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
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
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