Tag Archives: black markets

The Tree Worth more than Gold

Agarwood. image from wikipedia

To protect incense trees, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora restricts trading in agarwood. But Hong Kong does not single out those who destroy or damage the trees for harsh treatment. If an incense tree is on government-managed land, the maximum sentence for cutting it down is the same as it is for felling any other kind of tree on such property: a fine of HK$25,000 ($3,210) and a year in prison.  Such penalties do little to deter thieves from mainland China, who are encouraged by growing demand for exotic medicines among members of the mainland’s fast-growing middle class. Professor C.Y. Jim of the University of Hong Kong reckons that in 2013 high-grade agarwood was worth $1,600 a gram on the black market. That is more than gold. According to Mr Jim, Hong Kong may be the “last refuge” of the tree, so it has become a “honeypot” for tree-snatchers.

Most of the thieves work for criminal gangs based across the border in mainland China. In recent years a relaxation of restrictions on travel from the mainland to Hong Kong has made their work easier. They often pretend to be hikers, sometimes camping out for weeks while gathering the timber. A local NGO has produced a map showing about 200 sites from which it says around 500 trees were stolen in the past year.

Very few incense trees form agarwood, so they are often destroyed indiscriminately. On Lamma, a plaque marks a spot where three young trees were uprooted. A short scramble up a steep slope reveals a gorier scene: splintered woodchips are all that remain of an aged tree. Mr Yeung, the beekeeper, says “hunters” felled and butchered it in situ. As supplies diminish, the gangs are becoming more desperate. Thieves are raiding private gardens; some residents have begun organising patrols to frighten the thieves away. Alarms and monitoring cameras are being installed.

Excerpts from Trees in Hong Kong: Fragrant Arbour, Economist, Feb. 22, 2016, at 37

Black Wood: 100 ways to finance the criminal cartels who decimate tropical forests

The report – Green Carbon, Black Trade (2012) – by UNEP and INTERPOL focuses on illegal logging and its impacts on the lives and livelihoods of often some of the poorest people in the world set aside the environmental damage. It underlines how criminals are combining old fashioned methods such as bribes with high tech methods such as computer hacking of government web sites to obtain transportation and other permits. The report spotlights the increasingly sophisticated tactics being deployed to launder illegal logs through a web of palm oil plantations, road networks and saw mills. Indeed it clearly spells out that illegal logging is not on the decline, rather it is becoming more advanced as cartels become better organized including shifting their illegal activities in order to avoid national or local police efforts. By some estimates, 15 per cent to 30 per cent of the volume of wood traded globally has been obtained illegally…

The much heralded decline of illegal logging in the mid- 2000s in some tropical regions was widely attributed to a short-term law enforcement effort. However, long-term trends in illegal logging and trade have shown that this was temporary, and illegal logging continues. More importantly, an apparent decline in illegal logging is due to more advanced laundering operations masking criminal activities, and notnecessarily due to an overall decline in illegal logging. In many cases a tripling in the volumes of timber “originating” from plantations in the five years following the law enforcement crack-down on illegal logging has come partly from cover operations by criminals to legalize and launder illegal logging operations….

Much of the laundering of illegal timber is only possible due to large flows of funding from investors based in Asia, the EU and the US, including investments through pension funds. As funds are made available to establish plantations operations to launder illegal timber and obtain permits illegally or pass bribes, investments, collusive corruption and tax fraud combined with low risk and high demand, make it a highly profitable illegal business, with revenues up to 5–10 fold higher than legal practices for all parties involved. This also undermines subsidized alternative livelihood incentives available in several countries.

[It is important to discourage] the use of timber from these regions and introducing a rating og companies based on the likelihood of their involvement in illegal practices to discourage investors and stock markets from funding them.

Excerpts from Nellemann, C., INTERPOL Environmental Crime Programme (eds). 2012.Green Carbon, Black Trade Illegal Logging, Tax Fraud and Laundering in the Worlds Tropical Forests. A Rapid Response Assessment United Nations Environment Programme

Nuclear Wastes from Japan make their Way to China

Chinese customs officials have intercepted 1,127 tonnes of imported waste metals from Japan with excessive gamma rays in the coastal city of Ningbo in east China, local authorities said Tuesday (June 5, 2012).  The radiation levels of the waste metals, imported by a recycled metal company in Ningbo, was twice the national standard and hazardous to the human body and the environment, according to Ningbo customs.  The metals contained caesium-137, a radioactive isotope of caesium. Small amounts of caesium-137 were released into the environment during nuclear weapon tests and nuclear accidents, most notably the Chernobyl disaster.  Ningbo customs has ordered the cargo to be returned and has handed the case over to the anti-smuggling department for further investigations.  Ningbo customs has intercepted a total of 8,544 tonnes of waste imported metals with excessive radiation from Japan since the Japanese nuclear disaster of March 2011, said Wang Lingbao, a logistics control department official with the customs.

Chinese customs intercept radioactive waste metals from Japan,Xinhua, June 5, 2012

To stop Poachers from Killing Elephants, Stop Consumers from Buying Ivory

Almost 24 tonnes of illegally harvested ivory were seized by investigators in 2011—the largest haul since records began in 1990 and more than twice the amount in 2010. Traffic, a wildlife watchdog, reckons around 2,500 elephants must have died to produce so much ivory. This year could be worse. More than 200 elephants were killed in a single state of Cameroon in the first six weeks of 2012.  This threatens to return African elephants to the crisis times of the 1970s and 1980s, when poaching was rampant and extinction loomed for many populations. This led to an ivory trade ban, in 1989, and in turn to a collapse in demand for ivory. Elephant populations have since recovered. Yet the effects of the ban seem to be wearing thin, especially in east, west and central Africa, where wildlife protection is generally weak and the poaching heaviest.

Illegally gathered ivory typically leaves Africa from Kenya or Tanzania in shipping containers. It often passes through Malaysia, where forged papers disguise its origins. Most is then dispatched to China or Japan. Some tusks also pass through the bazaars of Cairo, where Chinese traders are the biggest buyers  China is the biggest recipient of poached African ivory; and the country’s demand for the stuff is surging. A study of two Chinese cities for Traffic, by Esmond Martin and Lucy Vigne, concluded that since 2004 the number of ivory items for sale there had grown by 50%.

Some ivory can be traded legally, for example when the elephant that grew it died of natural causes or was shot to protect people or crops. Some African countries have stocks that predate the ban, which they can also sell. Such legal ivory sells for around $900 a kilogram in China’s wholesale market, with the average tusk weighing between five and nine kilograms. A cheaper sort comes from extinct woolly mammoths, which are periodically excavated from Siberia’s tundra.

In southern Africa, where there is relatively little poaching, support for lifting the trade ban is strong. But east African countries, especially Kenya, which led the original campaign for it, say this would increase demand for ivory, which would often be met by poaching—given how easy it is to pass off illegal ivory as the legal kind. The collapse in demand for ivory that followed the trade ban supports that argument. So does the recent research by Mr Martin and Ms Vigne. Though legal ivory in China’s markets is meant to be marked as such, they found this was true of less than half the ivory for sale in Guangzhou in January 2011. Only a tenth of shops selling ivory had the necessary licenses.

Yet if the trade ban is losing its force, what will save the elephants? Iain Douglas-Hamilton, the founder of Save the Elephants, an advocacy group, says educating Chinese shoppers about the bloody origins of their purchase would help. There is currently an advertising campaign in China to do so. It features Chinese celebrities, like Yao Ming, a basketball star, and Ding Junhui, a snooker player, urging people not to buy products from endangered species. “When the buying stops,” they say, “the killing can too.”

Poaching: Black ivory, Economist, Mar. 20, 2012, at 73

Illegal Nuclear Markets, how to violate export controls

A Maryland businessman was sentenced Friday (Jan. 6, 2012)to more than three years in prison for conspiring to export to Pakistan materials and equipment that can be used in nuclear reactors and defrauding the United States.  Nadeem Akhtar, 46, of Silver Spring, Md., one-time owner of Computer Communications USA of Columbia,-

Black Rhino Extinct: black markets and captive breeding programs

Africa’s western black rhino is now officially extinct according the latest review of animals and plants by the world’s largest conservation network.  The subspecies of the black rhino — which is classified as “critically endangered” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species — was last seen in western Africa in 2006.  The IUCN warns that other rhinos could follow saying Africa’s northern white rhino is “teetering on the brink of extinction” while Asia’s Javan rhino is “making its last stand” due to continued poaching and lack of conservation.   “In the case of the western black rhino and the northern white rhino the situation could have had very different results if the suggested conservation measures had been implemented,” Simon Stuart, chair of the IUCN species survival commission said in a statement.  “These measures must be strengthened now, specifically managing habitats in order to improve performance, preventing other rhinos from fading into extinction,” Stuart added.  The IUCN points to conservation efforts which have paid off for the southern white rhino subspecies which have seen populations rise from less than 100 at the end of the 19th century to an estimated wild population of 20,000 today.  Another success can be seen with the Przewalski’s Horse which was listed as “extinct in the wild” in 1996 but now, thanks to a captive breeding program, has an estimated population of 300.

The latest update to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species reviews more than 60,000 species, concluding that 25% of mammals on the list are at risk of extinction.  Many plants are also under threat, say the IUCN.  Populations of Chinese fir, a conifer which was once widespread throughout China and Vietnam, is being threatened by the expansion of intensive agriculture according to the IUCN.  A type of yew tree (taxus contorta) found in Asia which is used to produce Taxol (a chemotherapy drug) has been reclassified from “vulnerable” to “endangered” on the IUCN Red List, as has the Coco de Mer — a palm tree found in the Seychelles islands — which is at risk from fires and illegal harvesting of its kernels.  Recent studies of 79 tropical plants in the Indian Ocean archipelago revealed that more than three quarters of them were at risk of extinction.

Matthew Knight, Western black rhino declared extinct, CNN, Nov. 10, 2011