The International Herald Tribune just reported that in Zimbabwe last Wednesday a court sentenced a poacher to more than 15 years in prison for poisoning and killing elephants with cyanide. This incident comes just a day after the Zimbabwean Parks and Wildlife Authority said 100 elephants had been killed by cyanide for their ivory in a single national park in just over a month.
Hunting elephants for ivory and rhinos for horn is a huge international black market heading in Asia and the Middle East for ornaments, as talismans and for use in traditional medicine. A hundred elephants have died in Hwange National Park alone due to cyanide poisoning and 12 people have since been arrested and four have been convicted and sentenced.
The Convention on Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) reports that annually, “international wildlife trade is estimated to be worth billions of dollars and to include hundreds of millions of plant and animal specimens. The trade is diverse, ranging from live animals and plants to a vast array of wildlife products derived from them, including food products, exotic leather goods, wooden musical instruments, timber, tourist curios and medicines. Levels of exploitation of some animal and plant species are high and the trade in them, together with other factors, such as habitat loss, is capable of heavily depleting their populations and even bringing some species close to extinction.”
Natural history museums should be thinking deeply about this topic. Aside from the ethical mandate to protect populations from which their specimens come, there is also a pressing issue – theft of increasingly valuable specimens responding to a burgeoning black market. In 2011 a rash of thefts of rhino horn began from museums across the UK and Europe. At the time of writing, at least 200 such robberies have taken place from museums and private collections in Europe alone in an epidemic that has spread across five continents. This has prompted many museums to take rhinoceros material off display to replace it with replicas. With museums proving such accessible targets, other objects such as gemstones and even specimens of extinct species could come under threat. The 2009 theft of almost 300 bird skins worth millions of pounds from the Natural History Museum in Tring is a case in point.
Each new theft increases the market for natural history material, making the situation of living populations even more perilous. Save the Rhino International suggests that museum thefts stimulate poaching of the remaining 20,000 white rhinos and fewer than 5,000 black rhinos in the wild.
HOW TO HELP?
ICOM NATHIST is interested in helping natural history museums address this issue globally. We are working with other international organisations to develop programming, but we’re also interested in gathering ideas from members, as well as the scientific and museum communities worldwide. We welcome your comments here, or feel free to contact us directly.
These activities sit alongside ICOM’s effort to fight illicit traffic in cultural goods. See more about their programme here.