One dark night a few years ago, a professional gangster in Hanoi approached a senior government official as he was making his way home. The gangster was in the wildlife business. The official was one of those responsible for policing the safety of wildlife. That night, the gangster made him an offer he could hardly refuse.
According to a source close to the official, the gangster explained that his syndicate was planning to expand: no more smuggling a suitcase of rhino horn or ivory from Africa; they were going to import shiploads, with up to 50 tonnes of high-value animal products a trip. If the official would help them, they would give him immediately $50,000 in cash and, as a bonus, they would let him invest it in the first big shipment, which would double his money.
It seems it was not just the cash which attracted the official, although $50,000 in cash was 100 times more than he could expect to earn in a year on his official salary. What swayed him, according to the source, was the sheer pointlessness of his job. He was toiling away with far less power and far fewer resources than the gangs he was fighting. He knew he was never going to stop them not least because they already had so many other officials on their side, including some senior people in the Ministry of Public Security. All he was really doing, he reckoned, was to produce political rhetoric and action plans.
So it was that he changed sides and became an active participant in the crimes which he was supposed to be preventing, investing not only in the first shipment which arrived soon afterwards through the port of Hue in central Vietnam, but in at least one subsequent load. He took more and more money, even at one point formally signing a receipt for the gangsters’ records. Later, he opened his desk drawer for a trusted visitor, revealing piles of cash, explaining as he did so that the reason he kept it in in his office was not to hide it from the law, which was really no threat at all, but to stop his wife getting at it.
Corruption runs through the core of wildlife trafficking. The head of a wildlife NGO who has spent years researching it (and who preferred to remain anonymous) told us: “These gangs believe in having secure supply lines. They buy enough people in ports and airports and in prosecutors’ offices and government ministries to do that, so that they just don’t have to worry about their stuff being seized. The point is that in the end, the problem is not that governments lack capacity or training to deal with wildlife crime. The real problem is that governments are complicit, actively colluding in it.”
The governments of Vietnam, Thailand, Lao and China have allowed farms on their territory to break international law by breeding tigers for the sale of their body parts. China even invested state money in its tiger farms. The governments of South Africa, Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia have lobbied to change international law so that they can cash in on the market for ivory. The profit is almost irresistible. The Wildlife Conservation Society in 2012 analysed 317 cases where Vietnam law-enforcement agencies had seized illegal wildlife and found that 76% of the seized goods had then been sold back into the black market; and that this was not done by bent officials but by the law enforcement agencies themselves adding some 3.9 billion Vietnamese dong (about $175,000) to the state budget.
Apart from governments, there are powerful individuals who smell the profit. In Thailand, there are repeated and detailed allegations about traffickers being protected by a senior political figure who has been directly involved in the illegal trade in tigers; and by a man who boasts of his connections with the Thai royal family and who has posed as a defender of wildlife while apparently spying on environmental activists and actively assisting the smuggling of rhino horn. In Vietnam, campaigners from the Animals Asia NGO were stalled for eight years in their efforts to close down farms which were illegally extracting bile from the gall bladders of captive bears – because one of the owners had such political and financial power that the local police were unwilling to confront him.
On the ground, at every stage of the supply lines, there is evidence of officials taking money to do the opposite of what they are supposed to do. The Guardian has been told of rangers in southern Africa who are organising the poaching of rhinos; airline staff in Johannesburg and Maputo who breach their own security to fly the products of that poaching into SE Asia. Embassy staff from China, Vietnam and North Korea have been caught several times trying to use their diplomatic status to smuggle animal products out of South Africa and Mozambique.
There are customs posts in SE Asia which act more like transit stations for the assistance of smugglers. Surveillance video shows police officers at the airport in Bangkok taking smuggled rhino horn off the luggage carousel to help it through Customs. Freeland’s executive director, Steve Galster, tells of watching uniformed Lao customs officers openly helping traffickers to pack up turtles and pangolins which were being smuggled into Laos from Thailand at the Ta Bok crossing on the Mekong river.
When the Wildlife Conservation Society monitored the border between north Vietnam and China in the city of Mong Cai, they found that 97% of traffic was using illegal crossing points and that this was happening primarily in broad daylight in front of officials who were supposed to be stopping it. The result, they concluded, was “a massive trade in CITES-listed reptiles of wild origin including globally threatened species.”
The corruption reaches even into the global network of officials who are paid to enforce the CITES convention protecting endangered species. John Sellar, who worked for the CITES secretariat in Geneva for 14 years, wrote in his memoir, The UN’s Lone Ranger: “I regularly saw or was advised of cases where CITES officials had accepted money or other forms of bribe to provide genuine permits, stamps or licences, or had sold their signature on documents…. Some national CITES authorities simply could not be trusted.”
The CITES secretariat has been dealing with evidence of crime in the export of African grey parrots from the Congo. When the secretariat sent a team to Kinshasa in November 2015 to investigate, thieves broke into the CITES office while they were there and stole CITES export permits and security stamps.
We spoke to UK CITES officials who had seen their opposite numbers from an Asian country turn up at an international conference in Doha and personally try to sell birds of prey whose trade they were supposed to be restricting; and officials from former parts of the USSR selling permits to trade species which do not even exist in their countries. A current investigation is attempting to find out what happened to 24 samples of rhino horn which were being carried from Vietnam to South Africa by a local CITES official so that they could be DNA-tested to find their origin: nine of them disappeared en route. Large amounts of seized ivory have vanished from official storeage in the Philippines.
For sure there are still plenty of men and women along the supply lines who have not joined their corrupt colleagues. From time to time, they succeed in seizing the mangled remains of animals and arresting those involved on the ground. But over and again, those seizures fail to lead to the further inquiries. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime in 2015 found that in spite of seizing some large illegal imports of wildlife, Vietnam had never run a ‘controlled delivery’ to follow the import through to the people who had paid for it. NGOs suspect that some significant seizures happen only because one crime group triggers action against a rival.
A few honest officers have become so frustrated with the corruption around them that they have teamed up unofficially with Freeland, working undercover for them and hiding their work from supervisors for fear of retribution. Freeland say that one tiger trafficker put out a contract to kill an honest officer who had dared to expose her and her husband, a corrupt officer. Then, when she suspected that her husband might have leaked information about her, she put out a contract on him too.
Although NGOs have complained that CITES historically has failed to address corruption, possibly for fear of alienating powerful member countries, its conference in Johannesburg this month is due to debate a resolution proposed by the EU and Senegal, calling on CITES to record ‘credible allegations’ of corruption and to take unspecified action against those responsible.