Halting this evil trade

TRAFFIC aims to stop the illegal animal parts business, says Geoffrey Lean; Internationally, every year up to $5 billion worth of endangered animals and plants are traded illegally
Click to follow
When customs and excise officers raided Nicholaas Peters' remote house in Powys, Wales it was, as Chester Crown Court was told in May, like "walking into a dead zoo". There were freezers stuffed with the skins and skulls of endangered animals and birds, while other threatened species were found pickled in jars. Among the 500 specimens taken from the house, in Aberhafesp, near Newtown, were the skulls of a Siberian Tiger and a Philippine monkey-eating eagle, both of which are trembling on the brink of extinction: only 200 of the tigers and just 100 of the eagles survive.

Documents showed that Peters, a Dutch-born taxidermist, was exporting the skulls to two US dealers - trading as The American Headhunter and Skulls Unlimited - and that one of his "suppliers" was prepared to kill wildlife to order. He was jailed for two years.

The verdict was one more success for one of the world's most unusual detective organisations TRAFFIC or the Trade Records Analysis of Flora and Fauna.

A couple of weeks after the court case, Dutch police seized 445 rare orchids from a car in the town of Tilburg. Two weeks before, Indian officials had discovered 230 Alexandrine Parakeets - highly prized for their ability to mimic human speech - during a raid in the Punjab. On another occasion, a man was caught at Perth airport, Western Australia, with 29 rare parrots' eggs in his vest - this interception led to the closing down of an international smuggling ring.

The investigators might seem to provide good material for a feature film or television series, but they remain little known outside conservation circles. Every year up to $5 billion worth of endangered animals and plants are traded illegally. A dagger with a handle made of rhino horn can fetch large amounts of money in the Middle East, as can a single rare cactus in the United States, and a coat made of endangered Clouded Leopard skin in Japan. The trade has helped drive over 600 species close to extinction: poaching has slashed the population of African elephants in half since 1979 and the number of black rhino by 95 per cent since 1970. There are as few as 5,000 tigers now left in the wild - but more than a billion potential customers for medicines made from parts of their bodies.

Alarmed at the devastating effects of the trade, 80 nations agreed in 1973 on an international treaty to control it.

Over 130 governments have now signed the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) and it regulates commerce in some 34,000 kinds of animals and plants. Trade is regulated through a system of permits - and banned altogether for endangered species.

Passing a treaty is one thing, enforcing it fully is another - and that is why TRAFFIC was established in 1976. WWF provides much of its funding, though money also comes from the IUCN (The World Conservation Union), other non-governmental organisations, and some companies and governments. It has grown in 20 years from a single office in London to an international network with bases in 19 countries, coordinated from an office in Cambridge.

Its detective and enforcement work is usually carried out with police, officials and other organisations. But it also goes far beyond that, identifying species that are being threatened by trade so they can be brought under CITES in the first place. Its work has persuaded countries as diverse as Greece, Vietnam and Mexico to join the Convention and led to major reforms in enforcement in Italy.

A recent TRAFFIC investigation revealed illegal timber trade in Asia and the Pacific on a "massive scale", possibly running into billions of dollars a year, and it is now turning its attention to the hunting of scores of species of sharks for their fins.