The illegal traffic in wildlife, a nearly $20-billion-a-year business, adds up to a global war against nature. Unchecked, it will give us a most un-Disneyesque future in which Dorothy's "Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!" will truly be over the rainbow. And that's just for starters.
To grasp the breadth of the carnage, it's essential to realize that the war against nature affects hundreds of species — not just megafauna like elephants, tigers and rhinos, but vast numbers of smaller mammals, amphibians, birds and reptiles — and that the toll is devastating. Among the battlefields, none may be bloodier than the forests of Southeast Asia, for they lie closest to China, the world's most ravenous (and lucrative) market for wildlife and wildlife parts.
China's taste for wildlife penetrates the least visited corners of the region, where professional poachers industriously gather live porcupines and turtles, all manner of venison, monkey hands, python fat, pangolin scales, otter skins, gall bladders, antlers and hundreds of other items. These goods, dead or alive, are smuggled to China and other "Asian Tigers" whose expanding economies enable increasing numbers of people to the afford animal-based "cures" that they think might stave off disease. They also feed a brisk business in fancy, wild-animal restaurant meals intended to impress in-laws and business associates.
Think of it this way: Every year, more and more money chases fewer and fewer creatures.
In a typical forest in Southeast Asia you might encounter a snare line stretching a kilometer or more along a mountain ridge or all the way across a canyon. These are waist-high walls of chopped brush — hedges of death.
The hedges have gaps every few meters, and almost any mammal moving through the landscape will eventually pass through one of the gaps. In each one, a snare awaits beneath a camouflage of leaves. Powered by a bent-over sapling, it consists of a loop of bicycle brake cable, or truck-winch cable for larger animals like tigers. Snares that are effective against deer and wild pigs can have triggers sensitive enough to capture creatures as light of foot as a silver pheasant, the males of which shimmer in the dusky forest like bundles of fallen moonbeams.
On an expedition to central Laos, my companions and I made our way into a forest distinguished mainly by its remoteness. The head of our expedition, conservation biologist William Robichaud, the only other westerner in our group of 14, told me that, unless a distressed American pilot during the Vietnam War had parachuted into the watershed before us, ours were the first blue eyes to see it.
Isolation, however, failed to protect the lush canyons and ridges we surveyed. In a matter of days, we collected wires from almost a thousand snares. In them, we found the decaying carcasses of badgers, mongooses, various birds, deer (which belonged to a critically endangered species) and more.
We camped by fish-rich rivers that had been stripped of their otters and saw the remains of dozens of poachers' camps, some elaborately equipped with butchering tables and smoking racks.
Saddest of all was the sight of a red-shanked douc, perhaps the most beautiful monkey in the world, dangling upside down from a snare pole, having succumbed to as slow and cruel a death as might be imagined. Poachers check their snare lines haphazardly and leave them armed when they depart an area. This means the killing goes on indefinitely, no matter if the bodies languish and rot.
Though we were in the forest to remove snares and assess the ongoing damage, our main goal was to search for saola (Pseudoryx nghetinhensis), one of the rarest large mammals on the planet. Its existence, though known to locals, was revealed to science only in 1992, when researchers spotted a strange set of horns in a hunter's shack high in the mountains of Vietnam.
Saola proved to be a new species, a new genus and possibly even a new taxonomic tribe, although the jury is still out on that. A ruminant with cloven hooves, a saola stands a little higher than a carousel pony. Deerlike, but more thickly built, its muzzle is splashed with camo patterns of white, and its tri-colored tail — white, chocolate brown and black — blends with similar bands of color on its rump. Its long, nearly straight horns taper elegantly, and in profile they seem to blend into a single horn, producing the otherworldly appearance of a unicorn.
Today, no one knows whether the clock of extinction for the saola stands at two minutes before midnight or two minutes after. The greatest threat to its survival is the kind of snaring we witnessed on our expedition, which is doubly tragic, for saola are not generally targeted by poachers. In spite of its exotic horns, the animal is unknown in traditional Chinese medicine. Rather, the last survivors of the species risk being taken as by-catch, like sea turtles in a shrimper's net.
The situation may be terrible, but there are parks and protected areas in Southeast Asia that fully protect wild creatures, right? Alas, wrong. Saola are found only in the mountains along the border between Laos and Vietnam. For five protected areas there, including the area I visited, the Saola Working Group, a committee of the International Union for Conservation of Nature, reports finding and destroying more than 90,000 snares since 2011. And many more lie in wait.
The stakes are high. Southeast Asia (including Indonesia and the Philippines) leads the world in the proportion of its birds and mammals that are "endemic," that is, found nowhere else. Unfortunately, it also has the highest proportion in imminent danger of extinction, due in large measure to the wildlife trade. Worse, no country in Southeast Asia possesses a tradition of effective biological conservation.
If the rest of the world wants to save Earth's biodiversity, helping the governments and non-governmental organizations of Southeast Asia to conserve their region's natural heritage must become a global priority.
Critics of conservation may argue that extinction has always been part of evolution and that new species will arise to replace those we destroy.
Such a view may be technically correct, but it commits an error of scale. Evolution will continue; it cannot not continue. But the inexorable emergence of what Darwin called "endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful" proceeds at a nearly geological pace. By comparison, our human tenancy of Earth is a fleeting breath. Within the time frame of what we call civilization, the extinctions we cause are as eternal as any human accomplishment.
When it comes to wildlife trafficking, the essential task before the world is to protect key habitats and wildlife populations long enough for attitudes to change in China and its neighbors. At least in part, this means meeting the war on nature with a martial response. In the case of our expedition in Laos, three of our guides doubled as militia and carried AK-47s, and our near brushes with poachers confirmed that the weapons were not for show.
Meanwhile, good news glimmers amid the bad. Although the shift will take time, cultural values in Asia are beginning to change. The San Francisco-based organization WildAid reports that sales of shark fins have plummeted 82% in Guangzhou (formerly Canton), the hub of the shark fin trade, and that two-thirds of respondents to a recent poll cited "awareness campaigns" against indiscriminate shark fishing as a reason for ending their consumption of shark fin soup.
Only by rising to the challenge of species protection — not eventually, but now — can we ensure that nature's most magnificent creations will persist in the wild. Only though generous cooperation with Asian partners, boosting both law enforcement and political resolve, can we preserve the stunning, often cacophonous and always mysterious diversity of what remains of the planet's most biologically productive ecosystems.
The dystopian alternative is terrible to consider. Uncounted species are being pressed to the brink. We've hardly met them, and yet, within the vastness of the universe, they and the rest of Earth's biota are our only known companions. Without them, our loneliness would stretch to infinity.
William deBuys' latest book is "The Last Unicorn: A Search for One of Earth's Rarest Creatures." A longer version of this essay appears at Tomdispatch.com.