In the last decade, an alarming phenomenon emerged: the extinction of the heritage of our planet. The devastating effects of climate change became visible in places such as Greenland and the polar circles, as anticipated in the documentary 'An Inconvenient Truth' of Al Gore. Other aspects of our most precious heritage is on the brink of extinction: marine life, marine mammals, but also elephants and rhinoceroses which are being hunted for the ivory trade.
A study published in the journal Science of September 2016 by marine biologists of Stanford University, led by lead scientist Dr. Jonathan Payne, a paleo-biologist, revealed that in the last 500 years a new biological pattern emerged: large marine animals bear a higher risk to become extinct compared to smaller marine species.
The data of this study indicate that the extinction risk for larger marine vertebrates and mollusks has risen by factor 13 for every tenfold increase in the animal's size. This implies that a marine species that is 10 times bigger than another species, is 13 times more likely to become extinct.
At the same time these disturbing data triggered the observation by Dr. Payne that the 'earth is experiencing something it has never experienced before whilst biologically we are going into uncharted territory'.
This shift in marine life may have the potential to ultimately extinct many of the top predators in our oceans which might have an unprecedented effect within the marine food chain and the balance within ocean ecology. An example is the hunt on grey whales by Japan, despite the condemnation of its 'scientific whaling program' by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in 2014. Of the three grey whale populations in the world, one has become extinct and another is considered critically endangered.
The study of Stanford University provides a warning to mankind of what might happen if one does not reverse this development. One of the solutions is an absolute ban on whaling and the establishment of sanctuaries for these larger species where they will be exempted from any hunt. Those sanctuaries have to be protected by the navy's of all nations. Only such measures can reverse this pattern.
Despite national laws in Africa prohibiting killing of elephants for ivory trade, the weakness of the system remains the law enforcement.
Parallel to this trend, one observes a similar threat when it concerns large mammals on the mainland as the hunt for ivory is still troublesome.
International law seems powerless to reverse this development. Despite national laws in Africa prohibiting killing of elephants for ivory trade, the weakness of the system remains the law enforcement. Hunters are most often professionally organised and equipped. Due to the enormous profits, these organisations do not hesitate to kill not only the elephants but also the sanctuary guards.
Since the illegal killing of mammals is not considered to be an international crime and no international tribunal thereto is operative, it is up to the national states to act. With the advent of the Wildlife Justice Commission (WJC), which investigates illegal trade in ivory and other prohibited animal materials, a new legal issue seems to have emerged. The WJC envisages to increase accountability for those responsible for wildlife crime acts through investigations.
In the last year, the WJC accumulated evidence indicating the existence of a criminal network operating - with assistance of local authorities - in the town of Nhi Khe, Vietnam not far from the capital Hanoi. Due to the enormous profits, the local authorities allegedly have no incentive to suppress this illegal trade which was predominantly transposed onto Chinese markets where the products ended up in medication and jewelry. The WJC reported that at the least 579 rhinoceroses were killed and traded through the township of Nhi Khe. Contrary to the Vietnamese government not acting upon the findings of WJC, China initiated its own investigation.
Yet, it has to be seen what the investigations of the WJC will bring about. It is obvious that without the help of courts the work of the WJC will not have much effect. Even judgments of the ICJ do not necessarily lead to a change in governmental policies. In the case of Australia v. Japan in 2014 where Japan’s whaling program in Antarctica was deemed in violation with international law, however was ultimately surpassed by Japan’s new scientific program.
International treaties and courts might assist mankind in preserving its marine heritage and wildlife. Yet, the only real solution remains the dissemination of the ethical standards and norms our ancestors taught us, including respect for our natural heritage. As long as those who have interests in destroying this legacy lack this ethical consciousness, legal battles will be futile. Instead of creating courts, educating people about the importance of this heritage for the future of our planet and of mankind is the only effective way to move forward.