December 7, 2022

BC researcher works to tackle illegal global wildlife trade – Port Alberni Valley News

Dr. Chris Shepherd, right, with his daughters Raven, left, and Robyn, at the Scout Island Nature Center on October 20, 2022. (Photo by Ruth Lloyd – Williams Lake Tribune)
Keeping owls as pets became popular after the extremely popular Harry Potter films were released.  (File photo)Keeping owls as pets became popular after the extremely popular Harry Potter films were released. (File photo)

From a corner of the Cariboo, in Big Lake, British Columbia, Dr. Chris Shepherd pursues his life’s mission to end the illegal global wildlife trade and save species from extinction.

Shepherd is the executive director of Monitor Conservation Research Society (MCRS), an organization dedicated to helping stop the illegal global wildlife trade.

He became interested in the wildlife trade while traveling in Thailand where he ended up volunteering at a zoo. He had always been interested in conservation, but until then was unaware of the impact of this practice on animals.

“It was horrible,” he recalls of those first exhibitions.

Shepherd shared the history of MCRS and the evolution of its work, as he addressed a roomful of people at the Scout Island Nature Center on October 20.

Since becoming aware of this problem, armed with a doctorate from Oxford Brooks University, he has worked to investigate, research and motivate governments and others to tackle the problem.

It focuses on raising awareness, advocating for tougher penalties, and research to support regulatory change.

While he spent years working for other organizations on well-known species like endangered tortoises, Sumatran tigers, Asian elephants and sun bears, he now focuses on species lesser known and helped create MCRS specifically for this.

The MCRS tries to fight against the disappearance of many species of birds, lesser known reptiles and other animals.

While the illegal wildlife trade – including live songbirds – may not be on many people’s radar in North America, it is a massive black market economy, which worth billions of dollars, Shepherd said. Interestingly, the illegal wildlife trade is also seeing some migratory birds that we would see seasonally in our region becoming popular in Europe as pets.

He gave examples of bluebirds appearing in Europe, as well as the popularization of keeping owls as pets after the Harry Potter films became so well known.

Fashions change, and species come and go, but the trade continues, because the suppliers simply change with the trends.

Shepherd said years of research and advocacy have revealed the extent to which the industry relies on corrupt airport and port officials and a lack of awareness.

“Most airports don’t see the wildlife trade as a serious problem,” Shepherd explained. But preventing smugglers from crossing the border is not a simple solution either, as animals confiscated in certain places often cannot be returned to the wild. This is the result of a combination of factors and difficult logistics. Mortality can be over 50% in the transport of smuggled animals alone, even before confiscation it would even be difficult to know where to send the animals back, facilities to feed or house confiscated animals often do not exist and some countries have policies and procedures that include the euthanasia of all confiscated animals.

One of the research methods employed by Shepherd and his team is to visit the vast wildlife markets in countries like Indonesia and Malaysia.

These countries have markets where thousands and thousands of animals are sold.

Indonesia is the biggest source of wild-caught songbirds and the biggest consumer, said Shepherd, who has seen species appear and disappear from these markets as they become popular and then die out. As birds become rarer, they become more valuable.

He roams the markets taking readings, counting the cash, recording in detail what is there.

At the end of a market day, Shepherd says the dumpsters are often filled with the carcasses of those who did not survive.

But while the work is difficult and can be depressing, Shepherd said he was optimistic there was a chance to save species from extinction and that the research he was doing had had a real impact.

“It was a career I don’t regret, but it’s not easy,” he said of his chosen profession. “One thing I appreciate is that the learning curve never ends.”

He must develop an encyclopedic knowledge of species and, in the case of dead animal markets, he must know the antlers, teeth, skulls and other parts of a wide variety of animals.

More than 100 species of reptiles now benefit from better protection in Australia, according to a study carried out by his organization.

Japan is in the process of banning “wildlife cafes” where caged wild animals are kept as a novelty for cafe patrons, also in part thanks to their work.

Some populations recognized as threatened are formed in captivity in order to be able to release them into the wild and relaunch the populations.

Although most of the illegal wildlife trade takes place overseas, Shepherd said North Americans also have a role to play and can have an impact.

Shepherd said there are problems with illegal trade in North America and gave the example of Canadian laws that allow the buying and selling of ancient ivory. This allows a lot of illegal ivory and products from poached animals like narwhals to be smuggled more easily, passing off as “old ivory” despite coming from new sources.

He also said Canadians can sign petitions and lobby governments to change regulations to help solve the problem and can refrain from buying animal-derived products when traveling. , including seashells and other items that are often harvested unsustainably from live animals.

People can also help by supporting MCRS through their website:

“There’s no reason why we can’t save these species.”

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