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.
Global Coalition to End Wildlife Trafficking Online takes down or blocks three million animal crime listings
Three million internet listings for products made from or associated with endangered or threatened species have been either blocked or taken down by technology firms that are part of the Global Coalition to End Wildlife Trafficking Online.
The coalition, which was formed back in March 2018 by some of the world’s biggest technology companies on the planet in order to help prevent wildlife smugglers using online tools to facilitate the worldwide trade in endangered species, removed or blocked the listings over the past 24 months.
A new report on the progress made so far by the coalition, which was set up by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), TRAFFIC and International Fund for Welfare (IFAW), revealed that the listings targeted over the past two years have included live tigers, reptiles, primates and birds, as well as products made from the body parts of endangered animals including elephants, pangolins and marine turtles.
Since its inception, the coalition has flagged in excess of 4,500 wildlife products for sale online, identified 1,170 suspicious wildlife code words for tracking purposes and trained some 470 people on how to identify illicit wildlife products offered online.
In a statement, Tania McCrea-Steele, International Project Manager of Wildlife Crime at IFAW, commented: “Uniting online technology companies is critical in the fight against wildlife cyber crime as wildlife traffickers are abusing the anonymity of the internet to exploit endangered wildlife.
“Tragically, you can find elephant ivory, pangolin scales, live tiger cubs, live birds and reptiles and more, all for sale on your smart phone.
“The online technology companies are a core part of the solution as they are able to work at an unprecedented global scale and disrupt illegal wildlife trafficking.”
The coalition was launched with the backing of internet behemoths including Facebook, eBay, Microsoft and Instagram, and has since grown to include 32 companies including Chinese firms such as Tencent and Baidu.
In a breakdown of some of the achievements its members of have notched up, the coalition notes in its progress report that Facebook has banned the trading of all live animals on its platform, as well as products that include the body parts of species included on the CITES Appendix I list.
The report also notes that China’s Alibaba ecommerce platform introduced a system that involves users being presented with a pop-up message intended to educate those searching for products that may be linked to wildlife crime about the negative effects of trafficking.
Crooked seafood trader convicted in UK of smuggling endangered glass eels worth £53 million from Spain to Asia
A rouge seafood salesman has been convicted by a British court of smuggling more than five million endangered baby eels estimated to be worth some £53 million ($68.4 million) from Spain to Asia via the UK.
In what is thought to have been the first prosecution of its kind in the UK, Gilbert Khoo was found guilty of running the smuggling operation over a two-year period at Southwark Crown Court.
The 67-year-old was convicted of six offences relating to the illegal importation and movement of the rare eels, which prosecutors argued he trafficked from London to Hong Kong hidden underneath chilled fish between 2015 and 2017.
Khoo was originally arrested when investigators from UK Border Force officers discovered 200kgs of European glass eels hidden beneath a shipment of fresh fish at London’s Heathrow Airport.
The live consignment, which was the first illegal shipment of glass eels to have been seized in the UK, was found by customs investigators in February 2017.
It weighed approximately 200kgs and would have had an estimated value of at least £5.7 million on the black market in Asia, where the animal is considered a delicacy.
Khoo was detained by officers days later after he arrived back in the UK on a flight that landed at Heathrow Airport having travelled from Singapore.
After smuggling the glass eels into Britain from EU nations, Khoo stored them in a barn in the county of Gloucestershire before repackaging them and sending then to Asia, where traders are willing to pay high prices for the animals on account of dwindling local stocks that are unable to keep pace with local demand.
Commenting after the conviction of Khoo, NCA Senior Investigating Officer Ian Truby said: “The entire operation run by Khoo to trade in these critically endangered animals was illegal from start to finish, and there is no doubt his sole motivation was money.
“The profits to be made from illegally smuggling live eels to Hong Kong and the Far East are significant. But, the NCA are determined to protect vulnerable wildlife from criminals who wish to benefit financially.
“Along with our partners, like Border Force and the Fish Health Inspectorate, we are determined to do all we can to stop the global black-market trade of endangered species.”
Khoo will be sentenced on 6 March.
Wildlife Justice Commission calls for action after identifying large rise in pangolin scale smuggling
An estimated 206.4 tonnes of pangolin scales were confiscated during 52 seizures across the globe between 2016 and 2019, according to a new report from animal welfare charity the Wildlife Justice Commission (WJC).
Published ahead of Pangolin Day, which takes place on 15 February, the study suggests this figure is only a fraction of the total amount of pangolin scales being trafficked around the world, as it is likely that a significant proportion of smuggling goes undetected.
Of the 27 countries and territories identified as being bases for the pangolin trafficking trade, the WJC said that six were disproportionately involved, and were linked to 94% (193.2 tonnes) of all seized contraband during the study period.
Nigeria and Vietnam were called out as playing the most prominent role in the supply chain, being linked to almost 70% of pangolin scale seizures (143.6 tonnes) between 2016 and 2019.
Analysis of seizure data carried out by the WJC revealed an increase in trafficking at unprecedented levels, with nearly two-thirds of the tonnage seized (132.1 tonnes) over the study period being detected in the last two years.
In 2019, the average weight of a single pangolin scale shipment was 6.2 tonnes, compared with 2.2 tonnes three years earlier.
Commenting on the findings of the report, Sarah Stoner, WJC Director of Intelligence, said: “Our investigative approach adds an additional dimension in quantifying the scale of trafficking due to our intelligence concerning the stockpiling of pangolin scales (over 16 tonnes over three years) in Vietnam alone, which is in addition to the detected seizures we have analysed…
“Organised crime in wildlife is not species specific: it is about high-value commodities and profits. Networks will shift to a different species if the margins are good. In order to effectively tackle it, organised wildlife crime must be tackled from a criminal perspective, as well as from its transnational dimension, rather than solely focusing on it at a national level.”
In April of last year, customs agents in Singapore discovered nearly 13 tonnes of pangolin scales and close to 180kgs of ivory in one of the largest such seizures the world has ever seen.
With a combined estimated value of nearly $39 million, the items were discovered in a shipping container that had arrived in the country from Nigeria at the Pasir Panjang Export Inspection Station while in transit to Vietnam.
Just over one year ago, wildlife trade monitoring network Traffic revealed that Malaysian police had seized over 27 tonnes of pangolins and their body parts from traffickers running two illicit plants dedicated to the processing of the critically-endangered animal.
Some people in Asia mistakenly believe that pangolin body parts contain properties that can cure several ailments ranging from hangovers to cancer, despite there being no evidence whatsoever that this is the case.
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