Due to illegal poaching, all species of rhino are threatened with extinction. (© Rod Mast)
These efforts are well organized and multinational, involving organized crime and terror networks, making illegal wildlife trafficking the fourth-most lucrative global crime, worth between $8 billion and $10 billion per year.
That's why seven international conservation organizations including Conservation International have come together to work with the Duke of Cambridge and the Royal Foundation through an effort called United for Wildlife. The purpose: to bring coordinated action to educate, disrupt and reduce demand for iconic wildlife species on the brink of collapse, including the lion, rhino, elephant and pangolin.
A few days ago, I was asked to appear on MSNBC to speak about the death of Cecil. The key point I wanted to convey is that while bad hunting practices and poor enforcement of regulations are harmful to wildlife, the real challenge with conserving iconic species in Africa hinges on tackling large-scale poaching - efforts organized by cartels and terror networks. The scale is truly unprecedented, and if it continues, even legal hunting will be in danger.
There is also the long-term challenge that many people in Africa, especially those who have to bear the brunt of living alongside wildlife, do not get to benefit from either trophy hunting or ecotourism. This perceived lack of value for wildlife, especially dangerous wildlife, has led to apathy at best or hostility at worst. While we may believe that people need nature, for conservation to work we must be able to demonstrate this percept in the field.
The death of Cecil has turned the spotlight of the world on the state of lions and other iconic species in Africa. It would be a shame if all we managed to do was prosecute one dentist, while boatloads and planeloads of animal parts, hides, horns and tusks continued to fill the coffers of criminal gangs and local communities pay the price, without reaping the rewards, of living with wildlife.
M. Sanjayan is an executive vice president and senior scientist at CI. Follow him on Twitter. Want to read more stories like this? Sign up for CI's email updates here. Donate to CI here.