and trade.
It had the opposite effect. The sale of stockpiled ivory actually increased consumer demand and therefore led to a surge in poaching. It proved impossible for purchasers and authorities to differentiate between legal ivory (i.e. that purchased as part of the stockpile auction) and illegal ivory (i.e. that acquired by poaching), so trade and poaching continued—and continues—to thrive.