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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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Wildlife trade NGO TRAFFIC holds two-day workshop intended to improve animal crime conviction rates across India

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Wildlife trade NGO TRAFFIC holds two-day workshop

Illicit animal trade monitoring network TRAFFIC has helped organise a two-day conference in India intended to help local law enforcement officials improve wildlife crime conviction rates.

Held in cooperation with WWF-India, the Maharashtra Judiciary Academy and the Legal Initiative for Forest and Environment (Life), the event was designed to improve the knowledge of police officers responsible for wildlife crime in Maharashtra, Goa and Daman.

Dr Saket Badola, Head of TRAFFIC’s India office, said: “For any law in force, it is often not only the level of punishment but the surety of timely conviction, which act as crime deterrents.

“Proper orientation of judicial officers will ensure better implementation of wildlife, forest and environmental laws and help in controlling the crime.”

Commenting on efforts to crack down on wildlife crime in his region, Justice BP Dharmadhikari, Director of the Maharashtra Judicial Academy, said: “Over a period of time, Maharashtra has taken steps and passed several resolutions in the prevailing legal systems to protect and better manage the environment and forests.

“Most of the judges present may be dealing with such cases—therefore this orientation programme is very apt, timely and necessary.”

It was revealed earlier this month that a global crackdown on wildlife crime coordinated by Interpol and the World Customs Organisation (WCO) resulted in law enforcement officials in India making several seizures.

As part of the operation, Indian investigators discovered an infant langur that had been smuggled into the country from Bangladesh.

Elsewhere, the Indian Wildlife Crime Control Bureau seized a lesser flamingo from a pet shop, as well as live parakeets and munias during road checkpoint inspections.

The bureau was also involved in the discovery a smuggled lion cub that had been brought into the country from Bangladesh, and was scheduled for onward trafficking to the UK.

Back in February of this year, border inspectors working at India’s Chennai Airport in the state of Tamil Nadu stopped a man who was attempting to smuggle a weeks-old leopard cub into the country concealed inside his suitcase.

The man, who had arrived on a flight from Bangkok, was stopped when customs officials observed him behaving strangely while attempting to leave the terminal building, and then heard faint whimpering emanating from his luggage.

Indian and Burmese officials last year agreed at a bilateral summit to work more closely together to fight wildlife smuggling and drug trafficking on the border between the two countries.

In a statement issued last October, officials said: “It was… agreed to cooperate in preventing smuggling of wildlife and narcotic drugs and to strengthen cooperation on the international border management.”

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Coordinated global crackdown on wildlife crime results in seizure of thousands of protected species

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coordinated global crackdown on wildlife crime

A global operation targeting wildlife traffickers has resulted in the seizure of thousands of live animals and animal parts.

Coordinated by Interpol and the World Customs Organisation (WCO), Operation Thunderball involved police and border officials from 109 countries, who targeted wildlife smugglers and poachers along trafficking routes and in environmental crime hotspots across the globe.

The ongoing intelligence-led initiative, based in Singapore, has so far resulted in the recovery of 23 live primates, 30 big cats, 440 pieces of elephant tusk, five rhino horns and more than 4,300 birds.

Investigators participating in the operation have also confiscated nearly 1,500 live reptiles, almost 10,000 live turtles and tortoises, and approaching 10,000 marine wildlife items, such as coral, seahorses, dolphins and sharks.

In Nigeria, the operation saw the discovery of half a tonne of pangolin parts that were bound for Asia, while three individuals were arrested in Uruguay on suspicion of attempting to smuggle more than 400 protected wildlife species.

Elsewhere, an investigation focused on the online illicit wildlife trade resulted in 21 arrests in Spain and the seizure in Italy of 1,850 birds.

Over the course of the month-long operation, customs officers in the UK made 168 seizures containing thousands of products regulated under the Convention on International Trade in  Endangered Species (CITES) at ports and airports, including four products derived from crocodile, two bear skulls and skins, and 750kgs of products containing Aloe andongensis marketed as beard grooming kits.

Meanwhile in Canada, enforcement officers responded to over 100 complaints and tips received from the public concerning habitat and wildlife destruction as a result of the operation, leading to the interception of items such as pangolin carcasses, saiga antelope, sturgeon caviar and a wallet made with crocodile skin.

Interpol said the effort led to the identification of nearly 600 suspects and several arrests across the world, adding that it expects further detentions and prosecutions as investigations linked to the operation progress.

In a statement, Interpol Secretary General Jürgen Stock said: “Wildlife crime not only strips our environment of its resources, it also has an impact through the associated violence, money laundering and fraud.

“Operations like Thunderball are concrete actions targeting the transnational crime networks profiting from these illicit activities. We will continue our efforts with our partners to ensure that there are consequences for criminals who steal from our environment.”

Ivonne Higuero, Secretary General of CITES, commented: “It is vital that we stop criminals from putting livelihoods, security, economies and the sustainability of our planet at risk by illegally exploiting wild flora and fauna.”

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Europol seized 15 million eels from criminal smuggling gangs last year

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Europol seized 15 million eels

Fifteen million endangered eels were seized from traffickers by Europol last year, the EU’s law enforcement agency has revealed.

During a presentation yesterday at the Sustainable Eel Group’s 10-year anniversary event in London, the policing organisation said it had arrested 153 eel smugglers over the past 12 months, which was up 50% on the previous year.

Most of the arrests were made in Spain, France and Portugal, Europol said, adding that law enforcement agencies in those countries have been at the forefront of efforts to disrupt the illicit European eel smuggling trade.

A spokesperson for Europol told reporters that five criminal cases are currently ongoing in the US after the discovery of eel meat from Asia that was found to contain the DNA of European breeds.

Jose Antonio Alfaro Moreno said the agency and its partners are using new technology that allows investigators to monitor the DNA of eels sold by Asian distributors to establish whether their stock has been sourced illegally from Europe.

It is estimated that eels worth an estimated €3 billion ($3.36 billion) are smuggled every year.

Huge quantities of European eels are trafficked by smugglers annually to countries in Asia, where their meat is considered a delicacy and domestic stocks are too low to meet local demand.

Once shipped out of EU member states, baby eels are grown to adult size before being either sold locally or exported to buyers in the US, Canada and Europe.

Eel stocks have been declining sharply across Europe since the 1970s, and are thought to have fallen by as much as 95% over the past 45 years or so.

The Sustainable Eel Group estimates that as many as 350 million European eels are trafficked illegally to countries in Asia such as Japan every year, which is the equivalent of nearly a quarter of the total number of glass eels entering European waters annually.

Andrew Kerr, Chairman of the Sustainable Eel Group, commented: “Trafficking of the European eel is the world’s great wildlife crime in both traded individuals and market value.

“It affects 25% of the total stock of European eel and is hampering the recovery of this precious species. It is therefore vital that we stop all smuggling because it undermines every single effort used to establish adequate protection from other human impacts.”

In April of last year, Portuguese and Spanish police arrested 10 members of an organised crime gang who are said to have made more than €37 million smuggling hundreds of kilos of glass eels out of Europe to Asia.

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