From a corner of the Cariboo, in Big Lake, B.C., Dr. Chris Shepherd is continuing his life’s mission to stop 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 wildlife trade during a trip to Thailand where he ended up volunteering at a zoo. He had always been interested in conservation, but was until then, unaware of the impact the practice had on animals.
“It was horrific,” he recalled of those initial exposures.
Shepherd was sharing the story of the MCRS and the evolution of his work, as he spoke to a roomful of people at the Scout Island Nature Centre on Oct. 20.
Since becoming aware of this problem, armed with a PhD from Oxford Brooks University, he has worked on investigating, researching and motivating governments and others to combat the issue.
He focuses on building awareness, advocating for harsher penalties, and research to support changes to regulations.
While he spent years working for other organizations on well-known species like endangered tortoises, Sumatran Tigers, Asian elephants and Sun Bears, he is now focusing on lesser-known species and helped create MCRS specifically for this.
MCRS is trying to address the disappearance of many bird species, lesser-known reptiles, and other animals.
While illegal trade in wildlife — including live songbirds — might not be on many people’s radar in North America, it is a massive black market economy, worth billions of dollars, said Shepherd. Interestingly, the illegal wildlife trade is also now seeing some migratory birds which we would see seasonally in our area becoming popular in Europe as pets.
He gave the examples of bluebirds showing up in Europe, as well as the popularization of keeping owls as pets after the Harry Potter movies became so well-known.
The fashions change, and species appear and disappear, but still the trade continues, as suppliers simply shift with the trends.
Shepherd said years of research and advocacy have revealed how the industry relies on corrupt airport and port officials and a lack of awareness.
“Most airports aren’t taking wildlife trade as a serious issue,” explained Shepherd. But stopping the smugglers from crossing the border is also not a straightforward fix, as confiscated animals in some places are often not able to be returned to the wild. This is a result of a combination of factors and challenging logistics. Mortality can be over 50 per cent in transportation alone for smuggled animals, even before confiscation, it would be hard to even know where to return the animals to, the facilities to feed or house confiscated animals often doesn’t exist and some countries have policies and procedures which include euthanizing all confiscated animals.
One of the research methods Shepherd and his team employ is visiting the vast wildlife markets in countries like Indonesia and Malaysia.
These countries have markets where thousands and thousands of animals are being sold.
Indonesia is the biggest source of captured wild songbirds, and the biggest consumer, explained Shepherd, who has witnessed species appear and disappear from these markets as they become popular and then extinct. As the birds become more rare, they become more valuable.
He walks through the markets doing surveys, counting species, recording in detail what is there.
At the end of a market day, Shepherd says the dumpsters are often piled high with carcasses of those which didn’t survive.
But while this work is hard and can be depressing, Shepherd said he is an optimist, and there is a chance to save species from extinction and the research he does has made some real impacts.
“It was a career I don’t regret, but it’s not an easy one,” he said of his chosen profession. “One thing I enjoy is the learning curve never ends.”
He has to develop encyclopedic knowledge of species, and in the case of dead animal markets, he has to know antlers, teeth, skulls and other parts of a wide variety of animals.
Over 100 species of reptiles now have better protection in Australia based on a study his organization did.
Japan is in the process of outlawing “wildlife cafes” where caged wild animals are kept as a novelty for patrons of the cafes also in part thanks to their work.
Some populations which are being recognized as threatened are being built up in captivity to be able to re-release them to the wild and boost the populations.
While the more prominent illegal wildlife trade is overseas, Shepherd did say North Americans also have a role to play and can have an impact.
Shepherd said there are issues with illegal trade in North America, and gave the example of the Canadian laws which allow for the buying and selling of old ivory. This allows a lot of illegal ivory and products from poached animals like narwhals to be smuggled more easily, passing as “old ivory” despite being from new sources.
He also said Canadians can sign petitions and put pressure on governments to change regulations to help address the issue and can refrain from purchasing any animals-derived products when they travel including seashells and other items which are often harvested unsustainably from live animals.
People can also help by supporting MCRS via their website: https://mcrsociety.org/
“There’s no reason we can’t save these species.”