Tag Archives: Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES)

Turtle Eggs Can Fool Poachers

The InvestEGGator is used to reveal illegal trade networks and better understand what drives sea turtle egg poaching. The scientists deployed around a hundred of the fake eggs in sea turtle nests across four beaches in Costa Rica and waited. Each egg contained a GPS transmitter set to ping cell towers every hour, which would allow scientists to follow the InvestEGGator eggs on a smartphone app…Five of the deployed eggs were taken by unsuspecting poachers. The shortest route was roughly a mile, but one InvestEGGator traveled more than 80 miles, capturing what researchers were hoping for: the complete trade route, from the beach to the buyer. “Having that moment where the trade chain was complete….that was obviously a very big moment,” says Pheasey.

The InvestEGGator was the invention of Kim Williams-Guillén… The trick, says Williams-Guillén, was designing a device that looked and felt like a sea turtle egg while being precise enough to reveal trade routes. Sea turtle eggs are the size of ping pong balls, but unlike brittle chicken eggs, their shell is leathery and pliable. “Making [the trackers] look like eggs from far away was not going to be an issue, it was more making them feel like turtle eggs,” says Williams-Guillén. “One of the ways that [poachers] know that a turtle egg is good when they’re sorting their eggs is that it’s still soft and squishy.”…

Of the nests containing decoy eggs, a quarter were illegally harvested. Some of the eggs failed to connect to a GPS signal, while other eggs were spotted by poachers and tossed aside. Five of those poached eggs gave the team useful tracking data…This illegal trade network revealed that eggs are sold and consumed locally… The routes they discovered also suggest that most egg poachers in the area are individuals looking to make quick money, not an organized network.

Excerpt from Corryn Wetzel, 3-D Printed Sea Turtle Eggs Reveal Poaching Routes, SMITHSONIANMAG.COM, Oct. 7, 2020

Dirty Little Secrets: Farming Tigers for their Meat and Bones

The area around the Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone (SEZ), a swathe of north-western Laos..is famous for its tigers. Not wild ones, which have nearly all been killed in Laos, but captive animals, illegally trafficked and bred for their parts, which sell for thousands of dollars. 

A century ago, around 100,000 tigers roamed the world’s jungles. Because of habitat loss and poaching, there are fewer than 4,000 wild ones today. More than twice as many are being held in at least 200 farms across East and South-East Asia. These range from small backyard operations to enclosures breeding hundreds in “battery-farm style”, says the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), an international NGO focusing on wildlife crime.  Breeding tigers and trading them and their parts is banned by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, but this treaty is widely flouted in Asia because of poor law-enforcement and high demand for tigers. Belief in their medicinal properties has deep roots, especially in China. Tiger-bone wine, skins and jewelry featuring claws and teeth are status symbols. In Laos, carcasses can sell for as much as $30,000, officials reckon.

Some criminals choose to operate in Laos because…the government of Laos is allegedly complicit. America’s State Department recently reported that Laos was one of three countries that had recently “actively engaged in or knowingly profited from the trafficking of endangered or threatened species”. In 2016 an investigation by Britain’s Guardian newspaper found the Lao government had licensed two tiger farms and cut lucrative deals with wildlife traffickers smuggling millions of dollars’ worth of endangered animals—including tigers—through Laos.

The government has a 20% stake in Golden Triangle SEZ, a resort complex run by Zhao Wei, a Chinese businessman whom America’s Treasury last year accused of engaging in illegal trade in wildlife, as well as trafficking drugs and people (he denies the allegations). With its flashy casino and hotels, the SEZ is designed to attract Chinese tourists (gambling is illegal in China). In 2014 and 2015, EIA investigators found that restaurants in the SEZ were advertising “sauté tiger meat” and tiger-bone wine; shops were selling tiger skins and ivory tusks. Near the casino, 26 tigers stalked the length of their enclosure, destined for the slaughterhouse. Their bones were to infuse rice wine. Since the EIA’’s report, these establishments have closed.

Excerpt from: Tiger Farms in Laos: Law of the Jungle, Economist, Nov, 30, 2019

Saving the Giraffe from Trophy Hunting and Meat Production

In August 2019, countries agreed to monitor trade in giraffes and their body parts to help conserve the species, now deemed vulnerable to extinction. From 1985 to 2015, the wild giraffe population shrank by about 40% to approximately 68,000 adults. The declines were especially sharp in eastern and Central Africa where giraffes’ savanna and forest habitat has been turned into farms and the animals are poached for meat; most trophy hunting of giraffes happens in southern Africa, where populations have been increasing… The only figures on trade in giraffe parts show that about 40,000—including hides, carved bones, and hunting trophies such as mounted heads—were brought into the United States from 2006 to 2015.

Excerpt from Giraffe Trade to Be Tracked, Science, Aug. 30, 2019

Low Risk-High Rewards: Killing Endangered Species

The animals’ meat, hides and, above all, tusks are money-spinners. East Asia is the biggest market for ivory and for many illegally traded products, such as animal parts used in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM)—tiger bones, rhino horns, pangolin scales—or in its cuisine—pangolin meat, for example. In July,  2019 the authorities in Singapore seized 8.8 tonnes, about 300 elephants’-worth, of ivory, along with 11.9 tonnes of pangolin scales, from some 2,000 of the anteaters, the world’s most widely trafficked endangered mammal. The annual profits of the trade in illegal wildlife products are estimated at between $7bn at the low end and $23bn. This makes it the fourth-most profitable criminal trafficking business, with links to others—slavery, narcotics and the arms trade..

Athough China is trying to curb illegal trade, it is also promoting TCM as one of its civilisation’s great contributions to the world. It has indeed made breakthroughs, such as artemisinin, now a widely used defence against malaria. Artemisinin is isolated from the plant Artemisia annua, sweet wormwood, a herb employed in TCM….Conservationists are alarmed that in 2019 the World Health Organisation (WHO) gave TCM respectability by including diagnoses for 400 conditions in its influential International Classification of Disease. 

The WHO approved in June 2019 a new version of its International Classification of Diseases, a highly influential document that categorizes and assigns codes to medical conditions, and is used internationally to decide how doctors diagnose conditions and whether insurance companies will pay to treat them. The latest version, ICD-11, is the first to include a chapter, chapter 26, on TCM.

Excerpts from How to curb the trade in endangered species: On the Horns, Economist, Aug. 10, 2019; The World Health Organization’s decision about traditional Chinese medicine could backfire, Nature, June 5, 2019

Preserving Snow Leopard for Eternity

The breeding of the highly-endangered snow leopard in the Himalayan nature park Himachal Pradesh resort (India) is set to begin with zoo authorities in Darjeeling agreeing to lend it a pair.  “The Padmaja Naidu Himalayan Zoological Park in Darjeeling is providing us a pair of snow leopards for conserving bloodlines of the highly endangered species in the participatory zoos,” state Chief Wildlife Warden S.S. Negi told IANS….

In 2004, snow leopard Subhash and his sibling Sapna were brought to Kufri, 15 km from the state capital Shimla, from Darjeeling under an exchange programme.Officials said the breeding programme couldn’t be initiated as they belonged to the same bloodline. Sapna died of disease in 2007…

The Darjeeling zoo is internationally recognised for its 33-year-old conservation breeding programme for the snow leopard, with 56 births.

Forest Minister Thakur Singh Bharmouri said the central government-funded Snow Leopard Conservation Project of Rs.5.15 crore ($758,000) is under way in the Spiti Valley, which lies in the state’s northernmost part and runs parallel to Tibet.The programme would take care of restoring the snow leopard’s habitat, he said. Studies by the state wildlife department show the presence of seven to eight snow leopards per 100 sq km in the Spiti Valley.The department is already monitoring the habitat, range and behaviour of snow leopards in the Valley through camera traps (automatic cameras).As per the information gleaned from these devices, the snow leopard population is estimated to be 28 in Spiti and its nearby areas, and 29 in the rest of the state.

“We will soon start radio-collaring five to six snow leopards in Spiti and other areas to monitor their behaviour and, of course, habitat and range,” an official of the state’s wildlife wing told IANS.  Each radio collar costs around Rs.300,000 and can send signals for at least 18 months. “But the cost of procuring data sent through radio collars is quite expensive,” he said.

The problem of starting the radio collar installations is the non-availability of tranquillising drugs in India as prescribed by our international partner, Snow Leopard Trust,

Excerpt from Himachal to begin breeding the highly-endangered snow leopards,  India Live Today, June 28, 2016

7 Frozen Embryos and the Resuscitation of Rhinos

SUDAN, the last male northern white rhinoceros on Earth, died in March 2018. He is survived by two females, Najin and her daughter Fatu, who live in a conservancy in Kenya. This pair are thus the only remaining members of the world’s most endangered subspecies of mammal. But all might not yet be lost. Thomas Hildebrandt of the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research, in Berlin, in collaboration with Avantea, a biotechnology company in Cremona, Italy, is proposing heroic measures to keep the subspecies alive. In a paper published in Nature, he and his colleagues say that they have created, by in vitro fertilisation (IVF), apparently viable hybrid embryos of northern white rhinos and their cousins from the south. This, they hope, will pave the way for the creation of pure northern-white embryos.

Though stored sperm from Sudan and several other males are available, both Najin and Fatu now seem unable to conceive. This means, if the subspecies is to be preserved, that one or both of them will have to have some eggs removed from their ovaries and combined with stored sperm in a Petri dish;… and subsenquently implanted in the uterus of a southern white, who would act as a surrogate mother, with a reasonable hope of success.  That has not yet happened. The seven embryos are now in a freezer awaiting the results of research on how best to transfer them to surrogates. In the meantime, having proved their technique with these hybrids, Dr Hildebrandt and his colleagues now hope to create more embryos, this time using eggs from the two remaining female northern whites.

Even if they succeed, though, it will be a long haul back for the northern white rhino. Members of any new generation resulting from IVF will have then to be bred with each other to create subsequent generations—with all the risks of reduced biological fitness which such incest entails. It is not so much a gene pool that Dr Hildebrandt is working with as a gene puddle.

Then there is the question of what to do with the resulting animals. Analysis of other rhinoceros species, both in Africa and Asia, points to a viable population in the wild needing to be at least 500 strong. Even if such a group could be created, and not collapse from lack of genetic diversity, releasing it into the tender mercies of what remains of Kenya’s savannah would be risky.

Excerpts from Animal Conservation: Drinking in the last-chance saloon, Economist, July 7, 2018, at 66.

The Most Trafficked Animal in the World: Pangolin

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

Mad Killing Spree: Rhinos in South Africa 2017

According to news reports,  there appeared to be no letting up in the “relentless rhino poaching onslaught” in South Africa… The country…was on track to lose more than a thousand rhinos for the fifth straight year.  Unofficial kill figures show the country has lost 483 rhinos to poachers in the first five and a half months of 2017.

Excerpts from Poachers kill six rhino in one night in Hluhluwe-Imfolozi, DefenceWeb, July 5, 2017

Drugs, Snakes and Skins: illegal wildlife trafficking

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

Endangered Species Protection in 2016

The triennial  summit of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) closed on October 4, 2016 ….

The Johannesburg conference was marked by agreement on measures to improve sustainable trade in a number of species, including the queen conch, humphead wrasse, sharks, snakes and African wild dog as well as a large range of timber species, such as bubinga and rosewoods, and the African cherry and agarwood.

Parties also recognized several conservation success stories, including that of the Cape mountain zebra, several species of crocodiles and the wood bison, which were all by consensus downlisted from Appendix I under CITES to Appendix II in recognition of their improved conservation status.

There was fresh impetus to further safeguard threatened wild animals and plants with added protection for the African grey parrot, Barbary Macaque, Blaine’s fishhook cactus, elephant, pangolin and saiga antelope; and well-targeted enforcement measures agreed to combat illegal trade for specific species. These included the African grey parrot, African lion, cheetah, helmeted hornbill, pangolin, rhino and totoaba.

CoP17 saw a number of firsts, including, the first ever:

Resolution on corruption and wildlife crime;
Decisions on cybercrime and wildlife crime;
Resolution on strategies to reduce the demand for illegally traded wildlife,
Resolutions affecting the helmeted hornbill and snakes;
Decisions on targeting the illegal fishing of and trade in totoaba, and the related illegal killing of the vaquita;

Some other notable outcomes include:

The rejection of a Decision-Making Mechanism (DMM) for a future trade in ivory;
An agreement to close domestic markets in ivory where they contribute to poaching or illegal trade;
The rejection of all proposals to change the protection of Southern African elephant populations;
Stricter monitoring and regulation of hunting trophies to bring them under trade control measures, including recommending conservation benefits and incentives for people to conserve wildlife;
A decision to conduct a study to improve knowledge on regulation of trade in the European eel, and to look more broadly at all Anguilla eels;
An agreement to undertake specific work on marine turtles to understand the impact of international trade on their conservation status;
The introduction of a captive breeding compliance process to check the authenticity of specimens described as captive bred;
Acceptance of the National Ivory Action Plans as a tool for those Parties mostly affected by illegal trade in ivory, including source, transit and destination countries, to build their capacity in addressing illegal trade and ensuring compliance with the commitments they make under the plans;
A decision to undertake studies in legal and illegal trade in lion bones and other parts and derivatives;
A request to review all species listed on Appendix I to identify what measures are needed to improve their conservation status;
Improvements to processes to ensure that wildlife trade is sustainable, legal and traceable; and
Agreements on process to improve traceability and identification of CITES-listed species.

Excerpts from PRESS RELEASE, Largest ever World Wildlife Conference hailed as a ‘game changer, CITES, Oct. 4, 2016

 

Exotic Pets-Illicit Markets

It’s easy to catch grey parrots, say researchers from Birdlife, a global grouping of conservation groups. A team of hunters will use decoys or go to the birds’ water and mineral licks in the forests where flocks gather. They then throw nets over them and take dozens at a time.

Once caught they will be smuggled over borders, stuffed in tiny cages and flown illegally to Europe, South Africa, the Middle East and China, where they may fetch up to £1,000 each. All this makes the African grey probably the most highly traded bird in the world, causing their numbers to plummet… Some conservationists estimate only 1% of their historical numbers remain…

“Africa’s overall elephant population has seen the worst declines in 25 years, mainly due to poaching over the past 10 years,” the IUCN’s director-general, Inger Andersen, will say. “Their plight is truly alarming. Poaching has been the main driver of the decline, while habitat loss poses an increasingly serious, long-term threat to the species.”..

Laos has pledged to phase out its controversial tiger farms, which supply neighbouring China with bones and other parts for traditional medicine. But international animal trade inspectors will report in Johannesburg that rhinoceros horn, elephant ivory and many other wildlife specimens are being regularly smuggled through the country both to China and other south-east Asian countries. “Laos is being targeted by organised crime groups as a transit point,” says wildlife trade monitoring network Traffic.

South Africa.. has lost nearly 6,000 rhinos to poachers since 2007, including more than 700 this year. Vietnam needs to crack down on its rampant illegal rhino horn trade and China has been identified as the world’s primary destination for precious woods…..The street value of ivory is now more than £1,500 a kilogram in Beijing, and rhino horn can sell for £50,000 per kilo – far more than the price of gold or platinum – on the Chinese black market. Meanwhile rosewood can sell for many thousands of pounds a cubic metre.

Excerpt from The grey parrot and the race against Africa’s wildlife extinction, Guardian, Sept. 24, 2016

The Eradication of Rosewood: deforestation

On May 13th, 2016 hoping to save his country’s dwindling forests, Thongloun Sisoulith, the new prime minister of Laos, banned all timber exports. A government representative says environmental protection is among its top priorities. But a report to be published on June 24th, 2016  by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), an NGO, suggests the clampdown will not be implemented by local officials—and even if it is, may come too late to save Siamese rosewood from being eradicated in Laos and Cambodia.

Much like the trade in rhino horn and tiger skins, trade in rosewood is driven by demand from China’s burgeoning middle classes for goods once reserved for the rich: in this case, hongmu, or “redwood”, furniture made in the ornate Qing-dynasty style. Siamese rosewood is among the most highly prized of the 33 types of tree used to make hongmu.

Five years ago Thailand had roughly 90,000 Siamese rosewood trees—more than anywhere else in the world. But the EIA says “significant volumes, if not most” of those trees were illegally chopped down before trade in Siamese rosewood became regulated under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), a treaty.

That grim history seems to be repeating itself in Laos and Cambodia. Between June 2013 and December 2014 Vietnam and China (including Hong Kong) imported more than 76,000 cubic metres of Siamese rosewood—more than the total amount growing in Thailand in 2011. Jago Wadley of the EIA says that Vietnam is a conduit through which the wood enters China. Of the total amount imported, 83% came from Laos and 16% from Cambodia.

Documentation accompanying the imported wood showed that 85% was harvested in the wild. Corrupt local officials have failed to enforce the restrictions imposed by the central Lao and Cambodian governments. Middlemen pay villagers to cut down the trees; they then sell the timber to Chinese or Vietnamese businessmen.

Excerpts Endangered species: No rosewood of such virtue, Economist, June 25, 2016

Crocodile Farms for Hermes Bags

Over 20 countries export crocodilian skins, according to statistics from the UN Environment Programme. More than half the global tally is from caimans and alligators farmed in Colombia and the United States. The skins are largely sold to tanners in Italy and France, and also in Singapore.The industry has grown apace since the late 1970s, when conservationists began loosening an export ban designed to defend the animals from hunting (the trade is still controlled under CITES, an intergovernmental effort to protect endangered creatures). Grahame Webb, a biologist, says that many of the 5,000 or so farms are tiny set-ups in Asian villages. The largest outfits, however, now boast as many as 70,000 crocs. Some are getting snapped up by big leather-buyers at fashion houses such as Hermès and Louis Vuitton.

Excerpt from  Crocodile Farming: Snapping Dressers, Economist, May 14, 2016, at 55

Trees Worth More Than Gold

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

When the Buying Stops the Killing Can too: Endangered Species

[O]n October 15th, 2015 China announced a one-year ban on the import of ivory hunting trophies from Africa, closing a big loophole. Wildlife activists are delighted….The world’s elephant population has dived from 1.2m in 1980 to under 500,000 today. In 1989 the sale of ivory was banned worldwide. But in 1999 and again in 2008, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), a conservation pact, allowed the sale of stockpiles of ivory from southern Africa to China. The countries vowed to use the proceeds for conservation; China claimed it had a robust registration system that would keep illegal ivory out. But conservationists rightly predicted the concession would fuel more smuggling and so more killing.  Permitted sales became a cover for illegal ones. In 2010-12 about 100,000 elephants were slain for their tusks. In the past five years, Mozambique and Tanzania have lost half their elephants to poaching…

Despite strong demand for ivory among China’s rising middle class, attitudes may gradually be changing. As of 2012, nearly half of Chinese people saw elephant poaching as a problem, according to a survey by WildAid. The figure has been boosted by the support of celebrities. Yao Ming, a basketball player, and Jackie Chan, an actor, appear on posters everywhere with the message: “When the buying stops, the killing can too.” The government has donated $200m worth of media space every year since 2008.

Opinion on ivory has shifted fast, says Mr Knights, partly because of the success of another campaign, to protect sharks. In the markets of Guangzhou, the global centre for the trade, dried shark fins have fallen from 3,000 yuan ($470) per kilo five years ago to 1,000 yuan today, as Chinese people abjure shark-fin soup, a delicacy.  WildAid raised its voice over that issue, too, but more important was the Communist Party’s ban in 2013 of shark-fin soup at official banquets, part of a drive against corruption and excess. The Hong Kong government followed, as did airlines and hotels. A survey in 2013 found 85% of people said they had stopped eating shark-fin soup in the past three years.

One scourge is untouched by all this: the illegal trade in rhinoceros horn. More than 1,200 rhinos were killed for their horns in 2014 in South Africa alone, up from just 13 killed in 2007. This partly reflects a huge rise in demand in Vietnam, but China is also a consumer. Ground rhino horn is believed to cure fever and improve sexual performance. One kilo can cost up to $70,000.

Ominously, some African nations now want a one-off sale of rhino-horn stocks, as happened twice with ivory. To secure this, South Africa must win two-thirds of the member states at the next CITES conference…

Excerpts from Animal conservation: The elephants fight back, Economist, Nov. 21, 2015, at 44

Who Slaughters the Elephants?

Across Africa the illegal slaughter of elephants is accelerating at such a pace—recent estimates put the number killed at 100,000 in just three years—that it threatens to exterminate whole populations. The worst of this butchery takes place in Tanzania, the biggest source of illegal ivory.

Every third poached elephant in Africa dies on the watch of Tanzania’s president, Jakaya Kikwete…One contributing factor may be the government’s failure to investigate and if necessary prosecute high-level offenders. Some of these are said to be closely connected to the ruling Party of the Revolution (CCM), which has dominated the politics of Tanzania since the country’s mainland became independent.  State corruption runs through Tanzania’s illegal ivory trade from savannah to sea. At the bottom of the poaching networks are hired helpers who are often recruited from the armed forces. If caught, officers are transferred to new posts rather than fired. Some allege that soldiers rent out guns to poachers….

Police have even been known to escort convoys of illicit ivory….Other armed forces and governments are also said to be involved. A report by the Environmental Investigation Agency, a non-profit group in London, documents involvement in the illegal ivory trade by Chinese government and military officials. Yet it is allegations of corruption closer to the top of the Tanzanian ruling party that are of the greatest concern

Tanzania’s dwindling elephants: Big game poachers, Economist, Nov. 8, 2014, at 53

Why Rhino Poaching Goes on Forever

Mistrust in police ranks, a shortage of proper intelligence structures and an easy exit through South Africa’s more than nine harbours are all stumbling blocks specialised police experience in the ongoing battle against rhino poaching.

This was how Colonel Johan Jooste, operational commander of the Hawks endangered species unit in South Africa outlined some issues facing his unit. He was addressing the 35th international conference of crime fighters in Cape Town this week, Netwerk24 reports.“…We find instances where police are involved in rhino poaching syndicates,” he said, adding police detailed to anti- and counter-poaching should receive specialist training….

Knowledgeable hunters in South Africa are recruited by buyers of rhino horn. They are also responsible for removing the horn and taking it to the next person in the chain, usually someone responsible for transport.  “It can be someone who knows the area well and can also be either a policeman or a traffic officer,” he said, adding the horn was stored or taken to places such as harbours for illegal export.  The Kruger National Park has this year lost 503 rhinos to poachers out of a national total of 787.

Excerpts, Rhino poachers present different challenges to the Hawks, defenceWeb, Tuesday, Oct. 14 2014

$10 Billion Illegal Market for Wildlife

At $10 billion a year, illegal wildlife makes up the world’s fifth-largest illicit market behind drugs, counterfeit products, trafficked people and smuggled oil. An intergovernmental conference in Geneva from July 7th-11th, 2014 revealed the special worries about ivory smuggling in Thailand, rhino-horn trafficking through Mozambique and trade in tiger parts across South and South-East Asia.

According to TRAFFIC, a lobby group, the street value of rhino horn is $60,000 per kilo—more than the price of gold. Gram for gram, bear-bile flakes or powder sell in Japan [slightly less] than cocaine in Asia. Booming demand from Asia’s growing middle classes is pushing some species close to extinction. As supply dwindles, prices rocket, which tempts criminal gangs to sink their claws in even further.

Elephant ivory is valued for aesthetic reasons. Demand for rhinoceros horns, the paws and bile of Asiatic black bears and sun bears, tiger bones and penises, and deer musk, is stimulated by the healing powers ascribed to them in traditional Chinese medicine. Rhino-horn shavings boiled in water are said to cool and to cure headaches; the brew is akin to fingernail clippings in water (both are mainly keratin, an indigestible protein). Bear bile does help with gallbladder and liver problems—but no more than the synthetic version of ursodeoxycholic acid, its main component.

In February 42 countries, including China and Japan, and the European Union signed a declaration against trade in illegal wildlife products. Chinese law punishes the purchase or consumption of endangered species with up to ten years in jail. But in May, when Philippine forces seized a Chinese vessel carrying sea turtles, giant clamshells and live sharks off the disputed Half Moon Shoal, China expressed outrage at the “provocative action”—not the illegal cargo.

The illegal trade in wild-animal products: Bitter pills, Economist, July 19, 2014, at 54

Poaching Endangered Species – Namibia

he rising tide of elephant and rhino poaching in Africa is spreading to the sparsely-populated vastness of Namibia in the southeast of the continent, latest official figures show. Between 2005 and 2011 just two elephant were killed, while 121 have been killed in the past two and a half years, according to figures presented by the environment ministry.  And while no rhino were poached between 2005 and 2010, a total of 11 have been killed since then — rising from one in 2011 to four already this year.

Deputy Environment Minister Pohamba Shifeta told AFP that the government is worried by the trend and is working with law enforcement agencies to tackle the problem. “We don’t want the numbers to escalate further,” Shifeta said.  “There is a high probability that attention will shift to Namibia as we have recently experienced.”

Across the border in South Africa, rhino poaching has reached crisis levels, with more than 290 killed already this year.  Most of the poaching in Namibia has taken place in protected areas, such as the Bwabwata National Park in the northeast, where 13 elephant were killed in 2012, the environment ministry report said.

“The immediate requirement is to control the emerging commercial ivory poaching in the northeast part of the country and to prevent the westwards spread of rhino and elephant poaching into the Etosha National Park and beyond,” Shifeta told a meeting of police officers and rangers.  Namibia has 79 conservation areas covering more than 100,000 square kilometres and inhabited by some 300,000 people.

Several poachers have been arrested in recent years, with the latest suspects being two Asian men who were held in March this year allegedly in possession of rhino horn worth around $230,000 (167,000 euros). Asia is a major market for rhino horn, where it is believed to have medicinal value, and for elephant ivory.

Namibia caught in net of elephant, rhino poaching, Agence France Presse, May 13, 2014.

Conservation: a Military Operation

Mander, founder and chief executive officer of the International Anti-Poaching Foundation (IAPF) – registered in Houston, headquartered in Zimbabwe, and training rangers across Southern Africa [states]…”while we’re trying to win people [over], tens of thousands of animals are being killed every year. We need to do something now, on the ground, to stop the hemorrhaging. Otherwise there won’t be anything left by the time we’ve won all the hearts and minds.”

Mander’s urgency is not misplaced. Poachers in South Africa killed the equivalent of one rhino every eight hours in 2013. They hacked or sawed off their horns and sold them on the world market for as much as $27,000 per pound – more than the price of gold. That makes the average horn on the average rhino worth close to a quarter-million dollars.  Across Africa, the number of elephants has fallen from 1.3 million 40 years ago to fewer than 400,000 today. Each year, the continent loses somewhere between 5 and 10 percent of those that remain. This has prompted organizations such as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species to predict that Africa will lose a fifth of its elephants in 10 years.  Other groups warn that the African elephant could be extinct within a generation, consigned to picture books, zoos, and eventually fairy tales, like the unicorn.

Mass killings of Africa’s wildlife have happened before, notably in the 1970s and ’80s, a period known as the “ivory holocaust.” In 1989, an international ban on trade in elephant ivory curtailed the supply of illicit animal parts, and populations of the hardest-hit wildlife began creeping up again.  But so did the demand. Asia’s growing middle class increasingly sought out the animal contraband that serves both as ancestral trappings of wealth and a source of traditional medicines.

To supply these expanding markets, poaching has surged again. But this time the sophistication, funding, and malevolence of the poachers and their big-time criminal underwriters have reached new heights. The few who are caught are often found with their own night-vision goggles, sniper rifles, bandoliers of ammunition, and other specialized gear. Big-money backers equip the gunmen with helicopters to land inside the electric fences that guard wildlife. They bribe veterinarians to supply the poachers with powerful animal tranquilizers, which are used to fell the beasts all the more quickly.

In the face of this onslaught, the world’s conservation organizations have significantly increased their efforts despite chronic underfunding. But Mander argues that the conservation “industry,” as he calls it, is “dangerously fragmented” and wasting energy pulling in different directions.”It’s a world wildlife war. Don’t let anyone tell you it’s anything else,” he says back at his main encampment in Zimbabwe. “And the way we’re heading, we’re going to lose.”

Mander is an unlikely poster boy for an environmental conservation movement… At age 19, he joined the Australian Navy and soon transferred into the force’s equivalent of the US Navy SEALs. Six years later, he had become a fully trained Special Forces sniper and specialist diver. But his commission ended, and he shifted into private security and protection of VIPs in Iraq. Twelve tours and three years later, he’d become a wealthy man but decided to quit. …

In Zimbabwe, a wildlife reserve manager with a team of rangers out in the bush decided that hiring Mander was worth a try…Seeing the need to teach rangers about military tactics, and using money from investments he had made during his high-paying days in Iraq, Mander set up the IAPF in 2009. To date, it has trained rangers from 10 separate wilderness areas in Zimbabwe and is expanding into Mozambique. IAPF is also leading efforts from South Africa to create an international standard for wildlife rangers around Africa and beyond….

He teaches intelligence gathering and analysis, as well as overt and covert patrolling. He shows them how to set up observation posts, how to use force properly, and how to deal with battlefield casualties. Mander deploys the gear he used when he was in Iraq, the night scopes and the infrared lights. He’s working on a new gas-driven drone that can spend five hours in the air scouring the landscape for poachers. His rangers go through physical training drills every morning. Their uniforms are new and spotless. “People will try to package it up in a softer way – I don’t know why – but antipoaching is a paramilitary operation,” he says. “Law enforcement should be a ranger’s No. 1 job, but it’s been turned into a minor role.”…

Mander is not the only one militarizing ranger training. In Kenya, the British Army is helping teach similar battlefield techniques. In South Africa, former special forces soldiers are doing the same. Drones are undergoing trials in a dozen wildlife reserves across Africa. The key ingredient in Mander’s approach is a perpetual show of force, which he believes acts as a deterrent…

Critics in the conservation community worry that militarizing the antipoaching movement raises the risk of innocent people getting caught in the crossfire. They think it sidesteps the judicial process at a time when courts are beginning to impose harsher sentences on poachers….

“A lot of people will argue that we need to be focused less on the military approach I’m trying here and more on community work and hearts and minds and sustainable alternatives for communities,” Mander goes on. “Look, I’m all for that. Let’s have people out there working on that. But while they’re at it, I’m going to be here on the ground trying to stop the bleeding and hold on to what we’ve got left before everything’s dead.”

Excerpt, Mike Pflanz, The ivory police, Christian Science Monitor, Mar. 2, 2014

Saving the Elephant: $300 Million

Six tonnes of elephant tusks and ivory trinkets were destroyed in a tarmac crusher in the factory city of Dongguan in China on January 6th, 2014.  Most of the 33-tonne stockpile of Hong Kong—home to many of the world’s most avid buyers of ivory—as well as those of several European countries will soon meet the same fate. In the past few years ivory has also been destroyed in the United States, Gabon, Kenya and the Philippines.

These scenes lack both the curling smoke and dramatic setting of the vast pyre of tusks burned in Kenya’s Nairobi National Park in 1989. (Most ivory is now destroyed by crushing, rather than burning, to avoid polluting the atmosphere.) But they may prove equally significant in the long fight to stop poaching and save the elephant from extinction.  The bonfire near Nairobi was the prelude to a global ban on trade in ivory, a collapse in demand and a lull in poaching that gave the African elephant population time to recover. But in the past five years poaching has picked up again. An estimated 25,000 elephants are killed each year by poachers, many of them linked to organised crime. In some places the species is close to being wiped out…

Links between ivory traffickers and African militias such as the Lord’s Resistance Army, a thuggish band of guerrillas that originated in Uganda, have put the issue on the national-security agenda in America and elsewhere. The result is attention from political heavyweights including Bill and Hillary Clinton; John Kerry, America’s secretary of state; and David Cameron, Britain’s prime minister. African governments have agreed to to beef up park patrols, create anti-poaching police units in the states where elephants roam and strengthen anti-poaching laws. The measures have so far been underfunded. Making them stick would cost an estimated $300m over ten years, much of which it is hoped will come from the rich countries at the conference.

Though campaigners welcome the plan they argue that curbing the supply of ivory is not enough. Since 1989 countries with elephant populations have twice been allowed to sell stockpiled ivory from elephants that died naturally under CITES, a global agreement on international trade in endangered species. Before the second sale, in 2008, conservationists warned that it would revive the market in China, where ivory ornaments have long been prized, and make poaching profitable once more. They were right. The ivory bought by the Chinese government is drip-fed onto the domestic market at a rate of five tonnes a year. That comes nowhere close to meeting demand, estimated at 200 tonnes a year. And the sales have coincided with an explosive increase in poaching.

The ivory trade: Up in smoke, Economist,Feb. 8, 2014, at 60

Organized Crime: rhino horn to waste dumping

[A]ccording to America’s Congressional Research Services,  illegal trade
in endangered wildlife products is worth as much as $133 billion annually. Commodities such as rhino horn and caviar offer criminals two benefits rarely found together: high prices and low risk. Rhino horn can fetch up to $50,000 per kilogram, more than gold or the American street value of cocaine. Get caught bringing a kilogram of cocaine into America and you could face 40 years in prison and a $5m fine. On January 10th, by contrast, a New York court sentenced a rhino-horn trafficker to just 14 months…Organised crime is globalising and diversifying. Mono-ethnic, hierarchical mafias are being replaced by multi-ethnic networks that operate across borders and commit many types of offence. In an ongoing investigation into rhino-horn trafficking, the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) arrested Irish travellers using indigent Texans to procure material for Chinese and Vietnamese buyers. Europol, the European Union’s law-enforcement agency, estimates that just a quarter of Europe’s roughly 3,600 organised-crime groups have a main nationality, and that some operate in dozens of countries. A third are involved in more than one criminal enterprise, with half of those linked to drug-trafficking.

And though traditional trafficking in drugs, guns and people is still lucrative, gangs are increasingly moving into lower-risk, higher-reward areas—not just wildlife, but fraud and illegal waste-disposal….Gangs in Britain make around £9 billion ($14.8 billion) a year from tax, benefit, excise-duty and other fraud—not much less than the £11 billion they earn from drugs. In America cigarette-trafficking deprives state, local and federal governments of $5 billion in tax revenues annually. The European Union estimates that losses within its borders from cigarette smuggling, tax fraud and false claims on its funds by organised groups total €34 billion ($46.5 billion) a year. But member states bring fewer than ten cases each a year for defrauding the EU, and sentences tend to be light.

According to the FLARE Network, an international group of campaigners against organised crime, criminal groups in Italy make around €14 billion a year from being mixed up in agriculture. In some parts of the country mafias control food production and distribution; Franco La Torre, FLARE’s president, says they also enrich themselves through fraudulent claims on EU agricultural funds. Increasingly strict regulation of waste disposal has created another profitable opportunity for organised crime in Europe—particularly, according to Europol, for the Italian Camorra, ’Ndrangheta and Cosa Nostra…

Old-style loan sharks and drug-dealers are finding a new role as distributors for the modern mobsters who manage the supply chains, marketing, finance and human resources needed to move goods, money and people across borders. “The new generation are very talented businessmen and technologically advanced experts,” says Mr La Torre. They prefer invisibility to showy violence. Many also have legitimate business interests.  Clever criminals acting across borders are extremely difficult to prosecute. They profit from gaps in enforcement and regulation, and conceal their illegal acts in complex supply chains. If a network of Nigerian scammers based in Amsterdam defrauds French, Australian and American credit-card holders, where does the crime occur? And who has the motivation, not to mention the jurisdiction, to prosecute?

A commodity such as oil, ivory or fish will be transported on a ship flying a flag of convenience, explains Mr Leggett. The ship will be owned by a holding company registered in a tax haven with a phoney board. Thus the criminals can disguise the provenance of their ill-gotten goods and middlemen can plead ignorance….

Until then, illicit goods will keep coming in quantities too great for governments to stop. One FWS inspector estimates that for all the peering, prodding and chirping, for all the rewards promised and rhino-horn traffickers caught, the agency picks up perhaps 5% of wildlife brought illicitly into America. For criminals, that is merely a light tax on the profits from the rest.

Excerpts, Organised crime: Earning with the fish,Economist, Jan. 18, 2014, at 59

The Slow Death of Rhino: South Africa

The Kruger National Park’s rhino population remains under heavy threat from poachers with no less than 63 carcasses found in the world famous game reserve in the first 30 days of the year…This equates to a national kill rate of 2.8 animals a day at the start of the year while arrests in connection with poaching stand at 21 for the first 30 days of the year…One of these gaps is widely seen to be the ease with which poachers come into and leave South Africa from particularly Mozambique. A proposal allowing for hot pursuit of suspected poachers across the international border has been put forward to the SANParks board and the Environmental Affairs Ministry for inclusion in a memorandum of understanding due to be entered into between South Africa and its eastern neighbour.  The memorandum was originally due to have been signed this month but Mozambique has indicated it is not yet in a position to sign.

Excerpt, Kim Helfrich, Rhino killing continues unabated, http://www.defenceweb.co.za/, Jan.  31, 2014

Smuggling Endangered Species and Drugs

Criminals involved in smuggling endangered species from Latin America into Spain are using the same routes as drug traffickers, Spanish police told Efe.  Some drug traffickers have actually turned to the business of smuggling exotic animals because it is lucrative and less dangerous than the narcotics trade, Spanish Civil Guard Wildlife Protection Service Capt. Salvador Ortega said.  Spain is one of the main entry points used by animal smugglers from Latin America to penetrate the European market, Ortega said.

The trade in exotic species is “very lucrative” and continues growing, the police officer said.  Animal smugglers use “the same routes as the drug trade and some have traded their businesses for exotic species,” Ortega said.  A small egg can easily be smuggled across international borders, with the parrot that later hatches being sold for more than 15,000 euros (about $20,500), Ortega said   Reptiles, amphibians, turtles – smuggled from Morocco – and parrots are the exotic animals most commonly illegally introduced into Spain, the police officer said.

Animal Traffickers Use Same Routes from Latin America as Drug Smugglers, Police Say, Latin American Herald Tribune, Jan. 3, 2014

The Hot Pursuit of Poachers

More suspected rhino poachers have been arrested so far this year [in South Africa] than were taken into custody for the whole of last year but rhino poaching continues unabated with 825 carcasses bearing mute testimony to the continued slaughter…This translates into 2.7 rhinos a day, with the Kruger National park still the favoured target of poachers, the majority of whom are Mozambicans. This point was stressed by former Mozambican president Joaquim Chissano speaking at the launch of the Joaquim Chissano Foundation Wildlife Preservation Initiative in Maputo earlier this week.  He said 70% of the rhino killed in South Africa can be attributed to Mozambicans. Correspondingly, 68% of suspected poachers arrested in South Africa are from South Africa’s eastern neighbour.

This point was also made earlier this year by retired SA Army general Johan Jooste, now in overall charge of SANParks wildlife anti-poaching operations. He wants a government to government agreement to give Kruger National Park rangers a “hot pursuit” option. This will allow rangers to follow poaching suspects across the border without creating international incidents.The SA National Defence Force (SANDF), via the SA Army and Army Reserves as well as SA Air Force elements, are also active in anti-rhino poaching operations in the world-renowned game reserve. Proof it is the target of choice for poachers comes from Kruger losing by far the largest number of rhinos – 500 – of any area or province.

As of the beginning of this month, 272 arrests of alleged poachers and others suspected of involvement in the horn poaching chain were secured by South African law enforcement agencies. The majority of arrests – 101 – were in Kruger.  The involvement of the wider South African defence sector in counter poaching operations is illustrated by Denel Dynamics deploying a Seeker UAV in Kruger and a Seabird Seeker reconnaissance aircraft compliments of Ivor Ichikowitz’ Paramount Group.

This week saw another side of the national effort to curb and hopefully stop rhino poaching with the first international DNA sampling training workshop… Special focus was given to the increased use of rhinoceros horn DNA sampling to combat wildlife crime.  The officials have been provided with focused training on the identification of rhino horn, horn DNA sampling and wildlife crime scene investigation. Participants were also educated in the utilisation of ICCWC (International Consortium on Combating Wildlife Crime) tools and services to enhance their wildlife crime investigation capabilities.

Excerpt,  Kim Helfrich, Fighting back against rhino poachers – in the bush and in court, DefenceWeb.com,Nov. 8, 2013