Natural History Museum, London
THERE is no shortage of criminal activity in the natural world – and it shows no sign of letting up. Wildlife crime generates up to $23 billion in profits annually, according to conservation group the Environmental Investigation Agency, making it one of the most lucrative illicit activities on Earth.
Wild Crimes, a new 10-part podcast series by the Natural History Museum in London, delves into the origins and workings of the illegal wildlife trade. It reveals some shocking and at times uncomfortable truths, while exploring solutions through conversations with a range of experts and other guests.
Hosts Tori Herridge, an evolutionary biologist at the museum, and Khalil Thirlaway, a science communicator, explore some of the biggest and most nefarious wildlife crimes – from the ivory trade and eel smuggling across Europe to the sale of orchids on the black market.
The first episode features arguably the most iconic poster child for the illegal wildlife trade: the pangolin. With 100,000 of these mammals smuggled into South-East Asia every year, pangolins are the world’s most trafficked animal, and the demand for their scales and meat is pushing them to the brink so fast that some species could even go extinct within a decade.
Pangolins are “the most charismatic, harmless and magical spiritual creatures you’ll ever experience,” Ray Jansen at Tshwane University of Technology in South Africa tells Thirlaway. “It’s frightening at what levels they’re poached and being abused.”
Episode two casts a light on the trade of exotic reptiles as pets, in particular the chameleons of Tanzania, which are among the most popular choices for buyers. Despite that nation enforcing a blanket ban on all wildlife exports in 2016, this hasn’t been enough to put the brakes on the conveyor belt of species leaving the country under the radar.
News and images of exotic reptiles online only serve to perpetuate this demand. We hear from one regretful owner of a panther chameleon, a striking native of Madagascar, who comes to realise how bad it really is to keep these animals as pets. One shocking statistic says that some 30 per cent of wild animals sold as pets die within the first year.
“I think that the key thing is that we are dealing with living animals, but for many people they’re just an object of business – and business is perfectly shaped to do things in a very efficient way,” says Michele Menegon, co-director of PAMS, aTanzania-based conservation foundation, .
That makes tackling wildlife trafficking a complicated and complex issue, and it isn’t just about stopping the poachers on the ground, some of whom are simply “victims of circumstance”, as Menegon puts it. The fight can only be won with a comprehensive approach that involves, for example, aligning national and international regulations on wildlife trade and encouraging people to be ambassadors for threatened species.
“One shocking statistic says that some 30 per cent of wild animals sold as pets die within the first year”
The more off-the-cuff segments, in which Herridge and Thirlaway digest what they have learned, pose stimulating questions, even if they are sometimes a little predictable. But where Wild Crimes is best is when the passion for protecting the animals and plants at risk rings out. For example, hearing the two coo in one episode over a video of baby pangolin Tot (her mother, Tayta, was found in a bag of potatoes) is not only a heart-warming boost for the spirits after a sombre first half, it also serves as a reminder of the simple joy and beauty of nature – and why it is so important to protect it.
“The amount of love for pangolins that I’ve felt from everyone I’ve spoken to in this episode has really been a source of hope,” says Thirlaway in the first instalment of the series.
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