Through most of the last century, Javan hawk eagles (Spizaetus bartelsi) flew unnoticed through the dwindling forests of Indonesia's principal island of Java. Their prominent head crest and multi-toned plumage didn't attract attention, bird markets didn't sell them, nor did zoos have them on display. Then in 1993 the Indonesian government awarded Javan hawk eagles special protected status. That's when the bird's fortune turned—for the worse.
To celebrate the raptor's official "National Rare/Precious Animal" designation, the Indonesian government printed the Javan hawk eagle's likeness on postage stamps and phone books. Soon zookeepers and illegal pet collectors were clamoring for one of their own, and the birds began popping up for sale in markets around Indonesia. In a study published earlier this year in Oryx, researchers from the University of Amsterdam's zoological museum concluded that ever since the Indonesian government officially labeled Javan hawk eagles as rare and precious, illegal poaching has removed the birds from the wild at an ever-escalating pace. Over the period from 1975 to 1991, just three were sighted for sale in Indonesian markets; in recent years 30 to 40 of the eagles have been spotted in markets annually.
The official listing of an animal as endangered can promote poaching, says Max Abensperg-Traun of the Austrian Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, Environment and Water Management, author of a study on this topic that was published in the May 2009 issue of Biological Conservation. It is a matter of psychology and economics. Perceived rareness makes animals more appealing to collectors and the increasingly limited supply pushes their price up on the black market, making illegal trapping and hunting more lucrative. Wildlife that once existed under the radar suffers from sudden visibility and faddish appeal. In an ironic coup de grâce, endangered species designation can sometimes escalate poaching to the point that it wipes out the species it was intended to protect.
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The lure of rarity
Enthusiasts covet rare animals as exotic pets and hunting trophies as well as for insect or birds' egg collections. Through mathematical modeling, French conservation biologists showed in 2006 in PLoS Biology how people's relentless drive to collect rare animals can push species to extinction. In the early 1900s, for example, island development shrank the Indonesian forest habitat of Bali tigers (Panthera tigris ssp. Balica). Then European trophy hunters pursued the scarce remaining tigers, and by the 1940s had driven them to extinction. Even scientists fall prey to the compulsion. Ornithologists and museum administrators, for example, helped push the great auk (Pinguinus impennis) penguin out of existence in 1844 by fueling demand that pushed prices ever higher for its skin and eggs.
People are attracted by rare animals and will go to great lengths to see them, according to research by ecologists Elena Angulo and Franck Courchamp, published in April 2009 in PLoS ONE. In the study, when Web visitors were offered the opportunity to view photos of either endangered Nepalese gharials or common voles online, they chose rare species most often. Visitors went to more trouble to load the rare images and waited longer to see them online than did visitors who selected the common animals.
Consumers are hungry for rare animal delicacies, too. White abalone (Haliotis sorenseni), the first federally protected marine invertebrate, now teeters at just 1 percent of its former population because so many people find it tasty. In 2008 a federal recovery plan stated that the white abalone "was driven to such low levels during the height of the commercial fishery that adults do not occur in high enough densities to successfully reproduce, contributing to repeated recruitment failure and an effective population size near zero." Without urgent and drastic human intervention, "the approximately 1,600 remaining white abalone in the wild would disappear by 2010."
Reptile and amphibian fanciers, nicknamed "herpers" after the academic field herpetology, are especially avid collectors of animals on the edge. A published report identifying the Roti Island snake-necked turtle (Chelodina mccordi) in remote Indonesian wetlands was enough to spur a flurry of illegal trade that drove the newly discovered reptile to the brink of extinction. Thought to already be extinct, the Philippine forest turtle (Siebenrockiella leytensis) was rediscovered alive in 2001 and immediately targeted by poachers and pet traders who sold them on the black market for as much as $2,500 apiece to buyers in the U.S., Japan and Europe.
At a weekend market in Bangkok, Thailand, undercover researchers from TRAFFIC, a wildlife trade monitoring network, saw boxes and tanks containing scarce freshwater turtles such as the radiated tortoise (Astrochelys radiata), which appears on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. Hoping to persuade potential customers, sellers volunteered information about the tortoises' "Red List" status and offered suggestions about how to smuggle the animals out of the country.
Researchers counted close to 39,000 turtles up for sale over a two-year period at China's largest pet bazaar, the Yuehe Pet Market in Guangzhou, according to a 2009 study published in Oryx. Nearly 20 percent of the world's turtle species were represented, including 30 species listed as endangered in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) Appendices I or II. The study concluded that "the pet trade is a severe threat to turtle conservation and that law enforcement needs to increase."
View from undercover
The illegal pet trade is active in the U.S., as well. Earlier this year the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) completed "Operation Shellshock," a four-year covert operation targeting illegal herp trading. It culminated in 26 arrests, with more than 400 animals—including endangered turtles and venomous snakes—taken into custody as evidence.
DEC Lt. Richard Thomas, who went undercover with the state's Environmental Crimes Investigation team, says he was routinely offered native turtles for $150 to $2,000 apiece. He witnessed first-hand how endangered status serves as an illegal marketing tool. "Money is the driving force for most crimes, including crimes against wildlife," he says. "Animals listed as endangered at state and federal levels are highly sought after by markets inside and outside of the U.S. As a species's status changes under state or federal legislation, its price goes up, because private collectors want them more and more."
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