When the Conservative Party dropped a pledge to ban antique ivory sales from its 2017 manifesto, it became one of the most-read Facebook stories of the general election. The Tories had misjudged the depth of public feeling about this legal loophole, which wildlife campaigners claim contributes to the slaughter of more than 20,000 elephants a year.
A new law for a full ivory ban will consequently receive its final reading in the House of Lords later this month. But with poaching, pollution, habitat loss and climate change all now contributing to the sixth mass extinction of life on earth, an urgent underlying question remains: why do some people feel the threats to rare species so deeply, while others do not?
The latter question is the subject of a new book, Poached, by Rachel Love Nuwer, which explores the human impulse to eat, shoot, wear, abuse and trade wild animals to the point of species collapse. In travels ranging from the backstreets of Guangzhou in China to Kenya’s elephant killing fields, Nuwer seeks out the people behind the trafficking industry estimated to be worth between $7bn and $23bn a year and asks an army of experts what can possibly be done to halt the demand.
Her journey is strewn with glimpses into the terrible experiences of its victims: a scared and exhausted civet cat is about to be served as lunch in a Ho Chi Min restaurant, while a rescued pangolin released back into the wild is likened to a lottery winner. Yet behind the suffering, it is Homo sapiens who form the heart of her study.
Opening in Vietnam’s humid, mosquito-filled jungle, she meets Luc Van Ho – a poor, “expendable” hunter at the bottom of a long trading chain that extends from corrupt customs agents to criminal “kingpins”. An unlikeable character, Ho declares Nuwer has “got fatter” since they last met nearly a decade ago, but it is also hard not to sympathise with his plight. He took up hunting the highly endangered pangolins, he reveals, in order to cover the hospital bills for his newborn son, whom he believed was exposed to chemicals in the aftermath of the Vietnam War.
Nuwer’s eye for such details allows important space for empathy, but doesn’t mean she lets Ho (or others like him) off the hook. Instead, she queries him on whether he ever feels sorry for the animals (he doesn’t). And she subjects his justifications to criticism from hardened campaigners; “If you’re going to make an exception for hunting, why not let them sell two of their kids, as well?” says Chris Shepherd from the wildlife pressure group Monitor.
Nuwer applies a similarly honest and intrepid approach to her coverage of consumers of illegal animal parts – from ivory buyers to pet traffickers, trophy hunters and users of traditional Chinese medicine.
This last industry is perhaps the most concerning driver of global demand. Of the 112 animal species most commonly used in traditional medicine, 22 per cent are already endangered and 51 per cent risk following a similar path. Furthermore, many traditional medicines are not just ineffective compared to Western alternatives, they are also hazardous to human health.
And yet still, people use them. “Though obviously intelligent, to Mr M, his doctor’s word was the law. He obeyed it without question,” Nuwer writes of a young, Vietnamese architect who takes bear bile and tiger-bone paste in the unshakeable belief it is good for the blood and brain.
Nuwer is an ecologist from Mississippi who turned into a journalist; her passion for the animal world is keenly felt, but her desire to understand people is perhaps even greater. From the wealthy urban men who snort rhino horn to flout their privilege and prevent their hangovers, to desperate families who offer the same substance to relatives dying of cancer – no one is beyond her efforts to comprehend and understand.
And just as campaigners argue that ending the wildlife trade requires changing consumers’ mindsets, so Nuwer’s writing style strives to keep the reader’s attention without restoring to the mawkish or extreme. Part travelogue, part undercover investigation, her tone is direct but never dry. Borrowing from the thriller genre, she builds tension by accumulating evidence, embracing twists and setbacks, and bringing new places dramatically into being (in Nairobi buildings “thickened like a forest”).
Unlike most fictional mysteries, however, there are few clear solutions to the trafficking trade. Some possible answers, such as extending South Africa’s legal market for ethically harvested rhino horn, lead Nuwer into particularly controversial territory – with proponents arguing there are still enough rhinos left to satisfy global demand, and critics warning that legalisation could push that demand out of control.
Her reluctance to pass firm judgement on such questions leaves her open to attack from both sides. But Nuwer’s account is not devoid entirely of optimism. Instead she finds courage in the individuals and grassroots charities who work to save the remaining species from the brink: “If people like Tim – those working in conservation day in and day out – can maintain an optimistic outlook, then there must be something to their hope… mustn’t there?” she asks.
And in many ways, Nuwer herself is the answer to her own question. When denied official access to the Hanoi Conference on Illegal Wildlife Trade, she doesn’t let it deter her for a moment: “I was obviously going to do what I could to get in – even if it meant crawling through a window.” Her gutsy, spirited energy appears indomitable. It allows her to shine a light on dark places, and in doing so she becomes exactly the kind of hope the animal kingdom so desperately needs.
Poached: Inside the Dark World of Wildlife Trafficking
Rachel Love Nuwer
Scribe, 384pp, £16.99
This article appears in the 24 Oct 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit crash