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Illicit trafficking of Endangered Species

Wildlife crime will continue to flourish until smugglers face meaningful punishment

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wildlife crime

While rarely thought of as being a major form of serious organised crime in western countries, the global illicit trade in animals and animal parts has grown to become the fourth-largest illegal market in the world, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and United for Wildlife. Estimated to be worth nearly $21 billion annually, according to an April 2017 report from the WWF, wildlife smuggling is only surpassed in value by the drug trade, people trafficking and counterfeiting. But while criminals who are caught participating in any of the latter three trades at a high enough level will in most cases face severe punishments that may include a lengthy prison sentence and/or a large fine, wildlife traffickers can typically expect to get off much more lightly.

One of the major draws of the illicit wildlife trade for organised criminal gangs is the fact that animal smuggling offers them the opportunity to make huge amounts of money while exposing themselves to relatively little risk. While high-level drug smugglers, people traffickers and counterfeiters can expect to spend many years behind bars if they are apprehended by law enforcement authorities, criminals involved in the wildlife trade making similar amounts of money typically receive considerably more lenient punishments if they are unfortunate enough to be caught.

Police in Thailand last week arrested the suspected head of Asia’s largest and most prolific wildlife smuggling network. Despite allegedly making a fortune out of the trafficking of huge quantities of illicit elephant tusks and rhino horns, Boonchai Bach could be jailed for as little as four years and receive a paltry $1,300 fine if he is found guilty of smuggling 14 rhino horns estimated to be worth around $975,400 from Africa to Thailand last month. In some countries close to Thailand, being caught with drugs worth a similar amount could lead to the death sentence. In September last year, a retired Canadian police officer was jailed for just five years after being convicted of smuggling 250 elephant tusks worth as much as $3 million into the US over the course of a decade. Gregory Logan had previously been convicted of ivory smuggling in Canada, where he was put under house arrest and handed a modest fine. Just before Christmas, British animal welfare charity the DogsTrust warned that Eastern European gangs were making around $140,000 a week by smuggling puppies into the UK, safe in the knowledge they would face little in the way of a punishment if they were caught by customs officers or police. With such rich rewards on offer in exchange for taking such comparatively small risks, it is a wonder that more organised criminal gangs are not switching from activities that attract more severe punishments to wildlife trafficking.

As well as lenient punishments for wildlife smuggling in countries where trafficked animals and animal parts are sold, the trade is also fuelled by widespread indifference to the crime in nations where offenders source their product from. The Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) and a number of other high-profile conservation organisations have noted how crooked government officials and corrupt gamekeepers in countries in some parts of Africa and Asia routinely collude with the organised criminal gangs involved in the illicit wildlife trade, accepting bribes in exchange for allowing poachers access to species which in many cases are protected. Aside from corruption, many countries from which trafficked animals and animal parts are stolen are ill-equipped to apprehend smugglers as they move their products across borders. While researchers are attempting to develop technology that will make it easier for customs guards in developing countries to identify animal and plant species being smuggled from nation to nation, traffickers are currently all too often able to circumvent port controls with little trouble, allowing them to transport their products to markets where they can be sold for millions of dollars.

The WWF last year warned that wildlife crime is ravaging numerus locations around the world that are recognised as being of outstanding international importance and deserving of the highest levels of protection. Noting in April last year that almost half (45%) of the world’s most ecologically-important places are being plagued by the illegal wildlife trade, WWF-UK Head of Campaigns Chris Gee said: “Even the wildlife living in places which should benefit from the highest levels of protection are suffering at the hands of criminals. Not only does this threaten the survival of species, but it’s also jeopardising the future heritage of these precious places and the people whose livelihoods depend on them.”

As things stand, it is likely the situation will get worse before it gets any better. The trade will continue to flourish all the while organised criminal gangs are able to make huge profits from animal smuggling with little or no fear of receiving any meaningful punishment if they are caught. As well as cracking down on the corruption that fuels animal trafficking in the countries from which wildlife and plants are stolen, the international community has a responsibility to work towards ensuring smugglers are properly punished in the nations where they sell their products. Until criminals involved in the illicit animal trade face similar penalties to drug traffickers, people smugglers and counterfeiters, illegally dealing in wildlife will remain an irresistibly attractive prospect.

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NGO Traffic warns of rise in international trafficking of glass eels

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Traffic warns of rise in international trafficking of glass eels

Wildlife trade monitoring network Traffic has warned of an increase in the international trafficking of glass eels as the new fishing season gets underway across Europe.

Urging law enforcement agencies across the continent to remain vigilant for wildlife smugglers involved in the illegal trade of eel species, the NGO noted that the European Eel is considered to be critically endangered on the IUCN Red List.

Regulators ended the international commercial eel trade to or from the EU back in 2010 after member states concluded it was too risky to allow it to continue, and imposed a zero-import/export policy that still remains in place today.

In a statement, Hiromi Shiraishi, Traffic’s eel trade expert, said: “Illegal trade in European Eels, particularly glass eels, is the most serious wildlife crime issue the EU currently faces

“Traffickers exploited the last fishing season as an opportunity to smuggle glass eels to lucrative Asian markets and while TRAFFIC applauds the professional and intelligence-led criminal investigations which helped to disrupt the organised criminal syndicates orchestrating the trafficking, Traffic urges relevant authorities to ensure they prevent further smuggling this season—European Eel populations simply cannot withstand the sustained illegal offtake.”

Earlier this month, Europol announced that police forces across Europe confiscated 5,789kgs of smuggled glass eels with an estimated value of €11.58 million ($12.6 million) during the 2018/19 fishing season.

The latest edition of Operation Lake, which was coordinated by Europol, Eurojust, Interpol and the EU Wildlife/CITES Enforcement Group, saw the detention of more than 150 suspected eel traffickers, and the reintroduction of all seized eels back into their natural habitat.

Huge quantities of European eels are smuggled out of EU member states every year by traffickers seeking to profit from demand for the animal in Asia, where its meat is considered a delicacy and domestic stocks are too low to meet high local demand.

At the end of October, the AFP news agency reported that two Chinese nationals had each been handed 10-month jail terms and slapped with fines of €7,000 by a court in France after being convicted of attempting to smuggle 60kgs of live baby eels in their luggage onto a flight to China.

The man and woman were stopped by customs officers at Paris Charles de Gaulle airport and were found to be in possession of the eels, which were contained in plastic bags filled with water inside four suitcases.

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Scientists create fake rhino horn in effort to thwart poachers

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scientists create fake rhino horn

Researchers at the University of Oxford and Fudan University in Shanghai have created a way of synthesising fake rhino horn.

The scientists believe the method has the potential to undermine the illicit market for the genuine article.

It is hoped that the process, which involves making bogus rhino horn from horse hair, will allow for the production of enough fake horn to flood the illegal market, preventing poachers from making a profit.

Detailing the process in a paper published in Scientific Reports, the researchers note that rhino horn is not a horn in the same way that the horn of a cow is, but is in fact a tuft of tightly packed hair that grows from the animal’s nose.

Gluing together hairs from horses, which as a species are closely related to rhinos, the scientists were able to produce fake horns that retain the feel and general properties of the real thing.

The researchers said the resultant product, which is cheap and relatively straightforward to make, can be used to confuse buyers of rhino horn.

They hope the process can be refined and then used to confuse the participants in the illicit rhino horn trade, depress prices and support the conservation of rhinos, some species of which are critically endangered.

Many people in some Asian countries believe wrongly that rhino horn has medicinal and aphrodisiac qualities.

In order to perpetuate such myths, poachers and wildlife smugglers often cut rhino horn with erectile dysfunction drugs such as Viagra to make buyers believe their products are having the desired effect.

Ruixin Mi from the Department of Macromolecular Science at Fudan University, one of the report’s co-authors, said in a statement: “Our study demonstrates that materials science can contribute to fundamental issues in biology and conservation.

“The fundamental structure of the rhino horn is a highly evolved and tough fibre reinforced bio-composite and we hope that our attempts to copy it will not only undermine the trade in rhino horn but might also find uses as a novel bio-inspired material.”

At the beginning of last month, a US court handed an Irish national a 14-month jail term for conspiracy to traffic a cup fashioned from the horn of an endangered species of rhino.

Richard Sheridan, 50, was extradited to the US from England to appear at a court in Miami, where he pleaded guilty to smuggling the cup.

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European law enforcement agencies seize six tonnes of smuggled glass eels worth €11.58 million

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six tonnes of smuggled glass eels

Law enforcement agencies across Europe seized nearly six tonnes of smuggled glass eels across the 2018/19 fishing season, Europol has announced.

In total, police forces across the 28-nation bloc confiscated 5,789kgs of smuggled glass eels with an estimated value of €11.58 million ($12.84 million) throughout the season as part of Operation Lake.

Coordinated by Europol, Eurojust, Interpol and the EU Wildlife/CITES Enforcement Group, this year’s iteration of the initiative resulted in the arrest of 154 suspected smugglers, and the reintroduction of all the rescued ells back into their natural habitat.

The effort, which involved 448 separate operations across Europe, involved investigators from Albania, Bulgaria, Hungary, Czechia, France, Germany, North Macedonia, Portugal, Spain and Switzerland.

As part of the operation, police in Spain arrested 16 people from four different organised criminal gangs who are suspected of being involved in the smuggling of glass eels worth an estimated €6 million.

One conspiracy involved a smuggling gang trafficking glass eels from France to northern Spain before sending them by taxi to Portugal, where they would be transferred into suitcases and flown by plane to their final destination.

Elsewhere, the operation saw customs officers in Germany arrest three suspects after seizing 176kgs of glass eels, while the Portuguese Food Safety and Economic Authority, the Portuguese National Republican Guard and the Portuguese Maritime Police made five arrests.

In a statement, Europol said: “From October 2018 until April 2019 and under the umbrella of the European Union Action Plan against wildlife trafficking, a wide range of activities have been carried out in order uncover every possible illicit practice linked to the fishing of glass eels, such as checking luggage and cargo at ports and airports with international destinations.

“Law enforcement also conducted cross-border investigations into European-based Asian criminal networks.”

During last year’s Operation Lake, law enforcement agencies across Europe seized nearly 3.4 tonnes of smuggled glass eels worth an estimated €6.5 million, arresting 53 suspected eel smugglers.

At the end of last month, CNN and a number of other international media outlets reported that two Chinese nationals had each been handed 10-month suspended sentences and fined €7,000 for attempting to smuggle 60kgs of live baby eels out of France in their luggage on a flight back to their homeland.

Large number of European eels are trafficked out of the continent by smugglers every year to countries in Asia, where their meat is considered a delicacy and domestic stocks are too low to meet local demand.

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