Illegal wildlife trade is worth £6bn a year

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The Independent Online

Whether it is slaughtering rhinos for their horns or Tibetan antelopes for their wool, smuggling snakes as pets or selling illegally felled hardwoods from the rainforest, the global illicit wildlife trade is now worth more than £6bn a year, making it the world's third-biggest source of criminal earnings after drugs trafficking and the arms trade.

This alarming statistic was revealed after a meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (Cites), an international pact signed by almost 200 countries and top security officials in Beijing this week.

Cites has been co-operating with Interpol to increase its effectiveness in enforcing the UN agreement to tackle the rapid decline in wildlife through over-exploitation for trade.

In a statement after the meeting, organised by Interpol and the Chinese police, a statement from Cites said: "Illegal wildlife trade threatens species' survival and leads to ecological damage."

One example is the wild rhino, 90 per cent of which have disappeared since 1970 as the demand for their horns increases.

Every year, hundreds of millions of plants and animals are traded illegally. The population of species declined by an average 40 per cent between 1970 and 2000 and wildlife trade is the second-biggest direct threat to species, after habitat destruction. Wildlife smuggling and poaching can take many forms. Live animals are sold as food or exotic pets, while ornamental plants, timber and other wildlife products, such as exotic leather goods, musical instruments and medicines, appear in markets and shopping malls around the world.

In Britain more than one million items were seized by Customs between 1996 and 2000. Watchdogs have called for the maximum sentence for illegal wildlife trade in the UK to be raised from two years to five years to further deter poachers, while China has said it will implement the Cites agreement in September.

Meng Xianlin, a senior Chinese official responsible for implementing Cites, said the regulation was more comprehensive than previous individual regulations. "It is a step forward in enforcing protection and combating illegal trafficking of endangered species," he said.

Poachers and smugglers of endangered species can be fined and jailed for more than 10 years in China, but protected plants, furs and other body parts are sold in many cities. On Monday, Chinese police detained a man for trying to sell the fur of a young panda for about £20,000.

The gradual opening up of the Tibet-Qinghai plateau has had serious repercussions for the local flora and fauna. The China Office of Conservation International has started distributing a "green travel guide" for visitors on the newly installed train to Lhasa, encouraging visitors to boycott products made from endangered species such as wild yak skulls, the horns of Tibetan gazelle and skins of Bengal tigers.

There are signs that cross-border co-operation is working. Earlier this month, Thai police raided three shops in Bangkok suspected of trafficking the wool of the endangered Tibetan antelope, which lives almost exclusively on the Qinghai-Tibetan plateau. Police detained four dealers and confiscated more than 250 "shahtoosh" shawls.

In May, Hong Kong customs officials discovered a shipment of 605 ivory tusks weighing 3.9 tons, worth £4.3m, the largest seizure in Hong Kong since the international trade of ivory was banned in 1989.

Forbidden quarry: four animals targeted by the poachers

* PANDAS Even though trading in panda skins carries the death penalty in China, the animal - which has long teetered on the edge of extinction - is prized by collectors for its skins, which can fetch up to £20,000.

* ELEPHANTS Cites banned the international trade in ivory in 1989, but some member nations, led by Japan and South Africa, are pushing for a resumption. In May, an illegal shipment worth £4.3m was discovered in Hong Kong.

* TIBETAN ANTELOPE "Shahtoosh" shawls made from the endangered Tibetan antelope sell for up to £6,400. Shawls are only certified genuine if the antelope is slaughtered; the wool cannot be plucked or sheared.

* RHINOCEROS A Cites ban on the sale of horns has done little to help the rhino; it has only driven the trade underground. Between 1970 and 1987, almost 90 per cent of the world's rhinoceros population disappeared.

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