It’s the middle of the night in northern Tanzania in November 2010. Trucks arrive, carrying a most unusual cargo. They stop before a grey-panelled Qatar air force plane, disgorging a diverse collection of rare and exotic fauna: six oryxes, 68 Thomson’s gazelles, two impalas, three elands, lappet-faced vultures, sual cats and 10 small deer-like creature called dik-diks. Then came the jewel: four giraffes.
Animal smuggling is a treacherous, bloody business. And many of the creatures, one conspirator later testified in Tanzanian court, had died en route, including three giraffes. Those that remained had arrived at the entry to the shadowy world of animal trafficking. These animals, spanning 14 species and numbering more than 110, are believed to have reached Qatar for sale to oligarchs with a taste for exotic creatures.
East African animals disappearing into global smuggling rackets was not anything unusual, but the case was unique for the fact that it made it to trial. The public was scandalised: how could foreigners allegedly infiltrate the national parks, plunder natural resources and avoid detection? A resolution, however, was never reached. The alleged mastermind, Ahmed Karman, a 32-year-old Pakistani whose passport was confiscated, disappeared during the trial.
Now, months later, he has emerged in a very different capacity. Mr Karman earned a spot on a new list compiled by Interpol, naming the world’s most wanted environmental fugitives. It is populated by the likes of an Indonesian logger, a Dutch wildlife trafficker, an Italian accused of transporting and discharging toxic waste, a Zambian elephant poacher. The list provides a glimpse into the under-reported world, illustrating how seemingly disparate criminal enterprises can mix.
There is big money in environmental crime, which includes the illegal exploitation of wildlife and natural resources – like clandestinely chopping down acres of Amazon forest for sale on the timber market. Environmental crime is worth up to $213bn (£136bn) annually, according to Interpol, and is managed by “sophisticated transnational organised environmental crime” rings.
“Illegal trade in wildlife can involve complex combinations of methods, including trafficking, forgery, bribes, use of shell companies, violence and even hacking of government websites to obtain or forge permits,” an Interpol report said.
“The more typical and easier way, however, is simply to bribe corrupt officials.”
The figures at the top of these rings are not widely-known. Among them is Adriano Giacobone, an Italian with a charge sheet – including kidnapping, violence, dumping toxic waste – that would rival mobsters. He is thought to be in Argentina, France, Morocco, Paraguay or Spain.
“Environmental crime is No 3 or 4 in terms of profit,” Interpol’s Davyth Stewart, a criminal intelligence officer, told National Geographic.
“It’s right up there with drugs, arms, and human trafficking. It certainly is in the same ball park and makes it very attractive to organised criminals.”
One such group mentioned in the report is the Somalian Islamic militant group al-Shabaab. Its environmental crime facilitates its entire operation. Somalia’s charcoal trade is worth $250m per year – one-third of which is funnelled to al-Shabaab. That charcoal then finds its way into Gulf cafés, where patrons use it to smoke shisha.
The same forces that gave rise to al-Shabaab – corruption and intimidation – have also fuelled other environmental criminals. Documents are forged. Officials bribed. Fugitives like Ahmed Karman, the giraffe smuggler, swoop into a foreign country, steal truckloads of exotic animals, and disappear once more into the night.
© Washington PostReuse content