Tag Archives: illegal trade in endangered species

Better Alive than Dead: The Crocodile Trade

Around 6m tonnes of bush meat are thought to come out of the Congo Basin each year… The trade has emptied out parts of the forest; 39% of it is at severe risk of over-hunting, the study says. Everything from bonobos (an endangered species of ape) to cobras, antelopes and, occasionally, elephants, appear at market stalls in Mbandaka.

Over-hunting has made life more dangerous for crocodile hunters. The number of dwarf crocodiles, once common in the Congo river, is dwindling. So hunters have to chase the ferocious Nile crocodile instead. There are plenty of those. Their scaly bodies stretch to six metres and they often kill humans. Stalkers in canoes go after them at night, shining a torch while stirring the water. “The crocodile does not like that,” says Mr Nyalowala. “He begins to writhe and then comes to attack.” As the animal pounces so do its pursuers, spearing it.

A live crocodile fetches more than a dead one in the markets in Mbandaka, so hunters bind their jaws and transport them some 200km downstream in their canoes. They sell for around $150 each. A teacher at a state school, by comparison, earns around $170 a month, though many did not get paid at all last year.

Croc in the pot: The toils and spoils of Congo’s crocodile-killers, Economist, Mar. 19, 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

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

Rhinos with Toxic Horns

[S]ince rhino poaching isn’t slowing, horn “unmarketing” must become more aggressive. A cunning approach has been devised by a South African firm, Rhino Rescue Project (RRP). For about $600 per beast, RRP drills two holes into a sedated rhino’s horn and pumps in a secret cocktail of toxins into its fibres. Consume powder from that horn and expect a migraine, nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, or, after a big serving, permanent twitching due to nerve damage, says RRP’s co-founder, Lorinda Hern. Signs warn of the dangers of illegal horn. RRP has treated more than 300 rhinos in South Africa since 2010. Since the horn is dead material, the firm says there is no danger to the animal.  A private reserve near the northern South African town of Phalaborwa paid RRP to treat about 30 rhinos. “We’re trying anything,” says one of the owners. Locals were invited to watch so word would spread. Poacher incursions dropped from about two a month to just four in two years, with no losses.

Excerpt from Saving the Rhino: A dilemma of horns, Economist, Aug. 8, 2015, at 42

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

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

Exporting Apes Alive

Daniel Stiles, a self-styled ape trafficking detective in Kenya, had been scouring Instagram, Facebook and WhatsApp for weeks, looking for pictures of gorillas, chimps or orangutans. He was hoping to chip away at an illicit global trade that has captured or killed tens of thousands of apes and pushed some endangered species to the brink of extinction.

Malnourished and terrified apes have been seized across the world, in undercover busts or at border checkpoints, in countries as varied as France, Nepal, Thailand, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Kuwait. Two years ago, at Cairo’s international airport, the Egyptian authorities discovered a baby chimp curled up into a ball and stashed in a piece of hand luggage. Just this summer, the authorities in Cameroon stopped a smuggler at a roadblock who was trying to move 100 pounds of pangolin scales and a tiny chimp, not even a month old, hidden in a plastic sack…

Wildlife researchers say that a secret ape pipeline runs from the lush forests of central Africa and Southeast Asia, through loosely policed ports in the developing world, terminating in wealthy homes and unscrupulous zoos thousands of miles away. The pipeline, documents show, is lubricated by corrupt officials (several have been arrested for falsifying export permits) and run by transnational criminal gangs that have recently drawn the attention of Interpol, the international law enforcement network.

Apes are big business — a gorilla baby can cost as much as $250,000 — but who exactly is buying these animals is often as opaque as the traffickers’ identity.

Wildlife officials said that a handful of Western businessmen had also been arrested. But the majority of recent busts, they added, have been in Africa or Southeast Asia, usually of low-level traffickers or poorly paid underlings, not the bosses who control underground exports and travel abroad to make deals…

“They have consciousness, empathy and understanding,” said Jef Dupain, an ape specialist for the African Wildlife Foundation. “One day we will wonder how did we ever come up with the idea to keep them in cages.”…

But a baby was different, he said. There was a specific market for infant apes, so he would sell them alive, for at least $10 each, to local traders who would then smuggle them to Kinshasa and sell them to foreigners for many times that amount…

In Boende, a small town up another tributary of the Congo River, three hunters were recently caught with bonobo carcasses and sentenced to several years in a stifling colonial-era prison. The men said they were simply trying to feed their families by selling bonobo meat. But poaching an ape is a serious crime in Congo, and nonprofit wildlife groups have been assisting the Congolese authorities in prosecuting offenders.“There is a culture here to eat meat, meat from the forest,” said the town’s prosecutor, Willy Ndjoko Kesidi. “Me, I like fish.”  Mr. Kesidi expressed some sympathy for the hunters he had just jailed, saying that the prison where they were housed was a horrible place where many prisoners had died…

Many illegal wildlife transactions start online, specifically through Instagram or WhatsApp. Mr. Stiles has made several trips to the United Arab Emirates, which he considers a new hub for the illegal online wildlife business. Dealers in the Middle East have posted many pictures of apes for sale, sometimes advertising them as friendly pets for children…

Several years ago, the Indonesian police rescued a female orangutan who had been shaved and was being used as a prostitute at a brothel.

Excerpts from JEFFREY GETTLEMAN, Smuggled, Beaten and Drugged:
The Illicit Global Ape Trade, NY Times, Nov. 4, 2017

See also Stolen Apes (pdf)

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

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

 

Shooting to Death Poachers: conservation

A South African, 31 Zambians and seven Mozambicans were among 443 people arrested in Zimbabwe in 2016 for poaching, the national parks authority has said. [According to] the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority (ZimParks) spokesperson Caroline Washaya-Moyo said there was an increase on arrests last year compared to 2015 when 317 were arrested.

Washaya-Moyo said locals, who constitute a majority of those arrested for poaching, are working mainly with colleagues from Zambia as well as Mozambique, targeting wildlife sanctuaries in the north-west and south-east of the country.  “Mozambican poaching groups target Gonarezhou National Park and Save Valley Conservancy, where they poach elephants. It has now emerged that most of the poaching taking place inland is being perpetrated by syndicate members of different groups, who are hired to form one larger organised gang,” Washaya-Moyo said.

However, the introduction of modern anti-poaching strategies, such as sniffer and tracker dogs as well as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) she said, is likely to help boost anti-poaching activities. In September 2016 South Africa’s UAV and Drone Solutions (UDS) provided UAVs to Zimbabwe. The technology was deployed to Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe’s largest game park, to fight elephant and other wildlife poaching. Between 2013 and last year, poaching syndicates killed at least 300 elephants through cyanide poisoning in the park. “This silent poaching method has serious effects to the eco-system and is a potential threat to human life,” she said.

ZimParks released the 2016 report in a week it also announced the shooting to death of three suspected poachers in Hwange National Park and Hurungwe near Lake Kariba. Two were killed on 10 January in Hwange while one, believed to be a Zambian, was shot dead in Hurungwe on 11 January….

A Zimbabwean safari operator, Langton Masunda, blamed recurrent droughts, a difficult local economy and global restrictions in lion and elephant hunting for the high poaching cases in the country.  “Without money coming from hunting, communities derive little value from wildlife and when that happens they are tempted to poach. The economic conditions are pushing some to poach as well. So poaching at those low levels then escalate into wider scale and more organised poaching activities,” he said

Excerpts from Ian Nyathi,  Increase in number of poachers arrested in Zimbabwe as slaughter continues, http://www.defenceweb.co.za/, Jan. 16, 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

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

Industrial-Scale Hunting

Starting September 25, 2016,  thousands of conservationists and top government officials will be thrashing out international trade regulations aimed at protecting different species.A booming illegal wildlife trade has put huge pressure on an existing treaty signed by more than 180 countries — the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES)….

[T]he plight of Africa’s elephants, targeted for their tusks, generated fierce debate as the talks kicked off.Zimbabwe, Zambia, South Africa and Namibia castigated Western-based animal charities, saying they “dictated” on how African resources should be managed.”Please leave us alone, don’t just come and dictate what we should be doing,” Zambian Tourism Minister Stephen Mwansa said.Fortune Charumbira, head of Zimbabwe’s traditional chiefs, blasted “elitist NGOs who are coming from countries where there are no animals”, describing them as “domineering”.

A coalition of 29 African countries is pressing for a total halt to the ivory trade to curb poaching of elephants, but other delegates believe it would only fuel illegal trading…CITES forbids trade in elephant ivory, but Namibia and Zimbabwe have made a proposal asking for permission to sell off stockpiles to raise funds for local communities that co-exist with the animals….

CITES’ secretary general John Scanlon… warned illegal wildlife trafficking was “occurring on an industrial scale, driven by transnational organised criminal groups”.

African countries lash out at Western charities at international wildlife conservation meeting, ABC News, Sept. 24, 2016

Killing Spree of Endangered Species

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

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

Rhino Poachers Hide in Villages

Lieutenant General Berning Ntlemeza, head of the Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation (better known as the Hawks), of South Africa wants community involvement with poachers stopped.He told the Police Parliamentary Portfolio Committee that impoverished communities on the borders of the Kruger National Park were  “Heavily armed, wealthy poachers avoid hotels and hide in villages, waiting for night to fall before they sneak into the park to kill rhino and harvest horn,…. If communities don’t own or benefit from the park we are not going to win the fight against poaching,” he said.

Excerpts Communities supporting poachers must be targeted – Hawks boss, defenceWeb.com, Feb. 1, 2016

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

Deaths of Rhinos in National Parks

In cold statistics the number of rhinos poached a day in South Africa has now reached three with 769 of these Big Five animals killed to… (Sept 2014).  That equates to 3.027 animals a day and the country’s (South Africa’s) internationally renowned Kruger National Park remains the preferred hunting ground for rhino poachers. Bordering on both Mozambique and Zimbabwe, the park, increased security and patrol activities notwithstanding, offers poachers fairly easy access and egress with their bounty. So far this year Kruger’s rhino population has been decimated by 489 – well over half the national loss.

Statistics released by the Department of Environmental Affairs this week show all nine of South Africa’s provinces, including mostly urban Gauteng, have now been hit by rhino poachers.  The latest kill figures come ahead of next week’s United States-South Africa: Border Surveillance Technology Co-operation Symposium at the CSIR International Convention Centre.  All eyes will be on retired SA Army general Johan Jooste, now Commanding Officer: Special Projects for SANParks based in Kruger. The title of his keynote address is “Turning the tide – borders, poaching, technology”…

US Ambassador to South Africa, Patrick Gaspard, is also carded as a speaker alongside senior representatives (unnamed at the time of publication) from Armscor; the CSIR’s Defence, Peace, Safety and Security section; SA Aerospace, Maritime and Defence Industries Association (AMD); the US Army Research Office and the US Corps of Engineers.

Excerpts from Kim Helfrich, Three rhinos shot every day in South Africa, Defence Web, Sept. 12, 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

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 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

Tracking Illegal Ivory: the Forensics

The atmospheric carbon left over from nuclear bomb testing could help scientists track poached ivory, new research has found.  These bomb tests changed the level of carbon in the atmosphere, which can be traced to date elephant tusks…Scientists say the findings, published in PNAS, could make it easier to enforce the ivory ban.The number of elephants being poached is now at the highest it has been for two decades, according to a UN backed report.  This was highlighted in January when a family of 11 elephants was slaughtered in Kenya, their tusks hacked off with machetes.

Traditional radiocarbon dating determines the age of ancient objects by measuring the amount of carbon-14 (C14).  The approximate time since an organism died can be measured from the amount of C14 left in its remains. But remains from after the Cold War contain higher levels of C14 due to the nuclear bombs.  In a new study Dr Uno and colleagues used this increase in carbon to date herbivore samples, which they matched to corresponding points on the bomb-curve

In the 1980s, more than half of Africa’s elephants are thought to have been wiped out by poachers. This led to an international ban on trading ivory in 1989….Scientists have found that radioactive carbon in the atmosphere emitted during the Cold War bomb tests will make it easier to distinguish between illegal ivory–that acquired after the 1989 ban– and legal ivory– that acquired before the 1989 trade ban.  The amount of radiocarbon in the atmosphere nearly doubled during nuclear weapons tests from 1952 to 1962, which steadily dropped after tests were restricted to underground. This has been dubbed “the bomb-curve”.

The levels have declined since but as they are still absorbed by plant, they enter the food chain and are measurable in plant and animal tissues.  The concentration of radiocarbon found in tiny samples of animal tissue can accurately determine the year of an animals death, from 1955 until today, Kevin Uno from Colombia University, US, explained to BBC News.  “This is different to the traditional dating technique which takes advantage of the loss of radiocarbon through time.”  Traditional radiocarbon dating would only be able to pick up an “imperceptible amount of decay” added Dr Uno, but because the bomb spike doubled the concentration or carbon, they were able to find huge variations over the last 60 years, which enabled accurate dating.Dr Uno said this technique “would dovetail very nicely with DNA testing which tells you the region of origin, but not the date”.  As anti-poaching funding is extremely limited, understanding where the poaching hotspots are, as well as how old the tusks are, could help the international community to direct funding to the places most at risk, he added…

These wildlife forensics are ready to roll, now we need to speak to the organisations who can set up a programme to make it happen.”

Excerpts, Melissa Hogenboom, Carbon from nuclear tests could help fight poacher, BBC News, July 1, 2013