Credit: Joan de Malla

Going Cheap was highly commended in the 2019 Wildlife Photojournalism category

Wildlife Photographer of the Year: the world's wildlife trade

The sudden and dramatic onset of the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 has inadvertently shone a spotlight on one of the world's most distressing systems: the global trade in wild animals. 

The COVID-19 pandemic was caused by a virus which originated in non-human animals and later made the jump to human carriers. One candidate that has been suggested for the location of this jump is a wet market in Wuhan, China.

In response to the pandemic, the global community has been quick to condemn wet markets, calling for a crackdown on their existence.

Many of these markets, which routinely sell fresh fruit and vegetables alongside meat and fish, do not trade in live and slaughtered exotic animals and therefore do not pose a significant threat to the global community.

The Wuhan wet market, to which many of the early cases of coronavirus have been linked, was exceptional in that it had a wildlife market section. This is where the virus may have made the jump from animal to human.

The cramped, unnatural conditions in wildlife markets, often combined with a lack of sanitation create the ideal conditions for the rapid spread of disease. Historically, other global diseases such as the outbreak of SARS in 2002, have also been linked to the exotic animal trade.

As of 28 April 2020, COVID-19 has affected almost 3 million people worldwide and is a stark reminder of the dangers we face when we corrupt the natural world.

As well as the obvious threat to world health, the global demand for animals and animal products is driving habitat destruction, extinctions, animal abuse and biodiversity loss. The majority of wild animals that are traded are now threatened with extinction.

Entertainment or exploitation?

Some of the most distressing Wildlife Photographer of the Year entries have been those that document this troubling trade. Photographer Joan de la Malla visited a market on the Indonesian island of Java where live long-tailed macaques were being sold.

His chilling photograph shows a baby macaque screaming as it is handled by a seller. These macaques are often sold to performers who use the animals in street shows. 

Credit: Joan de Malla

The Sad Clown was the winner of the 2018 Wildlife Photojournalism category

Sights like this were common in Indonesia where young macaques have been forced to work for hours dancing and riding bikes. Despite this distressing scene, Joan noted that the monkey's owners 'are not bad people' - most of them are just earning money to send their children to school.

His empathy highlights the need for the replacement of these types of livelihoods as part of the crackdown on the animal trade. If incomes are not replaced, then the black market is likely to expand to meet demand which would be much more difficult for animal welfare charities to track.

Joan worked with the Jakarta Animal Aid Network to help bring about a political ban on the use of macaques for live street shows. Slowly, new jobs have been offered to the trainers and the confiscated macaques are able to begin the long process of rehabilitation.

Killed for their meat

Aside from their 'entertainment' value, animals are also traded for their exotic meat. Across Asia sharks are killed both legally and illegally for shark-fin soup, a supposedly high-class delicacy. 

Credit: Paul Hilton

Sea of Death was a finalist in the 2014 category, World in our Hands

Paul Hilton's image shows a sea of fins, representing the slaughter of around 30,000 sharks, drying on a roof in Hong Kong. Approximately 100 million sharks are killed each year and around 73 million of those are to supply the demand for shark-fin soup. This has forced a number of shark species to the brink of extinction. Bull shark, dusky shark and smooth hammerhead populations have all dropped by 99% or more.

What makes this slaughter even more horrific is that millions of sharks are maimed while they are still alive. Once their fins have been removed, the sharks are thrown back into the ocean where it can take hours for them to die.

In the past reports have suggested that shark fin is declining in value. One trader is quoted as saying that its street value is now the same as squid. Paul noted that little has changed in recent years, however, and whether or not demand will fall in time for these endangered species to be saved is unclear. 

Credit: Paul Hilton

The Pangolin Pit won the 2016 Wildlife Photojournalist Award for a single image

As well as sharks, many other animals are also trafficked and traded for their body parts. Pangolins are the most trafficked animal in the world, valued in particular for their scales which are used in a variety of traditional medicines. The scales are wrongly believed to treat a number of ailments from poor circulation to difficulties in breastfeeding, leading to a high demand for their bodies.

Paul was in Indonesia when he witnessed the seizure of around 4,000 frozen pangolins being trafficked for their meat and scales. The animals had been hidden behind a façade of frozen fish in an attempt to evade authorities.

A global issue

The wildlife trade spans all continents. Across Africa, elephants and rhinos are hunted and killed for their horns and tusks. Populations have been decimated in order to feed the worldwide thirst for ivory and rhino horn goods. 

Credit: Brent Stirton

Last of a kind was the 2017 winner of the Wildlife Photojournalist Award: Story

Photographer Brent Stirton took this image of Sudan, a northern white rhino in Kenya's Ol Pejeta Conservancy in 2017. Sudan was the last surviving male of his subspecies, with most of the rest having been hunted and killed just for their horns.

Armed guards are posted around Sudan 24-hours a day to protect him and the two remaining females, in the hope of saving this subspecies from extinction. Sadly, in 2018, as a result of a degenerative disease, Sudan passed away, leaving the subspecies with little chance of survival.

Despite these horrific images, there is room for hope. Across the world communities are working together to fight against the wildlife trade and instead to find alternative incomes that are in harmony with the natural world. 

Credit: Dan Kitwood

Caring for Missy was a finalist for the 2016 Wildlife Photojournalist Award: Single Image

Dan Kitwood's photo, taken at the Chimpanzee Conservation Centre in Guinea, shows just one example of a community programme providing an alternative income to the illegal animal trade.

The centre rehabilitates traumatised infant chimpanzees that have been rescued from the illegal pet trade and teaches them the essential survival skills they will need to return to the wild. The process takes a minimum of 10 years and throughout that time the keepers provide the chimpanzees with the love and compassion of a substitute mother.

Hundreds of millions of animals are captured and killed each year to fuel the illegal animal trade, a trade which has devastating impacts on their populations and now ours. Wildlife markets, where these animals are traded, are just one part of this incredibly complex system. 

The Museum is closed but our work continues

Wildlife Photographer of the Year reminds us all how precious the natural world is, and inspires action to protect it. Every year, the exhibition helps millions of people to connect to some of the world's most endangered species and habitats. It encourages each of us to be an advocate for the planet.

But the Museum is a registered charity and we need your help. With our doors closed, we're losing vital income. So if you could help us with a donation – no matter the size – we'd greatly appreciate it. Thank you.