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Trafficking of Endangered Species - A Billion Dollar Business

The illegal trafficking of endangered species is a billion dollar business. But these short-term profits for poachers and traders are pushing exotic animal and plant populations closer to extinction. And by killing off exotic animals, such as tigers, they are also eliminating legitimate sources of revenue that could be gained from developing eco-tourism. VOA's Brian Padden reports on how conservationists are trying to stop the illegal trade in endangered species.

Catching a black-market trader involved in illegally selling tigers in Asia does little to stem the trafficking of this endangered species. The high profits from selling tiger skins for fashion and tiger bones for traditional medicine, combined with the relatively small penalties involved for getting caught, make it a low risk, high reward business.

John Gavitt, with the conservation group WildAid, says law enforcement is fighting a losing battle. "In a place like Cambodia in the low levels some of the penalties are simply a signed statement that they will not do it again. Or they will receive a fine and/or go to jail. In other countries if it is really a serious crime such as a number of tigers being smuggled in, people do go to jail but again, I think, generally the penalties do not fit the seriousness of the crime we're dealing with these days."

In addition to stronger law enforcement, conservationists say measures must be taken to cut both the supply and demand of the more than 12,000 animals and plants on the endangered species list.

Judy Oglethorpe, with the World Wildlife Fund, works to provide economic alternatives such as improved fishing and farming and eco-tourism to replace the need to hunt endangered species. But she also says providing birth control to stem the growth of the human population is key to restoring the balance of nature.

"If we don't do that, we can do all the other things we do and in the next generation we'll be back to square one. So we believe this is important as a long-term solution," she says.

And Crawford Allan, also with the World Wildlife Fund, says his organization has been helping create public awareness campaigns to prevent tourists from inadvertently buying products made from endangered species.

"We say if in doubt, don't buy it. That's the simple thing. If you really think, you are not sure whether that's a wildlife souvenir, that's a really bad choice, just don't buy it. Just don't take the risk, because you can really ruin your holiday and you can push that species one step closer to the edge."

These conservationists say these measures and developing ecotourism will to make it more profitable for a country to protect endangered species than to exploit them.