Wildlife Trade Reveals 5 Things Sharks and Elephants Have in Common

At first consideration it might seem as though elephants and sharks have little in common. What could lumbering terrestrial herbivores of the African plains possibly have in common with lightning-fast marine predators? As evidenced by last week’s Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES) meeting, these species groups share more than you might think.

African elephants

Herd of elephants in African savanna at sunset. (© muha04)

1. The international wildlife trade poses the biggest threat to their survival.

International markets have created a demand for both these species groups that may drive them to the brink of extinction. The international ban on the ivory trade in 1989 came at the end of a decade in which the African elephant population was essentially cut in half. Although regulation temporarily reduced the number of elephant killings, recent “one-off” sales of legal ivory have helped demand rise and prices skyrocket. Over the last few years, an estimated 25,000 elephants have been killed annually for their ivory.

Things aren’t much different in the ocean. A recent publication in the journal Marine Policy estimated that over 100 million sharks are killed per year to satisfy the (mostly Chinese) demand for shark fins. Although there is growing momentum against the practice of shark finning, most finning activities continue to be legal.

2. Sharks and elephants are highly vulnerable to overexploitation.

Elephants produce only one calf every 4–5 years. Similarly, sharks are some of the slowest-growing, latest-reproducing fish in the sea, making it virtually impossible for populations to remain at healthy levels under heavy fishing pressure.

3. Trade is centered on a small part of the animal, leaving the rest to go to waste.

The market value driving the persecution of elephants and sharks is almost entirely derived from their respective tusks and fins, which means the rest of the animal carcass generally goes to waste. For example, shark fins can be worth several hundred dollars per pound in the end market. In contrast, shark meat is worth a small fraction of that price, and generally stays in the source country.

4. Sharks and elephants are worth more alive than dead.

Both elephants and sharks are often perceived as dangerous and having negative impacts on communities where they are found. In fact, both species groups are important ecosystem engineers that play an essential moderating role in regulating ecosystem function and health.

Savanna elephants maintain the grasslands by pushing over trees to get at the branches and roots; they also dig pools which are then used by other animals. On the East Coast of the U.S., shark depletions have been linked to proliferations of rays that have ruined valuable scallop fisheries.

Far from diminishing local community incomes or presenting serious threats to humans, elephants and sharks underpin thriving ecotourism industries. A study by the Australian Institute of Marine Science estimated an individual reef shark in Palau to have an annual value of US$179,000 and a lifetime value of $1.9 million to the tourism industry. In contrast, a single reef shark would only bring an estimated $108 when killed for its fins. In Africa, elephants rank among the “big five” animals tourists want to see in the wild.

Moreover, the benefits of live sharks and elephants as tourism magnets are distributed to many people over a long time, whereas killing them for ivory or meat only benefits a few people on one occasion.

5. CITES is laying the groundwork for protecting these species — but there’s a long way to go.

In my opinion, CITES is the most important policy instrument available to countries concerned about saving endangered species with high market value, as the international convention is the only one that addresses the factor driving their overexploitation: international trade.

Last week at the meeting in Bangkok, CITES added five shark species to their Appendix II list. In addition to many countries — including the U.S. and members of the EU — that have historically backed CITES listing for sharks, it was notable that several Latin American governments — including Ecuador, Colombia, Costa Rica, Mexico and Brazil — argued for these listings, and deserve their fair share of the credit for this historic decision.

However, it’s important to note that while this listing will regulate the trade of these five species (plus the three already listed), it will not ban their trade. In addition, trade remains unregulated for the rest of the world’s more than 470 species of shark.

Similarly, despite the initial success of the international ban on the ivory trade, legal loopholes and a surge in illegal killings have called the future of the world’s elephants into serious question.

It seems clear to me that in order to give shark and elephant populations a fighting chance at recovery, we must take two important steps: continue to strengthen the regulations of all sales of ivory and shark fins to levels that these listed species populations can sustain, and redouble our efforts to make sure the laws on both capturing these species and trading their products are fully enforced.

Scott Henderson is the regional director of CI’s Eastern Tropical Pacific Seascape program.

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