By Hannah Tait
The illegal trade in wildlife is worth an estimated $10 billion a year – third only to drugs and weapons as the most valuable illegal commerce.
Unfortunately, demand for exotic animals, rare foods and traditional medicines are causing this black market industry to soar. This puts a huge strain on wild populations – including many dolphin species.
Dolphins are captured and sold to the marine park industry, with some selling for as much as $50,000 each. And while these dolphins are destined to live the rest of their lives in a concrete prison, the damage to wild populations is also devastating.
The Black Sea, which is located between Southeast Europe and Western Asia, is home to a large subspecies of bottlenose dolphins. Unfortunately, their population is depleting due to the rapid expansion of illegal fishing in the area, as well as an increase in poaching and trafficking.
Dolphins who are captured suffer in miserable chlorinated pools, but for those still in the wild, their fates are uncertain. Marine parks favour young female dolphins that can be used for breeding. This makes it difficult for the families left behind who have to try and sustain the pod without young, fit females.
Despite international efforts to stop the illegal captures, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s red list of threatened species, the dolphins have become endangered.
But technology could help change this.
At the seventeenth Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in Johannesburg, the Ukrainian representatives proposed a worldwide database that would contain the DNA information of all dolphins in captivity. Currently, even though the IUCN has a zero quota for dolphins to be taken from the Black Sea, many dolphins are nevertheless being captured and exported for commercial purposes. As it is difficult to tell each animal apart, marine parks then claim that the dolphins are of captive origin.
However by taking the “genetic fingerprint” of captive dolphins, governments could more effectively monitor how many wild dolphins were being captured – making it more difficult for marine parks to obtain them.
This would not only help to increase populations in the Black Sea by curbing illegal trafficking, but also provide a platform to enforce international law and protect the species worldwide. Representatives at the convention urged countries to adopt this system on a local level.
Other organisations have developed similar kinds of technologies to help stop the illegal trafficking and poaching of wildlife. WWF, for example, have developed a camera and tracking device that uses infrared technology to detect human activity around wildlife parks in Kenya. In Bangladesh and Bhutan, wildlife sanctuary field staff are being trained to use spatial monitoring and reporting software known as SMART. This enhances the ability for rangers to locate threats to animals and decrease poaching.
Climate change and the illegal wildlife trade is sadly causing more threats than ever to animals. Despite the cost, the Ukrainian proposal and the use of similar technologies such as SMART are essential to protect the future of endangered species and our planet.