Wildlife poaching is a highly lucrative enterprise across various African countries and some of the most valuable animals, such as elephants, live in and around some of the most troubled regions of the continent. Militia like the Janjaweed in Sudan and the Lord's Resistance Army in Uganda, fighting on behalf of and against their respective governments, are known to be heavily involved in the ivory and other wildlife trade, using the proceeds to fund their activities Though legislation in various countries has tried to catch up with the growing problem by imposing harsher sentences on poachers, the high demand for ivory, rhino horn and other prized items makes many a would-be poacher take high risks against increasingly well armed and well trained rangers. Governments like Gabon are becoming increasingly alarmed by the threat posed by wildlife trafficking to national security. Rebel groups, drug syndicates and even terrorist networks have seen an opportunity to profit from a low risk, high reward criminal enterprise. To safeguard its remaining elephants, Gabon President Ali Bongo has quadrupled the number of park rangers in the country. Bongo also presided over the burning of $10 million of illegal Ivory seized from poachers in 2012, to ensure that none leaked back into the illegal trade.
On the other end of the trade, the final products are nearly unrecognisable when they reach the consumer market. Jewellery and amulets made from ivory are sold in up-scale, air conditioned Thai boutiques, whilst other animal parts are used in traditional medicines. In Beijing, in antique malls like Tianya Antiques City, dozens of retailers sell ivory in ever shape and form to a growing Chinese middle class which views ivory as a status symbol. A report by Save the Elephant, an NGO, and the Aspinall Foundation, a conservation charity, states that China 'holds the key to the future of elephants.'
Wildlife crime not only threatens nature's most iconic species, but exacerbates poverty and corruption, funding an entire spectrum of related international crime. In many indigenous communities like the Baka of Gabon, wildlife crime has driven a wedge between the people and their traditional respectful relationship to their environment, with Baka men working both as poachers and as ranger, depending on who is offering work. These images trace the story from beginning to end, across continents, offering a sense of the fragility of the human lives that lie in its wake.
A full text by James Morgan is available on request.All images © James Morgan / WWF-Canon / Panos Pictures