Tag Archives: organized crime endangered species

Extreme Markets: the fascination for wild genitalia

Tomohon, in the highlands of North Sulawesi, Indonesia is …the “extreme market”. There is certainly something extreme about the serried carcasses, blackened by blow torches to burn off the fur, the faces charred in a rictus grin.   The pasar extrim speaks to Sulawesi’s striking biogeography. The Indonesian island straddles the boundary between Asiatic and Australian species—and boasts an extraordinary number of species found nowhere else. But the market also symbolises how Asia’s amazing biodiversity is under threat. Most of the species on sale in Tomohon have seen populations crash because of overhunting (habitat destruction has played a part too)…

An hour’s drive from Tomohon is Bitung, terminus for ferry traffic from the Moluccan archipelago and Papua, Indonesia’s easternmost province. These regions are even richer in wildlife, especially birds. Trade in wild birds is supposedly circumscribed. Yet the ferries are crammed with them: Indonesian soldiers returning from a tour in Papua typically pack a few wild cockatoos or lories to sell. One in five urban households in Indonesia keeps birds. Bitung feeds Java’s huge bird markets. The port is also a shipment point on a bird-smuggling route to the Philippines and then to China, Taiwan, even Europe. Crooked officials enable the racket.

The trade in animal parts used for traditional medicine or to denote high status, especially in China and Vietnam, is an even bigger racket. Many believe ground rhino horn to be effective against fever, as well as to make you, well, horny. Javan and Sumatran rhinos were not long ago widespread across South-East Asia, but poaching has confined them to a few tiny pockets of the islands after which they are named. Numbers of the South Asian rhinoceros are healthier, yet poachers in Kaziranga national park in north-east India have killed 74 in the past three years alone.

Name your charismatic species and measure decline. Between 2010 and 2017 over 2,700 of the ivory helmets of the helmeted hornbill, a striking bird from South-East Asia, were seized, with Hong Kong a notorious transshipment hub. It is critically endangered. As for the tiger, in China and Vietnam its bones and penis feature in traditional medicine, while tiger fangs and claws are emblems of status and power. Fewer than 4,000 tigers survive in the wild. The pressure from poachers is severe, especially in India. The parts of over 1,700 tigers have been seized since 2000.

Asia’s wildlife mafias have gone global. Owing to Asian demand for horns, the number of rhinos poached in South Africa leapt from 13 in 2007 to 1,028 last year. The new frontline is South America. A jaguar’s four fangs, ten claws, pelt and genitalia sell for $20,000 in AsiaSchemes to farm animals, which some said would undercut incentives to poach, have proved equally harmful. Lion parts from South African farms are sold in Asia as a cheaper substitute for tiger, or passed off as tiger—either way, stimulating demand. The farming of tigers in China, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam provides cover for the trafficking of wild tiger parts. Meanwhile, wild animals retain their cachet—consumers of rhino horn believe the wild rhino grazes only on medicinal plants.

Excerpts from  Wasting Wildlife, Economist, Apr. 21, 2018, at 36

The Most Trafficked Animal in the World: pangolin

Pangolin defending itself against lions. image from wikipedia

Pangolins are a smuggler’s dream. For defence, and when asleep, they roll themselves up into spheres, scales on the outside, to thwart any predator. That makes them easy to handle and pack. And handled and packed they have been, in enormous numbers. The International Union for Conservation of Nature, a worldwide wildlife-preservation organisation, reckons that more than 1m pangolins were traded illegally from their African and Asian homelands over the decade to 2014. That may be a conservative estimate. A paper published in 2017 in Conservation Letters calculates the number of pangolins hunted in central Africa alone as between 400,000 and 2.7m a year. Based on statistics such as these it seems likely that pangolins, of which there are eight species, four African and four Asian, are the most trafficked type of animal in the world.

Some are consumed locally. That is not necessarily illegal, for laws vary from place to place. International trade, though, is a different matter. Early in 2017 CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, listed all eight pangolins as part of what is known as Appendix 1. This means signatories to the convention (which most countries are) cannot permit them to be imported or exported.

Most of those that are, nevertheless, exported illegally from their homelands end up in China and Vietnam. In these countries pangolins’ meat is a treat and their scales are used in folk medicine, even though those scales are made of keratin, the same substance as hair and fingernails, and thus have no medicinal value. Pangolin scales fetch as much as $750 a kilogram in China. A 12-tonne stash of them, the world’s biggest seizure, was found last summer by the authorities in Shenzhen….

Cracking down on poachers and traders is difficult, particularly in poor places…Part of the blame lies with ignorance. Awareness of pangolins is patchy. They are nocturnal and shy, and thus rarely feature on tourists’ tick-lists. That makes them a low priority, even to game-management authorities who know they are there. …The Hywood Foundation’s initiative is part of a larger effort in Uganda, sponsored by the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA), the government’s conservation agency. Now that pangolins are on the UWA’s radar, it has stepped up intelligence and investigative work on poachers and traffickers…At the consumption end of the trafficking routes, too, things are starting to happen…. In theory, eating pangolin meat (along with that of many other wild species) is already illegal in China—not for conservation reasons, but as a reaction to the outbreak of SARS, a fatal respiratory disease…Persuading people to stop using the animals’ scales may be harder.

Excerpts from  Conserving Pagolins: A Problem of Scale, Economist, Feb 3, 2018

For Sale Elephant Skin 4 dollars per square inch

“Elephant’s skin can cure skin diseases like eczema,” said one shop owner, who requested anonymity, alongside a counter brimming with porcupine quills and snake skins. “You burn pieces of skin by putting them in a clay pot. Then you get the ash and mix it with coconut oil to apply on the eczema.”  He broke off to talk to a potential buyer, who balked at the price tag of 5,000 kyat (US$3.65) per square inch (6.5 square centimetres) of elephant skin.

Elephant poaching in Myanmar has jumped tenfold in recent years, the government said this week, driven by growing demand for ivory, hide and body parts.Increasingly carcasses are being found stripped of their skin, the hide used for traditional medicine or reportedly turned into beads for jewellery. Some of it is sold in local markets but the vast majority goes to feed neighbouring China’s inexhaustible taste for exotic animals.  Myanmar’s wild elephant population is thought to have almost halved over the past decade to around 2,000-3,000. The animals are killed or smuggled alive to be used in the tourist industry in neighbouring Thailand.

“”Elephants are one of dozens of endangered species being trafficked through Myanmar, which has become a key hub in the US$20 billion a year global wildlife trade.  Watchdog TRAFFIC claims the country has “the largest unregulated open markets for tiger parts” in Southeast Asia, which experts say also sell everything from African rhino horn and clouded leopard skins to pangolins.  Much of the trade runs through the country’s lawless eastern periphery, controlled by a sophisticated network of criminals who are thought to be armed and funded by powerful “kingpins” in China.  It is lucrative business: in Mong La, on Myanmar’s eastern border, sales of ivory alone are thought to rake in tens of millions of dollars a year.

Excerpts from Skin care fad threatens Myanmar’s endangered elephants as demand from China drives trade in animal products, South China Morning Post, Jan. 21, 2016

 

Drugs, Snakes and Skins: illegal wildlife trafficking

how-to-have-a-python-leather-handbag

One of the most serious environmental crimes, wildlife trafficking encompasses all stages in the supply chain, from taking wild fauna from its habitat, to trading, importing, exporting, processing, possessing, obtaining and consuming of these species.  Driven by an extraordinary low-risk/high-profit ratio, the trafficking of endangered species is estimated to generate over EUR 4.4 billion in profits globally per year (2011).

Because the global demand for such commodities is high, whether as luxury items or for use in traditional medicine, this illicit trade attracts transnational organised crime networks.

While in its character and its scale this trade resembles other types of global criminal activities, such as trafficking in drugs, human beings, firearms and counterfeit goods, it benefits nonetheless from lower levels of awareness, lower risks of detection and lower sanction levels.
The EU is a major transit point for the illegal trade in wildlife, in particular between Africa and Asia. In 2013, 1468 seizures (more than half with an international dimension) were reported by 15 EU countries. The main types of commodities seized were medicines (derived from both plants and animals), ivory, corals and live reptiles. The European fashion industry accounts for 96% of the trade in python skins…

In 2015 Europol supported Operation COBRA III, the largest-ever coordinated international law-enforcement operation targeting the illegal trade in endangered species. The operation recovered a huge amount of wildlife contraband, including over 12 tonnes of elephant ivory and at least 119 rhino horns.

Excerpt from ILLICIT TRAFFICKING IN ENDANGERED ANIMAL SPECIES, Europol Press Release, Nov. 2016

The Killing Spree at the Golden Triangle

 

Lthe golden triangle

Laos’s biggest breeding facility, near Thakhek, reportedly holds around 400 tigers. Many are bred solely for their parts. The skins are prized as decorations. Farmed-tiger parts mostly move to China through the unruly Golden Triangle where Myanmar, Thailand and Laos converge. The region is a hotspot for trade in protected species: the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), an NGO based in UK  visited the Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone in Laos, popular with Chinese tourists. [It] found tiger-bone wine, bear-bile pills, pangolin scales and carvings from the beaks of helmeted hornbills openly on sale. Outside the God of Fortune restaurant was a caged bear-cub that could be killed and cooked to order.

Laos also offers a link to the most lucrative of all illegal wildlife enterprises: the trade in rhinoceros horn, which the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) estimated six years ago was worth $8m a year. Since then the number of rhinos slaughtered annually by poachers in Africa has more than tripled (the poaching of Asia’s depleted stock of rhinos is modest). Poachers are sometimes caught; those higher up the chain rarely are. The only high-level trafficker in jail is a Thai, Chumlong Lemtongthai, who is serving a 13-year sentence in South Africa. He was charged in 2011 with bringing Thai prostitutes to South Africa so they could claim they had shot rhinos on legal hunts and were thus entitled under South African law to export horns as trophies. It was the most bizarre of several methods used to get hold of a substance that can fetch up to $70,000 a kilo—almost twice the price of gold.

Mr Chumlong has been linked to a man who has been described as the Pablo Escobar of wildlife-trafficking, Vixay Keosavang, a former soldier in the Lao People’s Army who operates from a walled compound far off the beaten track in the central province of Bolikhamxay. In 2013 the American government offered $1m for information that would help dismantle the network it believes that Mr Vixay heads, which it suspects of trading wild-animal parts across several countries. Mr Vixay has denied wrongdoing.

Some experts believe that the surge in rhino-poaching, which has cut the world’s population by a fifth since 2008, has been driven by a surge in demand in Vietnam. There, rhino-horn shavings are a supposed cure for hangovers; entire horns are given as gifts and displayed as ornaments. Others believe that much of the rhino-horn taken to Vietnam ends up in China.

As their country opened up in recent decades, “some enterprising Vietnamese citizens got residential status in South Africa and very quietly began trading,” says Tom Milliken of Traffic, an NGO. In at least two cases, professional South African hunters have been caught shooting rhino for Vietnamese clients and, in two others, Vietnamese nationals have been arrested trying to smuggle rhino-horns out of South Africa by air. Hunts have been arranged for citizens of the Czech Republic, which has had a large Vietnamese community since the cold war. Since that ruse was discovered, Slovaks, Poles, Ukrainians and Russians have been enlisted as bogus trophy-hunters. “Some Vietnamese residents have bought their own game ranches, so they are now able to buy rhinos at auction and organise sports hunts,” says Mr Milliken.

The international nature of the trade poses big problems for law-enforcement. Documents that would prove decisive in a prosecution for rhino-horn trafficking can sit in a South African office for months awaiting translation, says Mr Milliken; the situation is no better for other animal parts. “None of what we do for drugs do we do for wildlife trafficking,” an international official involved in the fight against organised crime laments. “Extraditions are rare. There are no controlled deliveries. Sophisticated investigative techniques are seldom deployed. We’re not doing any of the things we could be doing to stop it.”

Excerpts from The Trade in Wild Animals: Last Chance to See?, Economist, Apr. 18, 2016, at 49

Elephant Tusks in Sacks of Garlic

A market vendor, wearing a face mask, stands in front of a large pile of sacks containing garlic at an outdoor food market in Beijing November 25, 2009. REUTERS/David Gray

One man has been arrested and warrants issued for three more individuals in connection with ongoing investigations into two organised crime networks believed to have trafficked at least 8 635 kg of ivory and 53 kg of rhino horn from East and Southern Africa to Asia.  A 44-year-old Chinese national was arrested in Tanzania on suspicion of trafficking in trophies following the deployment of INTERPOL Investigative Support Teams (IST) to Malawi, Tanzania and Uganda.,,

In March 2016, an investigation by Tanzanian authorities supported by INTERPOL led to the conviction of two Chinese nationals for illegal ivory possession and attempting to bribe police and officials from the national wildlife department. Each was sentenced to 30 years in prison.  Qin Huang and Fujie Xu were arrested in Dar Es Salam in possession of more than 700 elephant tusks worth approximately $3 million, which were concealed in sacks of garlic.

INTERPOL provided assistance to the Tanzanian investigation through the analysis of travel records, financial transactions and other evidence, including seized mobile phones which were sent to the INTERPOL Global Complex for Innovation in Singapore for digital forensic examination….INTERPOL’s Project Wisdom was supported by the Wildcat Foundation, which aims to disrupt and dismantle the major transnational criminal syndicates engaged in the illegal trade of African elephant ivory and rhino horn.

Excerpts from Organised crime networks behind ivory and rhino horn trafficking in East Africa targeted, defenceWeb/INTERPOL, May 5, 2016