Americans are traveling further afield than ever before, experiencing wildlife and capturing memories in their hearts and social media feeds.
Unfortunately, many travelers also are taking home some of the wildlife they see, in various forms, contributing to the endangerment of many species — including elephants, rhinos and tortoises — and emboldening those in the wildlife trafficking industry.
So, the U.S. Wildlife Trafficking Alliance (USWTA) is stepping up its efforts to work with travel agents and professional organizations like the American Society of Travel Advisors (ASTA), the Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA), and the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), to better educate the public and those who book vacations.
For example, USWTA has made all of its educational materials (for agents and for travelers) available through its website.
USWTA’s digital toolkit — which was developed through a coalition of organizations that includes travel companies, nonprofits, and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service — includes educational pamphlets, public service announcements, infographics, and films that inform the public about the prevalence and source of illegal wildlife products, and explains what they can do to stop it.
“We have access to all of the USWTA’s toolkit materials. As agents, we print them out and send them with final client documents regardless of where the client is traveling,” said Steve Powers, ASTA treasurer and owner of Hidden Treasure Tours, in Long Beach, New York. “We’re trying to combat the ignorance on the part of the traveling public that they could end up buying these products accidentally.”
Earlier this month, the U.K. government hosted a conference where more than 50 countries adopted a declaration committing to action to protect endangered species around the globe.
In a press release, the U.K. government said that it will expand funding for counter-poaching training for rangers in Africa; have committed to new funding for projects aimed at reducing demand for products made from illegally traded wildlife; and launched a new initiative to target wildlife traffickers and criminal gangs.
What exactly is wildlife trafficking?
“A lot of the emphasis at the U.K. conference was on private sector engagement,” said Sara Walker, senior advisor for wildlife trafficking, USWTA, (which is a program of the Association of Zoos & Aquariums). “That is where the USWTA aligns, building public-private partnerships to combat trafficking, like with travel agents, because they are engaged with the traveling public on a regular basis, when they are heading out to the places where trafficking occurs.
“When you go to a travel agent, you go for their expertise, recommendations. As a result, they have a unique relationship with the traveler that other companies accompanying the traveler along the way, do not.”
Walker agreed with Powers that repetitive education is important to helping prevent travelers from unintentionally participating in the wildlife trafficking industry, and that is a driving focus for its work with ASTA.
First, she said, the USWTA needs to ensure that advisors and travelers do not confuse wildlife trafficking with the issue of hunting wildlife or purchasing living animals and birds. It is far more likely that the typical American will purchase something made from a species illegally.
“While we are seeing some people bring live birds or turtles to feed the black-market pet trades, the bigger problem is Americans coming back to the U.S. with a bracelet or bangle made from elephant ivory. Or, they’ll purchase a comb made from sea turtle shell,” Walker told Travel Market Report in a recent interview.
“The U.S. is one of largest markets for illegal wildlife products in the world,” said Walker. “Travelers will find them in gift shops, souvenir shops. Once you inform yourself on the issue, you will start to see it and realize it’s everywhere.”
Help needed on a ‘massive scale’
In Latin America, the most endangered group is birds, for their feathers, as well as sea turtles and coral, Walker said. From Africa, travelers might encounter products made from rhino horn, elephant ivory, and tiger bone and skin.
In Asia, recently the USWTA has seen a rapid demand in products made from pangolin, a scaly anteater indigenous to the region. “We’ve witnessed extremely high demand rising at alarming rates,” Walker said.
“This needs to be an all-hands-on-deck initiative if we are going to be successful in preventing the decimation of species,” Walker said. “We need help on a massive scale, to replicate and duplicate some of the great examples by travel companies.”
For example, Expedia recently created a wildlife portal, with information about three different topics, and wildlife trafficking was one of them. In 2017, JetBlue Airways produced a PSA that is shown on all of their flights. “It was highlighting trafficking in the Caribbean. But they ended up showing it on all of their flights throughout their network,” Walker said. “It was a great thing, and very costly on their own dime. But we need more of that.
“We would love to see travel agents, that if they visit the Caribbean, publicize the issue on their social media feeds,” Walker said. “We want them to spotlight the specific products travelers might encounter for sale, species that are being harmed, like coral and shell species, and turtles — and tell their followers what they can do about it.”
“Years ago, you would travel, and see amazing things in a destination,” Powers said. “And then, you would come across someone selling something that was made of animal products, and think, ‘This would be great to stick on my shelf.’ Until you are educated about the impact that your purchase has on the local wildlife, you don’t think about it.”