Tag Archives: illegal ivory trade

What’s in that Suitcase? Endangered Turtles

Live animals, python skins and slimming pills made from crocodile blood are just a few of the items seized at world borders recently. In the space of a month, 29 big cats, 531 turtles, 336 reptiles, 1.4 million plant-derived products and 75,320kg of timber were found in luggage. 300 arrests were made. Many of the items are part of the world’s fourth biggest illegal market – the illegal wildlife trade. Despite decades of lawmakers’ crackdowns, it is still worth an estimated €17 billion annually.

The smuggled items were found as part of Operation Thunder 2021, which spanned 118 countries and the work of customs, police and wildlife enforcement agencies. The operation, coordinated by the World Customs Organisation (WCO) and INTERPOL, involved searching cars, boats and lorries with sniffer dogs and X-ray scanners. Law enforcement found that online platforms are being used to arrange trafficking, and illegal money transfers are used to enable money laundering.

Excerpt from Nichola Daunton, These are all the endangered species criminals tried to smuggle in just one month, Euronews, Dec. 1, 2021

See also Press Release of UNODC World Wildlife Crime

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

How to Market Freshly-Poached Ivory

In spite of a ban, illegal ivory trading still flourishes in the European Union, as traders use a loophole allowing exchange of very old pieces, an Oxford University study sponsored by a campaign group found.

European law allows ivory obtained prior to 1947 to be traded freely. Ivory obtained after 1947 but before 1990 can be sold with a government certificate, while selling ivory obtained after the global ivory trade was banned is illegal.

Campaign organisation Avaaz purchased more than 100 pieces of ivory from 10 different EU countries to undergo carbon testing at Oxford University. Scientists concluded 75% of the ivory was from after 1947 and 20% was ivory obtained since 1989.  Many traders use the provision which allows free trade of old ivory to illegally trade newer ivory, fuelling the market and incentivising the killing of elephants, Avaaz said.

Exceprts, Illegal ivory breezes past EU law – campaign grou Reuters, Tuesday, July 10, 2018

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

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

Gated Rainforests: the militarization of conservation

The  Epulu  village  in the Democratic Republic of Congo is situated inside a nature reserve in the Ituri rainforest, an area covering 5,000 square miles that is supposed to be off limits to hunters and gold prospectors. A militia, led by a former elephant poacher called Paul Sadala, has terrorised communities inside the reserve since 2012, employing methods brutal even by the grisly standards of this part of the world.

“The attacks were absolutely terrifying,” said Justin Oganda, a representative of the residents of Epulu who remain displaced in Mambasa, about 50 miles away. By the end of that day in June, the militiamen had murdered, raped, burned people alive and even eaten the flesh and heart of one of their victims. “To have killed so many people, to burn them alive, the cannibalism … Mentally they cannot be normal,” Oganda added.

As ever with Congo, it is not just a simple tale of victims and villains. Sadala, who goes by the nom de guerre Morgan, and his “Mai Mai Morgan” gunmen are thought to have powerful supporters in the security forces who enable their lucrative illegal trade in ivory and smuggled gold. Some local people with an eye on the gold in the ground beneath their feet tacitly support Morgan, who improbably also likes to be called Chuck Norris. “There is complicity between [Morgan] and certain elements within the army,” said Jefferson Abdallah Pene Mbaka, the MP for Mambasa. “With the support of certain army authorities [Mai Mai Morgan] have increased their poaching activities. The sale of ivory is organised by these figures in the army.” Many people in the region believe soldiers have orders not to arrest Morgan.

Morgan’s principal targets are those who operate and police the Unesco-recognised world heritage site known as the Okapi wildlife reserve, or by its French acronym, RFO. The laws of the reserve forbid the hunting of endangered species, especially elephants and okapi, and the exploitation of its gold reserves….The suspicion is that at least some of Morgan’s booty winds up 280 miles south-west of Epulu, in the hands of the Congolese army. At the end of 2012 the United Nations group of experts on Congo issued a report that accused Congolese general Jean Claude Kifwa in the provincial capital, Kisangani, of giving “arms, ammunition, uniforms and communication equipment to Mai Mai Morgan in exchange for ivory”….

Despite the brutality of the attacks, many reserve dwellers express sympathy for Morgan, with some even confessing to outright support for him. “I am behind Morgan,” said an 18-year-old in a small village not far from Epulu who refused to give his name. “Because Morgan is here the rangers cannot patrol and we are free to dig for gold. But I wouldn’t support him if he came here and burned our homes.”  Most people, however, have a more nuanced position, saying that although revolted by his methods, they support his stated desire to see the size of the reserve reduced and more rights given to locals to hunt and dig.  “The forest is where we find what we need to survive,” said Matope Mapilanga, the leader of a Pygmy community on the edge of the reserve. “[The park authorities] have cut our land, there is now a part we cannot access. It has worsened in the last few years, since the RFO got bigger. We would prefer that the people of the RFO weren’t in our forest. We feel like the big non-governmental organisations and the rangers have privileged the animals over the people.”

The conservationists remain unconvinced, though. “The people who say they support Morgan are just those people who want to dig gold and exploit timber,” said Robert Mwinyihali, the project leader for Wildlife Conservation Society’s (WCS) work in the Ituri rainforest. WCS has given financial backing to the park rangers and the Congolese Wildlife Authority’s work in the reserve. “There are laws in Congo about the exploitation of resources,” said Mwinyihali. “These people can either respect those laws, or they can ignore them and commit criminal acts.”  WCS and GIC’s support for the park rangers has led to accusations that they are partly responsible for the militarisation of the conflict. However, Mwinyihali said the biggest problem was the absence of effective intervention by the Congolese state, which meant NGOs and the park rangers had had to fulfil roles that should be the government’s responsibility: for example, bringing in armed guards to track Morgan. Bernard Iyomi Iyatshi, the director of park rangers, complained about a lack of government funds for his anti-poaching operations.

Mwinyihali also accused the Congolese government of doing little to reconcile the park authorities and local communities. As mutual resentment and misunderstanding grows, Morgan and other armed groups are able to exploit the toxic atmosphere and continue their poaching, digging and savage attacks.  “There are no job opportunities created by government investment here,” said Mwinyihali. “This has led to this crisis, where people have no option but to want to dig for gold. This leads to the conflict with the park authorities, and then it is only a small step to people taking up arms and joining militias.”  Despite being a member of the ruling party, Mbaka is an outspoken critic of the government’s policy, or lack of it, in the region. “Swaths of the park are inaccessible, there’s just no infrastructure,” he said. “It’s an absolute scandal, there’s potentially so much wealth here. It also means it is difficult to track and stop men like Morgan.”  Even if Morgan is caught, people fear that his powerful backers in the army will find another militia to continue poaching and stealing gold…

About 70% per cent of the ivory from slaughtered African elephants goes to China, another of the countries warned by Cites. The price of ivory has rocketed. Cites reported that the price more than doubled between 2004 and 2010, from about $300 to $700 (£198 to £462) a kilogramme. An Associated Press investigation in 2010 claimed ivory was being sold in China for $1,800 a kilogramme.

Excerpt, Pete Jones, Gold and poaching bring murder and misery to Congolese wildlife reserve, Guardian, Mar. 31, 2013