Keynote by Grace Ge Gabriel, Asia Regional Director of IFAW | “Wild Species Trade and Legal Response” Expert Dialogue Webinar

(Photo credit: CBCGDF)

On July 17, the “Wild Species Trade and Legal Response” expert dialogue webinar hosted by the Legal Work Committee of China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation (CBCGDF) was held. Seven guests from around the world shared their opinions on wildlife protection, wild species trade and legal response measures in the post COVID-19 era.

The following is the Keynote by Grace Ge Gabriel, Asia Regional Director of International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) for readers.

Good morning! Good evening. Thank you for joining today’s discussion on wildlife trade. The COVID-19 pandemic shows that exploitation of wild animals not only devastates ecosystems, it exposes us to unknown viruses to which we have no immunity. 3 out of every 4 new or immerging infectious diseases in people come from animals. Nearly 72% of these zoonotic diseases originate in wild animals.

To reduce commercial exploitation of wild animals, my organization, the International Fund for Animal Welfare works along the entire trade chain—from source to transit to destination. We support local communities and rangers to suppress poaching; we help countries to implement international conventions such as CITES; we support law enforcers to interdict wildlife trafficking; and we conduct social behavior change campaigns to reduce consumer Demand.

Twenty years ago, IFAW conducted a global campaign to protect the Tibetan antelope. Tens of thousands of them were slaughtered on the Qinghai-Tibet plateau, for their wool to make into a luxury shawl, called Shahtoosh. We supported the three nature reserves in China on the Tibetan antelope range to form an anti-poaching network. We mobilized the fashion industry in the West to reject shahtoosh as a Shroud not a Shawl. We helped to get CITES adopt a resolution on Tibetan antelope conservation. In India, IFAW and our partner helped to shift the entire shahtoosh weaving industry (+30,000 people) to use an alternative wool that can be sheared from a mountain goat. Last but not least, we petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to adopt Tibetan antelope into the U.S. Endangered Species Act, which made domestic trade of shahtoosh a prosecutable crime. Before that, shahtoosh smugglers could ONLY be charged IF they were caught in international trafficking.

We applied the same approach to saving the African elephants. In a 2007-survey we found that 70% of the Chinese public didn’t know ivory comes from dead elephants. In Chinese, ivory is elephant teeth. We designed a campaign “Mom, I have teeth.” The campaign poster—a baby elephant wondering why his mother is not happy for him to have teeth—resonated with the public. So much so that in 4 years, the campaign penetrated 75% of urban China and reduced the group with the most propensity to purchase ivory from 54% to 26%.

Public awareness campaigns can erase ignorance. But to combat greed, we need policy support. The turning point for African elephants came in December 2011. An auction house was going to sell 400 bottles of tiger bone wine, plus rhino horn and elephant ivory, in a hotel 2 blocks from IFAW’s office in Beijing. The auction was a direct violation of China’s 1993 State Council Trade Ban of tiger bone and rhino horn. Based on our tipoff, the State Forestry Administration banned the auction of tiger bone, rhino horn and elephant ivory around the country. That trade ban reduced elephant ivory auctions in China by 90% the next year, 2012. According to CITES, elephant poaching in Africa saw its first decline that same year.

China’s ivory trade ban at the end of 2017 furthered the impact to save elephants. Law enforcers are motivated by the trade ban. Making ivory trade illegal in all circumstances shifts the burden of proof from law enforcers to criminals. We have seen enforcement and penalties going up; trade volume and ivory price coming down. In fact, the collaborative efforts between China and the U.S. have created a domino effect worldwide. Since China and the U.S. closed their domestic ivory markets, many other countries (France, Australia and the United Kingdom) have also tightened their respective laws to prohibit ivory trade.

We have also seen an unprecedented upsurge in international collaboration on wildlife enforcement: joint enforcement operations, sharing intelligence, arresting the “kingpins” and seizing financial transactions in wildlife crime. IFAW supported two bilateral China and Vietnam Customs enforcement exchanges. Within weeks after each exchange, joint operations resulted in major seizures and arrests. The intelligence gathered from a crackdown on criminal networks inside China, helped Singapore authorities in their record seizure last July of 8.8 tons of ivory and nearly 12 tons of pangolin scales.

China’s internet giants have also lead the world in combatting wildlife cybercrime. As early as 2008, Alibaba and Taobao had banned the trade of parts and products from elephants, tigers, rhinos, pangolins, turtles, and later, sharks and bears on their platforms. Through initiatives such as Tencent for the Planet (2015), Baidu’s Du AI Biodiversity (2018), online platforms had removed millions of illicit wildlife listings, shared intelligence with enforcers, and applied new technology to deter cyber wildlife crime. Most recently, Baidu helped IFAW use AI technology to block criminals who seek to illegally trade wildlife products online with only pictures. China’s actions lead to the forming of the truly global Coalition to End Wildlife Trafficking Online. The coalition now includes 36 online companies from every continent. The strong stand from the private sector also mobilized higher political will from governments. China, Czech Republic, Russia, Portugal, France and the UK have amended their domestic legislation to include cyber wildlife crime.

China’s swift policy responses to COVID-19 are necessary and encouraging: Banning the trade of terrestrial wild animals for food; Up-listing pangolins to Class I in the Wildlife Protection Law. And the media widely reported the removal of raw pangolin scales from the pharmacopeia. However, there is no clear prohibition on the use of pangolin scales for traditional medicine. In fact, in the 2020 edition of the Chinese pharmacopeia, we found at least 12 patent medicine products still claiming to contain pangolin scales.

Today, pangolins are in the same situation African elephants were in yesterday. In the last decade, over a million pangolins were killed for their body parts. In 2019 alone, over 80 tons of pangolin scales were seized worldwide. Pangolin’s precarious situation in the wild prompted CITES to list all 8 species on Appendix I, which prohibits the international trade of their parts and derivatives for commercial purposes. Any residual use of pangolins in traditional medicine will continue to threaten the species survival and undermine the progress China has made in wildlife conservation.

Viruses don’t make distinctions whether the wild animal in traded is for food or for medicine. The risk to public health from the use of this terrestrial mammal, suspected to be the “intermediary host” of the virus that caused the pandemic, is too great to ignore. We urge China to issue a complete ban on the use of pangolin scales in traditional medicine, as China has done in 1993 for tigers and rhinos.

Over the next two weeks IFAW will be releasing a report: Beyond COVID-19: Preserving Human Health by Reinventing our Relationship with Wildlife. Zoonotic diseases such as SARs Ebola and COVID-19 have all demonstrated, if we engage in a negative relationship with wildlife, it is to the detriment of our own health and well-being. This report offers a comprehensive perspective on man’s role in the natural world, and hopefully offer a blueprint through which to potentially reduce the likelihood of future pandemics.

Thank you very much!



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