Focus: Illegal wildlife trafficking - Killing by numbers

13 / 04 / 2017

When poachers hunt, they kill in large numbers: entire elephant herds for the ivory and whole families of chimpanzees to get the babies. In the traffickers’ murderous business model, mass killing is more efficient and increases their profits.

The trade in illegal wildlife is estimated to be worth at least $19bn a year. In 2016, over 5,300 kilos of illegal ivory and rhino horn, and over 16,000 trafficked reptiles were seized at airports, either in passenger baggage or cargo shipments.

The air cargo industry is one of the key aviation sectors acting to break the supply chain from source to consumer and to combat the traffickers who drive an evil trade that sees 20,000 African elephants slaughtered every year and more than 1,000 rhinos poached annually in South Africa since 2013.

It is not just a crime against wildlife: 1,000 rangers have been killed over the last ten years, which is two per week, every week.

Mass poisoning

Gordon Wright, head of cargo border management at IATA Cargo, says that the situation has become worse in the last 18 months: “Whereas before, mature elephants were hunted and poached for their ivory, now they are moving into mass poisoning of herds of elephants. 

“It is the same for chimpanzees. They are killing whole families in order to get the babies and bush meat off the rest of them. If we want to stem the flow we have all got to play a part in combating it.”

The pangolin, a scale-covered anteater, is the number one victim of illegal wildlife trade, with the meat eaten as a delicacy and the scales used to make belts. Nearly 20 tons of pangolin scales were seized from illegal shipments originating from Africa between 2013 and 2016, according to US officials. The scales came from as many as 39,000 pangolins.

Says Wright: “The pangolin is very easy to harvest because they curl up under threat and the smugglers can just pick them up.

Criminal gangs

“The illegal wildlife trade is driven by criminal gangs, rather like those involved in drug smuggling, because they see high profits. Although many of the iconic species, such as rhino and elephant, are trafficked out of Africa, this is a global issue that is unfortunately demand-driven, with trends coming out of South America.”

In June 2015, IATA signed a memorandum of understanding with CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) to co-operate on reducing illegal trade in wildlife and their products, as well as ensuring the safe and secure transport of legally traded wildlife.  

Wildlife traffickers depend on an interconnected logistics and transport network involving air, land and sea ports, passenger and cargo airlines, shipping companies, express couriers, postal companies and freight forwarders. 

As a result, at the IATA Annual General Meeting in 2016, member airlines adopted a resolution that condemns wildlife trafficking and calls on members to take action to support enforcement authorities.

Airport assessments are an important part of the strategy, says Wright: “As part of the airport assessment we see whether there is clear information for the travelling public of the consequences of smuggling wildlife, the wiping out of endangered species, and also whether people can understand that they will get huge fines or be sent to prison. 

“We also look to see whether there is a co-ordinated approach at the airport to identify and combat illegal wildlife smuggling and make recommendations where this can be improved.

“We can see from some of the initial work that we are doing that it is still an area that requires attention, improvement and co-ordination.”

Two successful assessments took place last year, at Maputo (Mozambique) and Hanoi (Vietnam) airports, respectively wildlife trafficking transit and destination countries.

Adds Wright: “We are just getting the recommendations now to the airport authorities and the customs administrations. The aim is not to name and shame, but to see if the airports have robust systems and processes in place and whether they need some technical assistance, if there is an area in which we can improve.

Airport assessments

“We are planning to do more assessments this year with other partner organisations, such as the World Customs Organization (WCO) and charities.”

As with drugs, customs authorities need to build up data-based risk profiles for wildlife trafficking.

Jon Godson, assistant director in IATA’s environment team, wants to see more data on airport seizures of illicit wildlife trade: “The real issue we have is that the airlines don’t get informed of seizures unless they are subpoenaed in a court case, which is extremely rare, so the basis for information is press releases.

“During the last six months we have seen regulators begin to consult with the airline sector and provide information about the scale of the problem. 

Independently, IATA has been tracking seizure-only information from web searches since the beginning of 2016 and it is the tip of the iceberg in comparison to what is actually going on out there. Quite often, for criminal intelligence or political reasons, the regulators may have a seizure and don’t want to make it public.”

Adds Godson: “There is so much money involved in this. With very little risk of detection and even lower risk of serious prison sentences, the money feeds corruption at all levels. Once the trafficking gang is able to corrupt individuals, then it does not matter what the product is. These guys don’t care. 

“One minute they can be trafficking wildlife and the next drugs.”

One policeman at an African airport faces prosecution after a significant haul, 110 kg of illegal rhino horn, was traced back to a shipment he had let go after X-raying the clearly identifiable contents.

Godson reveals: “An interesting statistic is that approximately 80% is now being seized off passengers. This was traditionally seen as being solely a cargo problem, but there is more and more passenger involvement.

“We don’t know whether this reflects a trend associated with cargo improving its security and hence a degree of influence there, but some products are simply not compatible with air cargo.”

Continues Godson: “There are distinct species and distinct routes. The gangs don’t like smuggling live animals through the cargo route. They don’t like waste. Too many live animals die.”

But this does not mean that the air cargo supply chain stakeholders – airlines, airports, ground handlers, freight forwarders and shippers – can be complacent.

Explains Naomi Doak, head of conservation programmes at United for Wildlife (UFW): “There is a bottleneck point for the transport of these goods which is happening without the companies knowing. 

“Criminal networks use these transport routes, whether it be shipping, air cargo or passengers. They are taking advantage of the system which has been put in place to speed things up, and using those, unbeknownst to the companies.”

UFW, created by The Royal Foundation of The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry, has met with transport leaders to identify potential solutions.

Says Doak: “I’m a biologist by training and we get pushed into other roles. 

“Some biologists were saying: ‘This is how transport works’. No, that is not how it works.

“We brought all the transport people together and they were shocked by the scale of the illegal wildlife trade, but once they knew about it they wanted to do something. 

“Over the course of a year we increased the number of people in the UFW Transport Taskforce and we got them to identify solutions. They are the people who know how transport works, rather than the conservationists. That is how you identify solutions, not by telling them what to do.”

Raising awareness

One tangible result was the Buckingham Palace Declaration, an 11-point action plan with signatories including IATA, DHL, Emirates and Kenya Airways.

What can the air cargo community do at a practical level?

Responds Doak: “They can raise the awareness of staff, because they are the ones who will know that there is an odd smell, or that the box is heavier than it should be. 

“One example was an employee who picked up a box declared as chocolates and it was far too heavy for chocolates. 

When opened, there were ivory blocks wrapped up in chocolate bar wrappers.”

Michelle Owen of TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network, is responsible for the ROUTES (Reducing Opportunities for Unlawful Transport of Endangered Species) Partnership.

The ROUTES partnership, in collaboration with a number of UFW Taskforce members, has been looking at the air transport sector: “There are different ways in which wildlife is trafficked, so predominantly live animals or fragile animals are carried on the person, but you also get turtles, dead wildlife or by-products of wildlife being put through air cargo.

“And there are different techniques. For passengers, it is very much hidden on the person, and part of the problem is that the security screening is not necessarily looking for wildlife; they are looking for weapons and explosives. So even if something gets scanned it may not be picked up because it is not one of the flags. So that is one of the concerns.

“You get things being put through with falsified paperwork, or they are deliberately misdeclared. So you may get pangolin scales going through listed as plastics or you may get a legal shipment of goods hiding illegal products inside it.”

One ruse employed by traffickers is to have complicated transit routes, changing the origin on the paperwork and exploiting softer, less enforced airports to move around the world in order to disguise the link between wildlife origin country and the destination consumer country. For example, starting from Africa to South America, back up to Europe and then finally down to Asia.

Tigers, ivory, rhino horn and baby chimpanzees are the best know victims of the poachers, but there are some unlikely endangered species, for example the European eel, which is a delicacy in parts of Asia.

Again, what should the air cargo ‘eyes and ears’ on the ground be on the alert for? Says Owen: “One key thing is to realise that a lot of the flags that you get for other suspicious activity around drugs and counterfeit goods are very similar to those you get for wildlife.”

In addition to mismatched weights, Owen has this advice: “If you are seeing products being moved into a country where there is no reason for that import to happen, such as rice being sent to Asia, why would that be? Those kinds of misdeclared type goods should be raising flags.

“Also, look for suspicious types of packaging. If you have got air holes in boxes, why are they needed? And the paperwork: is it legal and does it look like it’s been copied? Does it have the proper import export permits associated with it?”

There is also an issue with freight forwarder consolidations, when traffickers supply part of the load with illegal goods: “If you do find something on import, it is very difficult to trace it back and actually see who was the culprit at the beginning of the chain,” says Owen.

It is easy to be despondent about this terrible trade, but there is hope.

Says Godson of IATA: “Things like e-freight will enhance the quality of data provided to enforcement agencies. 

“This will facilitate better targeting for illegal wildlife trade. 

Red flag indicators

“For some regulators, that requires a step change, because at the moment many of the high-risk ports in Africa and Asia are paper-based in terms of consignment notes, but it could be relatively simple to put red flag indicators into risk screening.

“I am very confident that automation and digitisation will support enforcement agencies with better levels of detection.”

There is also a programme to train sniffer dogs to check passenger baggage and cargo, with India and China applying such techniques.

And there is also hope in educating the buyers of such wildlife by-products.

Richard Thomas, global communications co-ordinator with TRAFFIC, says: “I think we can toughen things up for the traffickers but with products like rhino horn we have history on our side, in that currently the main users of it are in Vietnam but also increasingly in China.

“Prior to that Taiwan was a big user, as were South Korea, Japan and Yemen, but their consumption of rhino horn has all but disappeared. It is like a commodity that comes in and out of fashion.

“I am optimistic that we can crack the rhino horn trade and we will do everything we can to speed up that process. History has taught us that it can be done.”

The UN passed a Resolution on Tackling the Illicit Trafficking in Wildlife. As part of that, member states are encouraged to treat wildlife crime as a serious crime. 

Just one last statistic of death, showing why the industry needs to coordinate its approach to wildlife trafficking. In Africa, three rhinos are killed every day by poachers.