Wildlife trafficking – destructive, cruel and a most attractive crime

The Guardian, September 26 2016
with Oliver Holmes

The illegal trade in wildlife is a most attractive crime. It is highly destructive: the scale of the business is now threatening to exterminate the entire global population of some of the world’s iconic species. It is also grotesquely cruel: poachers slice the face off living rhinos to steal their horns; militia groups use helicopters to shoot down elephants for their tusks; factory farmers breed captive tigers to marinate their bones for medicinal wine and to sautee their flesh for the dinner plate; bears are cramped for a lifetime in tiny cages to have their gall bladders drained regularly for liver tonic. But for any criminal who wants to make maximum money with minimum risk, it is most attractive.

The Guardian today begins a major series on the traffic in animal products. It is published to coincide with a crucial conference in Johannesburg where the 182 nations who have signed the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, CITES, are due to debate the future of animals which are being scythed down in their thousands by a criminal industry. At every stage in the supply lines, the systems which are supposed to defend the animals against this global butchery are no match for the organised crime groups who now dominate the trade.

This is a vast business, valued by the UN Environment Programme at $23 billion a year – twice the gross domestic product of victim countries like Tanzania or Kenya. The profit margins are enormous. The poacher in Africa sells ivory at up to $150 per kilo. At the other end of the supply line, in Beijing, it now sells for well over ten times as much, with some sales reaching $2,025 a kilo according to research by Chatham House in 2014. The mark-up is even bigger with rhino horn: the poacher who kills a white rhino may be satisfied with $1,000 for its pair of horns. They weigh on average about 6 kgs and they can sell in Vietnam at $33,000 a kilo – nearly 200 times the original price. Across the border in China, the price spirals even further upwards, to $66,139 a kilo, according to the same Chatham House research.

The profits have increased dramatically over the past decade, driven by the wealthy new elites in Asia, accumulating ivory carvings and tiger skins as status symbols for their homes; buying ground powder of rhino horn and tiger-bone wine as traditional remedies for almost every ailment from hangovers to cancer, none of it based on any scientific evidence at all. This is a demand driven by only two things – greed and superstition. For a gangster supplying the demand, these animals are like big bundles of cash lying almost unprotected in the wilderness, with no police officer or CCTV for miles, just waiting to be shot and sliced.

This is not about some random American dentist killing an elderly lion for his entertainment. This is profit-hungry transnational crime conducted by some of the same ruthless and extremely violent groups who also traffic drugs and guns, and some of whom massacre civilians in the name of their ideology. And up against this collection of highly organised and well-resourced criminals, we currently deploy some of the world’s weakest law enforcement.

The dirt-poor poacher with an antique rifle who comes padding through the Mozambique bush may well end up dead if he is unlucky enough to run into armed rangers in the Kruger National Park in South Africa. Some 400 are reckoned to have died there in the last six years, according to research for the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime. The humble mule with a suitcase full of rhino horn may fall foul of Customs at Bangkok’s airport and do jail time. Chinese couriers have been caught in Kenya, Tanzania, Zimbabwe and the Congo. But above them, at every link in the chain, as the profit margins become bigger, the chances of being caught and punished get smaller.

The only truly global body which is tasked with protecting the world’s wildlife is the network of officials in each of the nations which has signed up to CITES, co-ordinated by a small secretariat in Geneva. The convention was written in 1973 when the main threat to wildlife was the encroachment of human settlements into vulnerable habitat. Now it finds itself confronting these criminal networks, even though it has no detectives, no police powers and no firearms. In short, CITES is not a law-enforcement agency. It is there to regulate trade. It can try to punish rogue governments by asking its members to stop trading CITES species with them, but it has no tools to punish the criminals who have already decided to defy those governments.

The global agencies which are designed to fight organised crime have higher priorities – terrorists, arms traffic, narcotics, counterfeit goods. Other agencies try to fill the gap. Interpol distributes intelligence on the worst wildlife offenders; the UN Office on Drugs and Crime publishes research; the World Bank advises on the tracing of laundered money. None of them goes out to catch criminals. The global policing of wildlife traffic is a collection of shreds and patches.

The few specialists who try to work internationally find themselves swimming against a tide of inertia. A senior law-enforcement figure in southern Africa who has specialised in wildlife crime told us ruefully that the crime groups enjoy far better international links than he does. “I have to rely on people I meet at conferences,” he said.

John Sellar spent 14 years as ‘enforcement support officer’ for CITES and then retired early. “A major reason for that,” he told the Guardian, “was that I was fed up with the complete hypocrisy of people coming to CITES meetings and passing resolutions and then going home and, frankly, doing bugger-all about them – politicians and law enforcement people.” To make matters worse, Sellars fears, the Brexit vote means that the UK stands to be expelled from Europol and to lose its access to the EU specialist database known as TWIX which records intelligence on wildlife crime from across the union.

The few traffickers who are caught are dealt with by prosecution systems which are riddled with failure. When the international law firm DLA Piper in 2014 investigated criminal justice in ten countries on the frontline of wildlife traffic, they found ‘a host of weaknesses’ including loopholes in laws, chronic shortage of funds for prosecutors and courts, low rates of conviction, inadequate penalties and corruption. “The only consistent theme,” they concluded, “is that significant work needs to be done in every country in order to effectively tackle the illegal wildlife trade.”

At the moment, the void is being filled to some extent by a loose network of volunteers, journalists and NGOs running their own investigations and then attempting to find support from any local law enforcement agencies who are strong enough and honest enough to make arrests and prosecute. This includes NGOs like Freeland in Bangkok running long-term investigations of the kind whose results we are publishing today. That investigation was paid for by a small English charity which has sent tens of thousands of pounds across the world to pay Freeland to do the policing which otherwise was not happening.

The effect of this law-enforcement void is traumatic. In African bush and Asian jungle and Russian steppes, the pricey parts of dead animals are ripped and sliced from their skeletal sockets and shovelled onto invisible conveyor belts, almost all of them headed for the same destinations in South East Asia and China.

They leave Africa with minimal difficulty: by sea, most often from the Kenyan port of Mombasa, where the Elephant Action League last year ran a 12-month undercover investigation and concluded that ‘massive amounts of ivory continue to pass unhindered’; or by air, from Johannesburg where we found a long-term airline employee who is part of a smuggling network; or through the Mozambican capital, Maputo, which was described to us by a South African policing source as ‘a major security problem’.

From southern Africa, the traffickers dispatch the horns of two or three rhinos every day – 1,338 of them last year  – some of the rhinos left dead in the dust, others mutilated but still alive and stumbling from tranquiliser. The world now has only 30,000 rhinos in the wild – just 5% of the number 40 years ago. Several sub-species are already extinct. Others are offically ‘critically endangered’. The biggest surviving population is the 21,000 southern white rhino, most of whom are in South Africa. And that is where the rhino poachers are busiest: 88% of the rhinos who were killed last year were in South Africa.

The attack on elephants is even more frenzied. The conveyor belt to Asia sags under the weight of the ivory from something like 90 dead African elephants every day. In 2013, a single seizure in Guangzhou uncovered 1,913 tusks, ie the product of nearly 1,000 dead animals. The US National Academy of Sciences in 2014 found that in the previous three years poachers had killed 100,000 elephant, reducing the species to a total of only 450,000 in all Africa. And the numbers are still falling: the kill rate has exceeded the birth rate every year since 2010. Central Africa has lost 76% of its elephants since 2002. Tanzania has lost 66% in the last six years alone. Mozambique has lost 48% in five years. For bracelets and statuettes and the keys of posh pianos. And for something else. The scale of ivory poaching is so colossal that the UNODC this year concluded that it could not be explained simply by looking at its sales, legal or illegal. In his time at CITES, John Sellar speculated that financial and/or criminal elites were hoarding ivory as a long-term investment and method of laundering cash.

On the conveyor belt alongside these iconic creatures there are the remains of hundreds of other animals every day: paws for ashtrays; teeth for pendants; genitals for sex drive; the skins of snakes; the scales of pangolin ant-eaters to be roasted and chewed for a health fad, 275 of them a day, 100,000 a year. There is a steady flow of tiger corpses, sometimes whole, sometimes only the skin and bones. A hundred years ago, there were some 100,000 wild tigers spread all across Asia and into eastern Russia: now there are an estimated 3,500 with only 2,200 of them in populations big enough to make breeding and survival viable. The great forests of Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and China are now reckoned to have no more than 100 wild tigers between them. Only India has more than 1,000 – and there too the poachers are busy, killing more tigers in the first five months of 2016 than in all of 2015.

This trade has been allowed to grow not only because of the failure of law enforcement to engage with it but also because it shares its bed with the powerful.

The wealthy financial elite in Asia which consumes illegal animal products overlaps with the political elite. As a single example: when the wildlife monitoring network Traffic in 2013 surveyed illegal users of rhino horn in Vietnam, they found that a third of the market was made up of government officials. It is this political elite which frequently fails to obstruct the trade. As this series will demonstrate, sometimes this has involved officials deliberately opening loopholes in their law to allow some part of the market to flourish as well as very senior figures simply flouting the law in order to collude with the criminals for their own profit.

It overlaps similarly with the commercial elite. The criminal entrepreneurs who run the supply lines are able to conceal their identity behind front companies and then to conceal the enormous profits which they amass by using the same network of secretive off-shore jurisdictions which are exploited for tax evasion by multinational corporations.

It is not just the Asian consumers who come from the power elite. Annette Huebschle from the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime found that the bloodied supply of rhino horn from southern Africa flowed directly from the power and privilege of white landowners in the old racist regimes of South Africa and Zimbabwe. This is a microcosm of the way in which power favours the wildlife criminal.

From the 1960s, Huebschle found, white landowners in South Africa had been allowed to take rhinos as their private possessions even though previously all wildlife had been deemed legally to be ‘res nullius’, ie belonging to nobody. The landowners had started buying them from the national parks and moving them onto their vast ranches where they were then allowed to charge handsome fees for trophy hunters to come and kill them for profit. Back in the national parks, however, the black villagers who lived alongside the animals in the national parks were still denied the right to hunt them and were punished as poachers if they tried.

As the demand for rhino horn in Asia increased, some of the white ranchers drifted from selling legal hunts into supplying the blackmarket. Annette Huebschle found that by 2010 a list of the landowners who were buying rhinos revealed that ‘many were implicated in illegal hunting’. This involved ‘pseudo hunts’ where a professional hunter shot the rhino while a stooge sold their name for the paperwork so that they could exploit a legal loophole which allows any hunter to export one set of rhino horns a year. Between 2003 and 2010 South Africa issued paperwork for 657 sets of trophy rhino horns to be sent to the world’s biggest market, in Vietnam. If the price then was only half of the current $33,000 per kilo, that is a traffic worth some $65 million.

Interviewing black villagers in and around the national parks, Huebschle found that some of these rogue landowners had not been content to sell their own rhino horn on the blackmarket but had also approached young men in the national parks and persuaded them to start poaching, sometimes giving them arms and ammunition. Mozambican gangsters then moved in, organised systematic poaching and cut out the rancher middlemen, making direct connections to the Vietnamese and Chinese crime groups who manage every section of the supply lines northwards.

The position now has reached a height of inequality. By 2015, Huebschle found, South Africa had 380 private rhino farms, owned by wealthy families and corporations and covering 2m hectares, which is nearly the size of the Kruger national park. The South African government continues to allow to allow these landowners to hunt and kill some of the 5,000 rhino which they hold and to store their horns in a stockpile which is now estimated to be worth some $1 billion. Meanwhile, the government continues to ban black villagers in the parks from hunting rhino and uses armed patrols who shoot and often kill the villagers if they catch them trying. Some NGOs argue that the starting point for an effective strategy to protect rhinos and other wildlife would be not simply to close down all legal forms of killing and selling endangered species but to give local villagers an incentive to protect the wildlife around them.

Additional reporting by Calvin Godfrey