The £6bn trade in animal smuggling

It funds terrorists and civil wars, and brings more species closer to extinction

Maryrose Fison
Sunday 06 March 2011 01:00 GMT

Animal smuggling has grown to a £6bn-a-year criminal industry, and is exceeded only by the drugs and arms trades. Its illicit profits are a major source of funding for terrorist and militia groups, including al-Qa'ida, and the snaring and slaughtering of animals is driving dozens of species to the brink of extinction.

These are the main findings from a month-long Independent on Sunday investigation into the growing scale and impact of wildlife trafficking – an illicit business which, thanks to huge profits and the violence to which it so readily resorts, is overwhelming the law and order resources ranged against it.

For all the international treaties, police units, campaign groups and NGOs battling it, the trade continues to grow. The world's tiger population has plummeted from 100,000 at the start of the 20th century to below 4,000 today; 20,000 elephants are killed each year for their ivory; the number of rhino poached in South Africa doubled last year; sea turtles are being harvested at an astonishing rate, their shells turned into jewellery; and, over the past 40 years, 12 species of large animal have vanished completely in Vietnam. The trade takes its toll in human lives, too. Each year, according to the International Fund for Animal Welfare, more than 100 African rangers are killed, the men unequipped to cope with armed poachers.

Many people associate animal smuggling with small-time crooks trying to bring a few lizards in a suitcase to be sold by the under-the-counter pet trade. It is, in fact, a multifaceted business catering to huge demand among collectors for exotic species, ornaments and clothing, plus traditional Chinese medicine's industrial-scale appetite for animal parts. Linda Arroyo, team leader at Sweden's National Police for Environmental Crime, says widely held superstitions surrounding certain animal parts drive the illegal industry within Asia. "There are beliefs that rhino horns cure cancer, that if you drink out of a rhino horn cup you get eternal happiness, and that some of these wild animals raise men's potency. The fact that the Asian economy is growing makes it possible for more people to buy these products."

Bones, paws and penises of tigers and leopards are used as aphrodisiacs in Mong La, a northern state of Burma with a large sex industry, according to an extensive study of the big cat trade conducted by the wildlife NGO Traffic last year. Large vats of tiger-bone wine – which sell for between $40 and $100 a bottle – were being promoted as a health tonic in outlets catering to Chinese customers. Around the world, including in US Chinese medicine stores, bear bile is widely used to "treat" a multitude of symptoms from swollen eyes and haemorrhoids to skin lesions and fever.

The profits are vast. Beautifully coloured birds found in the Amazon basin and South-east Asia frequently command the highest prices. Lear's macaw, an ocean-blue parrot from Brazil, is thought to be one of the most lucrative species on the black market. In 2008, it was reportedly trading at an estimated $90,000 per bird. Only 960 of the birds are believed to be left in the world. A single kilo of rhino horn was going for as much as $34,000 in 2009 – well in excess of legally traded precious metals such as gold. Tiger skins can fetch up to £20,000. A pound of tiger glue (made from the animals' bones) was selling in Vietnam for $2,000 in 2008, while Tibetan antelope hair – known as shahtoosh – is made into shawls that can cost between $1,200 and $12,000 apiece.

But it isn't just in Africa and South-east Asia where the cruel trade operates. Last August, Jeffrey Lendrum pleaded guilty at Warwick Crown Court of trying to smuggle 14 rare peregrine falcon eggs out of the UK. He was booked on a flight for South Africa with a 14-hour-stop-over in Dubai. He was arrested in Birmingham airport after a cleaner noticed him acting suspiciously in the toilets. The prosecution claimed an intermediary was due to take the eggs to an individual in Dubai, putting a value of up to £70,000 on the consignment. As the world's fastest bird, capable of travelling at speeds of up to 150mph, it is popular in Dubai where falconry is a traditional sport.

Brian Stuart, chairman of Interpol's Wildlife Crime Working Group and head of the National Wildlife Crime Unit, said that the two most recent Interpol investigations had recovered ¤35m from animal smuggling networks over three months. "In February last year Operation Tram recovered globally about ¤10m-worth of illegal products worldwide and we've still got inquiries initiated from that ongoing. The second operation [Operation Remp, covering illegally traded reptiles and amphibians] involved 52 countries and recovered in the region of ¤25m-worth of illegal products worldwide."

With revenues such as these, majorcriminal and terrorist groups have long since moved in to control the industry. The Elephant Trade Information System (ETIS), one of the world's largest databases of animal contraband, found that nearly 2,000 more elephant products were seized in 2009 than in the previous analysis in 2007 – a sign of the increased involvement of organised crime syndicates.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), 15,562kg of ivory were seized between 1989 and 2009, with 66 per cent of this collected in the last decade. Analysis from ETIS indicates three-quarters of this was obtained through organised crime rings. In Tanzania, the picture is even worse, with 68 per cent of the 76,293kg of ivory seized during this period being smuggled by organised crime. Forensic evidence has enabled scientists at the University of Washington to create "DNA maps" of African elephants and work out from which populations the contraband comes.

Elisabeth McLellan, species manager at WWF International, says that until law enforcement is strengthened, ivory will continue to leak out of Africa. "We're not just talking small-time smugglers here; we're talking hardened, organised criminal gangs." A US congressional hearing on animal smuggling in 2008 reported that ivory en route from Cameroon to Hong Kong had been hidden in three containers with false compartments – clearly not the doing of local poachers.

Many criminal gangs have links to warlords and militias, and an increasing body of evidence suggests animal smuggling is being used to bankroll civil wars. In 2008, the trades in bushmeat and ivory were found to be directly supporting rogue military gangs, and providing economic support for several persistent pockets of rebel activity in the DRC, including the Hutu rebels implicated in the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Arms and ammunition were provided in exchange for ivory and illegal bushmeat during the second Congo war of 1998-2003. Somali warlord factions and the Sudanese Janjaweed – the militia group associated with the genocide in Darfur – have been identified in the poaching of ivory from elephants in the DRC and Chad.

On 15 May 2007, a failed Janjaweed attack that sought to capture Chad's national stockpile of ivory at Zakouma National Park killed three rangers. Chadian authorities accuse the same Janjaweed of being responsible for the deaths of hundreds of elephants around Zakouma at this time. The same year, seven rangers from the Kenya Wildlife Service were forced to stand their ground against a gang of heavily armed Somali poachers. Three rangers and four poachers were killed in the exchange, which occurred in the middle of the night.

The sophistication of weapons used, the abundance of ammunition and the disciplined military tactics of the poachers all point towards them working at the behest of one of Somalia's warlords. These, and terrorist leaders, are effectively acting as poaching gangmasters who exploit the poverty of local people. Civil strife, rampant in the African range states, also creates refugees, and these can have a detrimental impact on wildlife. Angolan, Burundian and DRC refugees living in the Meheba refugee camp in Zambia were persistently implicated in poaching in West Lunga National Park in 2008. Other extremist groups are also linked to the illicit trade. According to a report on transnational crime published by the Washington-based think tank Global Financial Integrity, at least two Islamic extremist groups are believed to have links to animal smuggling, among them the Harakat ul-Jihad-Islami-Bangladesh (HUJI-B) and Jamaat-ul Mujahedin Bangladesh (JMB). Janjaweed militants and Somali warlords in East Africa are thought to receive support from al-Qa'ida.

A wildlife expert with more than two decades' experience examining the illegal wildlife trade in Africa, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said: "There is credible evidence they [Al-Shabaab, the Somali affiliate of al-Qa'ida] are involved in ivory poaching and rhino trafficking. This is serious business. [The army] is personally well armed and well trained and can cross hundreds of kilometres of land very rapidly. They know how to force-march, deprive themselves of water, and when they are told to come back with a dozen ivory tusks they do it." The individual said that the most common weapons used by poachers were AK47 rifles, but G3 weapons – which fire bullets 500-600m, twice the distance of AK47s – had been found along with M16s.

While the black-market profits are enormous, the complexity of the smuggling chain is long and involves numerous intermediaries. At the bottom, poachers hired by syndicates capture or kill the chosen species. Poachers will typically be expected to spend an extended period in the wild, and are equipped by gangs with vehicles, weapons and – depending on whether the animal is to be caught dead or alive – training. Once caught, smaller animals are transferred to mules – humans paid to carry the wildlife either in a suitcase or on their person. Cross-continental journeys are a traumatic ordeal for the animals, with reports of birds being drugged and having their beaks taped shut. Nearly 80 per cent of birds die en route while the remainder are either maimed or severely traumatised by the experience.

One of the major obstacles to cracking down on the trade at the mule level is a lack of credible deterrents. Mules run the risk of being caught at customs or en route to airports and borders, but the penalties for animal smuggling pale in comparison with those for other forms of trafficking. A report by wildlife monitoring NGO Traffic last year found that those found in possession of protected species face a fine of up to £800 in Thailand and/or imprisonment for up to four years. In Burma a fine of up to £4,700, and/or imprisonment of up to seven years is applicable.

Compared with the sentences imposed for drug trafficking in the region – where possession of marijuana can result in the death penalty – such punishments are barely a deterrent. Late last year, Anson Wong, one of the biggest animal traffickers in the world, received a mere six months' imprisonment and a £38,500 fine for attempting to smuggle 95 boa constrictors, two rhinoceros vipers and a mata mata turtle into Malaysia. By contrast, in 2000, the man dubbed the "lizard king" was jailed for 71 months and fined £36,500 for trafficking a menagerie of endangered species into the US.

The gangs frequently bribe border guards or pay organised crime networks to use their established smuggling channels. The criminals have been found to triangulate routes, falsify certificates and mix legal shipments of animals with illegal ones to confuse officials. A World Bank-sponsored report from 2008 found smuggling gangs using fake army and government number plates, funeral and wedding cars, as well as ambulances.

The effect on the countries from which wildlife is taken can be devastating. In South Africa, there have been reports of Chinese triads exchanging the raw ingredients for methamphetamine ("crystal meth" – known locally as "tik") for abalone, an endangered shellfish served as a delicacy in Asia. According to a Wall Street Journal report in 2007, one pound of the shellfish was able to command $200 within Asia. Because drugs are the currency of payment, the exchange is virtually untraceable yet it is tearing apart the fabric of South African society. The International Narcotics Control Board's annual report for 2010 shows that at least 30,000 addicts use more than a gram of methamphetamine per day in South Africa, and in Cape Town it is reported to be the primary or secondary substance of abuse among two-thirds of drug users. A 2005 study by the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior in Los Angeles also found that it resulted in greater likelihood of unprotected sex among users in South Africa – highly problematic given the prevalence of HIV in the region.

Local tourism also suffers. With fewer and fewer tigers and other popular species left on the planet, countries that rely on international visitors to visit natural parks stand to lose out. Brian Stuart of Interpol's Wildlife Crime Working Group says that the disappearance of species is bad news for communities dependent on the revenue from travellers.

"If there are no rhino or other endangered species in some of the range states in Africa, why would people want to go there?" he said. "If there are no ospreys or buzzards in the glens of Scotland, why would people want to come and visit? And if there are no fish in the rivers, why would the fishermen want to go there? Wildlife crime has an impact on rural economies and on the wider scheme of things."

But far away from these countries, there are global health threats posed by the illegal trade as animals cross continents. Two parrots were seized at Heathrow airport in 2005 infected with the avian influenza virus. A year earlier, a man was caught trying to smuggle mountain hawk eagles also infected with the H5N1 virus. Because some diseases are able to jump from animals to humans, wildlife trafficking can pose a grave threat to health.

Yet in spite of the scale of the problem, there appears to be a lack of consensus among governments when it comes to proposing a unified response. Interpol's annual budget for wildlife protection is a mere $300,000 – a fraction of the $86m donated to the WWF for conservation purposes last year. David Higgins, manager of the environmental crime programme at Interpol, based in Lyon, told The Independent on Sunday he found the level of funding low. "It's like owning a car and not having enough fuel to put in it. You can still drive the car but you can never really drive it properly if you don't have enough fuel. We're not fighting a losing battle. I think we are just containing a little more than fighting," he said.

Much can and should be done to combat the smuggling. Mr Higgins said that even with limited resources, the response could be enhanced if conservation and law enforcement groups pooled their knowledge. Awareness campaigns would be one way to enhance Westerners' knowledge of whether a species is endangered and therefore illegal to purchase. At present, the internet can be used to advertise endangered species as legally traded species when in fact they are not, playing on the public's ignorance. Tougher penalties with larger fines and longer prison sentences for the top-level criminals masterminding the trafficking chains and an incentivised whistle-blowing service would all help.

Until then, wildlife trafficking will continue to wipe out the world's most precious species, destroying the lives of those around them along the way, bankrolling a bloodbath of civil wars and devastating local economies.

The smuggler: 'Lizard King' caught with a bag full of snakes

International wildlife trafficker Anson Wong first gained notoriety after pleading guilty to smuggling a menagerie of endangered species into the US in 2000, when he was sentenced to 71 months in jail and fined $60,000 (£36,800).

Dubbed "the Lizard King" by the media, he was arrested again last year in Kuala Lumpur airport after a bag containing 95 boa constrictors burst open on the conveyor belt. Also inside the bag were two rhinoceros vipers and a mata mata turtle.

A Malaysian court was told that Wong had imported the snakes into Malaysia legally but failed to apply for a permit to re-export them to Indonesia. When questioned by sessions court judge Zulhelmy Hasan, Wong said that his customer had pushed him to deliver the snakes before the Muslim celebration of Hari Raya (Eid). Wong said that in his haste to keep the buyer happy, he did not apply for a permit.

The court also ordered that the three mobile phones and laptop Wong was carrying at the time of arrest remained in the custody of the Wildlife and National Parks Department.

Tigers — one third of subspecies extinct

Three of the original nine subspecies of tiger have become extinct over the past 60 years. Poaching, destruction of forests, and climate change are all believed to play a role in this. The last Bali tiger died in the 1930s; the Caspian tiger became extinct in the 1970s; the Javan tiger followed in the 1980s. Today, all remaining tiger subspecies are either endangered or critically endangered; in the African range states, wild tiger numbers are thought to be as low as 3,200. Most recent estimates of wild tigers in Burma indicate that as few as 150 roam there.

Black rhinos – trade in horns is dramatically reducing numbers

Rhinoceros horns are prized for their purported medicinal properties, and numbers have declined sharply over the past 40 years. According to WWF, 96 per cent of black rhinos were killed between 1970 and 1992. Today, the combined population of black and white rhinos in Africa is thought to be just over 18,000. Poaching killed 333 rhinos in South Africa in 2010, twice the number slaughtered a year earlier. In 2008, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna established a rhinoceros enforcement task force, to try to counter rising levels of rhino poaching in Asia and Africa.

Leopards – killed for skins

Like all the animals cited in this investigation, leopards are protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna (Cites), which prohibits all international commercial trade. With their skins and body parts commanding high prices, their numbers have been declining. The clouded leopard is classified as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, and the snow leopard is endangered. In December 2008, two snow leopard skins were observed in the Burmese border village of Tachilek being offered for £500 each, according to international wildlife monitoring NGO Traffic.

Bears – killed for their bile or used in bear baiting

Bears are captured for use in bear baiting and to harvest their bile for use in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). In rural Pakistan, up to 2,000 spectators will assemble to watch a tethered bear set upon by trained dogs, according to the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA), in spite of the practice being banned. Within China bile is widely extracted from the gallbladder of bears in a process that is excruciating for the animals. There are more than 50 herbal alternatives to bear bile.

Tibetan antelope – prized fur makes them endangered

There are between 75,000 and 100,000 Tibetan antelope left on the planet, making this species officially endangered. High demand for shahtoosh – the hair found on the creatures – has resulted in poachers slaughtering them to sell fur on the illicit market. It takes about four animals to make a single shawl and prices can vary from $1,000 to $5,000, according to the WWF.

Falcons – used for sport

Peregrine falcons are classified as endangered, and the most up-to-date reports put the bird's breeding population at just over 1,400 pairs. Because they can travel at extremely high speeds they are in demand from buyers who want to use them in the sport of falconry. The majority do not migrate, staying within 100km of their birthplace.

Lear's macaw – was on the brink of extinction

This exotic parrot found in the Amazon basin is believed to be among the most expensive wildlife species trafficked on the black market. It was brought back from the brink of extinction in 1989, when fewer than 100 of the birds existed, but remains listed as an endangered species. Conservation groups have worked hard to protect the bird's natural habitat to enable numbers to grow.

Elephant – ivory trade destroying population

Elephants form the top level of the food chain in much of sub-Saharan Africa, trampling down dense flora in the savannahs, enabling smaller animals to forage for food. Demand for ivory, which is sold at a premium on the black market, puts elephants at grave threat from hunters and poachers. Between 1989 and February 2010, 18,771kg of ivory was seized in Nigeria, 17,681kg in Cameroon, 28,848kg in Kenya and 33,207kg in Namibia. This is just a fraction of the overall total across Africa's 37 range states.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in