Illegal wildlife trade is worth $20 bn annually: Expert

"It ranks fourth or fifth in the order of the transnational organised crime....we cannot imagine the volume," said Dr Wasser addressing the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) on Friday evening. (DH Photo)

The annual illegal wildlife trade globally is worth $20 billion annually and is growing at a fast pace, says Dr Samuel Wasser, considered the Sherlock Holmes of wildlife trade.

"It ranks fourth or fifth in the order of the transnational organised crime....we cannot imagine the volume," said Dr Wasser addressing the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) on Friday evening.

"In this US $20 billion, you can further add undocumented fisheries and timber smuggling...the trade is of gigantic proportions as big as narcotics trade and human trafficking," said Dr Wasser, who holds the endowed chair in conservation biology at the University of Washington, where he is a professor in the Department of Biology and director of the Center for Conservation Biology.

According to the veteran wildlife trade detective, China happens to be the biggest market for all wildlife products.

During his Mumbai visit, which is part of an initiative of the US Consulate General, he has been holding interactions with a cross-section of people. "Whether it is the African elephants, Indian tigers, leopards, rhinos, pangolins, fish...all are threatened," he said.

The conservation biologist, professor and research scientist said that the majority of illegal trade, particularly of elephant tusks, happens from the sea route.

"The only way to counter it is intelligence-led forensic science," he added.

Dr Wasser pioneered methods to measure the abundance, distribution and physiological condition of wildlife from their faeces, relying on detection dogs to locate these samples over large wilderness areas.

He used elephant dung to assemble a DNA reference map of elephants across Africa, which is now widely used to determine the geographic origins of poached ivory. The work earned him the nickname “the Guru of Doo Doo.”

Dr Wasser has been able to identify elephant poaching hotspots by this kind of DNA referencing.

This work has led to prosecutions of major transnational ivory traffickers and nurtured key collaborations with the International Consortium on Combating Wildlife Crime, INTERPOL, US Homeland Security Investigations, the Task Force on Combating Wildlife Trafficking, US Fish and Wildlife Service, US Department of State and wildlife authorities in numerous source and transit countries across Africa and Asia.

Dr Wasser, who interacts with enforcement agencies across the globe, said: "We are losing 40,000 African elephants annually....only 4,00,000 are remaining now....in 1979, there were 1.3 million elephants.....the elephants are losing the battle...in India, you all know how the tiger is stressed."

According to him, legalising wildlife trade will create a market that would be far more detrimental. "I know that there are guys who are stockpiling tusks," he said.

Dr Wasser said that the complex networks that allow illegal wildlife trade to operate at this scale have seriously impacted the ability of law enforcement agencies to combat these crimes. "A single ship can carry nearly 18,000 containers...how do you find out....we have to adopt forensic methods," he said.

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