Illegal wildlife trade and inhumane animal treatment has been continuing unfettered and remains unnoticed by both our officials and public alike. What we eat in our quotidian meals has become a daily debate; we don’t know where the meat comes from, and more importantly, from what. Which is why the seizing of turtle and snake meat in Hyderabad that was being sold to hotels in Karachi hardly came as a surprise. The black market is flourishing with endangered animal parts. Whilst at the same time, live animals are being trafficked in the most heinous ways imaginable.

There are parrots stuffed in tennis ball tubes with no water, food nor air to be transported for days across varying borders this very moment. Whether they make it out alive, is of no consequence. Unofficial estimates say the death rate from suffocation could be as high as 80% in animal trafficking. Species that are traded from Pakistan include freshwater and marine turtles, tortoises, the Indian pangolin, reptiles, raptors including falcons and fur animals such as foxes, jackals, wolves, and freshwater otters. Our prized common and snow leopards are caught and killed for their fur – the rarer the species, the greater the price it fetches in the black market.

Zoos are no better either. Madhubhala, Malika and Sonu are three baby elephants who were separated from their mothers in the wild in Africa and are now on ‘display’ at the Karachi Zoo, as reported by the Pakistan Animal Welfare Society (PAWS). In what conditions they might have arrived, one can only imagine. These social creatures that thrive in matriarchal family structures have now been confined to entirely concrete, solitary cells (15x18). Elephants have sensitive skin and must tend to it constantly by immersing themselves in water or (when water is scarce such as in the wild) by flinging mud/dust on themselves with their versatile trunks. Yet this is only one example of the conditions of Pakistani zoos. Zoo exhibits and aquariums have become a great source of global public indignation. In the 21st century, ogling at animals behind bars seems as absurd as when humans ogled at other humans with mild differences at circuses as showcases!

The global debate on animal welfare presses on and on, yet amidst humanitarian issues, war, political tussle, food and water scarcity and energy crises, it is a problem far too low on the priority list. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) recognises wildlife crime as the third largest transnational crime after drugs and human trafficking.

The vitriolic comments expressed over the killing of Harambe, the gorilla at the Cincinatti Zoo to protect a 7-year-old boy who fell into the enclosure, raises a very good debate about where society meets wildlife , and the ensuing conflict. A similar incident took place in our very own Lahore Zoo years ago, when an unwitting parent held their baby up close to a bear in an enclosure which culminated in the child’s death. Tilikum, a male orca has been responsible for 3 deaths at Sea World in Orlando, Florida. What does this mean for human and animal relationships?

The natural world is neither good nor evil; it is only ‘natural’. Floods, earthquakes, pestilence all are natural phenomena and claim millions of lives every year. This notion was not lost on philosopher John Stuart Mill who said, “Nature impales men, breaks them as if on the wheel, casts them to be devoured by wild beasts, burns them to death, crushes them with stones, freezes them with cold, poisons them by the quick or slow venom of her exhalations, and has hundreds of other hideous deaths in reserve.”

Yet man has always thought himself above all other forms of life – even those of other humans – and ultimately nature as well. In our promethean pursuit to modernise and dominate nature, we are now like aliens on the face of the earth – blaringly unnatural. Everything we do is an attempt to better our own lives or enhance it. The global population is over 7 billion and won’t be anytime soon. Society has created new ways to sustain its capitalistic ways, but to sustain the natural world no one is the wiser. Human activity has commenced the era of the ‘sixth mass extinction’, coming in after the K-T meteor impact that destroyed the dinosaurs. The rate at which this is happening can be explained as thus; on normal baselines for the rate of extinction, about 9 vertebrates (mammals) should have disappeared, since 1900. As of today, 477 mammals have gone extinct since 1900, which should have otherwise taken 10,000 years. All because of man’s inexorable need to surpass nature.

Pakistan is home to many species on the brink of extinction; the snow and common leopards, the markhor, houbara bustard, Indus river dolphin and white-backed vulture are only to name a few. What their disappearance spells for local ecology has to be further delved into. The disappearance of the oriental white-backed vulture, for instance, has had major consequences for the ecology of Pakistan. Due to the presence of diclofenac (a chemical pain reliever given to domestic cattle, fatal only to the bird) in dead animals that the vultures fed on, led to the complete extirpation of the species from the Indian subcontinent. When these birds disappeared and no other carrion birds were around, stray dogs thrived and now roam around in droves. This has increased the frequency of bites and rabies, which has culminated in the much debated shootings of stray dogs in major urban cities of Pakistan. This issue has animal welfare societies, such as Todd’s and PAWS, and animal rights activists at their wit’s end.

While the rest of the world is increasing its awareness on the subject, and cracking down on illegal wildlife trade and animal cruelty, Pakistan lags far behind. We need excessive regulation and control over what is transported across our borders. National reserves need to be properly demarcated and protected, and ‘shikar’ such as that of the houbara bustard by the Saudis in our borders needs to be banned once more - with determination. Exhibits such as those of Madhubala and her companions cannot continue, and the selling of expensive animal based items need to be completely banned; such as shatoosh shawls. People need to realise that the value and benefits these animals will bring to the economy alive and immersed in their natural habitats is far greater than what is found on the black market. ‘Birding’ alone has become a major economic field as it generates revenues in the tourist industry that ripples through economies; in the form of travel, buying equipment, and incomes for local guides, farmers, hotels, and so on. Estimates show that these could enrich economies by $10 billion. A single free-flying macaw in the tropics might generate $22,500 to $165,000 of tourist receipts in its lifetime. The need to protect our wildlife is not only a moral requirement but now is paramount in the age of the anthropocene.