Without determined efforts to control and regulate the trade in thousands of endangered or vulnerable species, some of these creatures could be wiped out in no time at all.

Durban - Taking advantage of nearly 100 000 daily aircraft flights, the illegal wildlife industry has become an “industrial-scale” global operation generating at least $20-billion (R260 billion) a year.

Speaking at the World Forestry Congress in Durban, senior wildlife trade regulator John Scanlon said illegal wildlife products could also be concealed in any one of the millions of containers carried across the ocean every day.

Scanlon, the secretary-general of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites), said the 42-year-old wildlife protection convention was needed now “more than ever”.

When Cites was established in 1973, there were 4 billion people in the world.

“Now there are 7.2 billion people. Africa’s population will increase from around a billion today to 2 billion in 2050.”

Without determined efforts to control and regulate the trade in thousands of endangered or vulnerable species, some of these creatures could be wiped out in no time at all.

“The illegal wildlife trade is now worth about $20-billion a year (excluding marine and timber species). What we are seeing is an industrial-scale trade in wildlife.”

In just three years, nearly 100 000 elephants had been slaughtered in Africa, and the great success story of rhino conservation in South Africa was now under serious threat.

Recently, officials had confiscated a 10-ton shipment of pangolins (scaly anteaters) in a single seizure.

While almost $1-billion of pythons were traded legally each year, the illegal trade in python skins was also estimated to be around $1-billion.

“This has moved far beyond an environmental issue. Governments lose revenue. People are corrupted and in some countries the illegal wildlife trade also has a security impact. We are dealing with heavily armed militias and rogue security forces who will kill people just as easily as wildlife.

“We need to respond with force, but we won’t win without engaging local communities,” he said.

Braulio Diaz, the executive secretary of the Convention on Biological Diversity, said wildlife was an integral part of the world’s forest areas, but local people had to be empowered and given incentives to take custodianship of natural resources.

With the rapid expansion of human populations and the corresponding loss of living space for wildlife, local communities would require economic incentives to protect wildlife.

The challenge was to counter the strong economic forces of the illegal wildlife industry.

The Mercury