Illegal global wildlife trade continues to threaten the existence of the endangered species, more particularly as demand for wildlife products increases.
A recent report by the Uganda’s Financial Intelligence Authority (FIA) said the country loses about Shs2b annually in wildlife offences ranging from commercial poaching to hunting for daily subsistence.
The report said Uganda serves mainly as a transit route for wildlife trafficking, especially ivory. Over the years, authorities in Uganda have continued to arrest wildlife traffickers at the entry and exit points both at the border posts and the country’s only international airport, Entebbe.
In 2015, court records in the country showed that most of the culprits involved in ivory smuggling were Asians of Chinese origin and other eastern countries, whose penchant for ivory and other wildlife tokens has continued to drive the crime.
While poachers and those with small quantities of wildlife species are often arrested, the real beneficiaries, often playing at the background, are never apprehended and continue to pump in hundreds of millions of dollars into the illicit trade.
The FIA report said many central African countries have unregulated domestic ivory markets, including the DR Congo, Republic of the Congo, Central African Republic (CAR), Chad, and Cameroon. Ivory bought at these markets may be trafficked through road and air links to Uganda and onward from there for processing and export.
In neighbouring Tanzania, the situation is not any different. In 2014, visiting Chinese government officials to Tanzania were accused of smuggling ivory and other wildlife species in their diplomatic planes, a claim the Chinese government denied.
A year later, a Chinese woman, nicknamed Queen of Ivory, was arrested in Tanzania, further lending credence to the involvement of Asian nationals on the trade. Yang Feng Glan, 66, was reportedly arrested with ivory worth $2.5m.
The civil wars in the DR Congo, CAR and Chad have also had adverse effects on the wildlife. Uganda’s notorious warlord, Joseph Kony, who reportedly operates in DR Congo and CAR, is said to be engaging in illegal trade in ivory for buying arms and ammunitions, killing hundreds of elephants in the process. The same happens to other warring factions operating in these countries.
According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the world is dealing with an unprecedented spike in illegal wildlife trade, threatening to overturn decades of conservation gains.
According to WWF, in 2011, ivory estimated to weigh more than 23 metric tonnes, a figure that represents 2,500 elephants, was seized in the 13 largest seizures of illegal ivory. Since that seizure, big consignments have continued to be seized globally, with most of it coming from Africa.
The organised crime groups behind wildlife crime target high-value animal and plant specimens, and operate through complex global criminal networks. Driven by profit, the activities of these groups can have devastating economic, social and environmental impacts.
Ben Janse van Rensburg, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) secretariat chief of enforcement support, said: “No one country, region or agency can tackle illegal wildlife trade alone. Collective action across source, transit and destination states is essential. On behalf of all ICCWC partner agencies, I commend the excellent work done in member countries.”
Some of the global “wildlife trade hotspots” include China’s international borders, trade hubs in East/Southern Africa and Southeast Asia, the eastern borders of the European Union, some markets in Mexico, parts of the Caribbean, Indonesia and New Guinea, and the Solomon Islands.
The illegal trade is not only limited to ivory. Tigers in Asia, leopards, pangolins and other species have all suffered the wrath of poachers and wildlife traffickers.
The WWF says wildlife crime is a big business, run by dangerous international networks. By its very nature, it is almost impossible to obtain reliable figures for the value of illegal wildlife trade. Experts at TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network<https://www.worldwildlife.org/initiatives/traffic-the-wildlife-trade-monitoring-network>, estimate that it runs into hundreds of millions of dollars.
An estimate by nature communications, an international organisation, puts the cost of tourism losses as a result of poaching of elephants alone in Africa at about $250m. The figures could be higher if other species are included.
International pronouncements by China and other global power houses has done little to stop the illegal trade in wildlife products. While at government levels the trade may have stopped, but the reluctance by the same governments to prosecute their citizens and stop the trade continue to inflict heavy terror on the wildlife.
International law enforcers strike criminal racket
Baffled by this large scale illegal trade, global enforcement agencies in May launched an international operation against the illegal trade in wild animals and plants, including timber, seizing hundreds of species worldwide, as well as arresting many suspects.
Code-named “Thunderstorm” and targeting criminal networks behind global wildlife crime, the operation involved police, customs, border, wildlife, forestry and environment agencies from 92 countries and resulted in millions of dollars-worth of seizures.
According to CITES, the month-long operation, that started on May 1 to May 31, led to1,974 seizures, with 1,400 identification of suspects, triggering global arrests and investigations.
According to INTERPOL, 43 tonnes of wild meat, 1.3 tonnes of raw and processed elephant ivory, 27,000 reptiles, almost 4,000 birds, several tonnes of wood and timber, were seized.
Also 48 live primates, four big cats (tiger, lion, leopard and jaguar), the carcasses of seven bears, including two polar bears, were confiscated.
The operation saw eight tonnes of pangolin scales seized worldwide, including almost four tonnes by Vietnamese maritime authorities on board a ship arriving from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The CITES says two flight attendants were arrested in Los Angeles attempting to smuggle live spotted turtles to Asia in their personal baggage. Both suspects have been charged with smuggling CITES-protected species and a transnational investigation has been opened between the countries concerned.
A man was also arrested in Israel and awaits deportation to Thailand after his hunting photograph on social media led to the seizure of multiple wildlife items at his home, including fox, jackal and mongoose bodies. Follow-up inquiries have revealed that the suspect was also engaged in people smuggling and illegal employment.
Canadian authorities intercepted a container holding 18 tonnes of eel meat arriving from Asia. Thought to be poached from Europe originally, the juvenile glass eels had been reared in Asia before being dispatched to North American markets for consumption.
An integrated global response
The second in a global ‘Thunder’ series initiated by the INTERPOL Wildlife Crime Working Group, Operation Thunderstorm was coordinated by INTERPOL and the World Customs Organisation (WCO), in conjunction with the International Consortium on Combating Wildlife Crime (ICCWC), which includes the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) Secretariat, UNODC and the World Bank.
“Operation Thunderstorm has seen significant seizures at global level, showing how coordinated global operations can maximize impact,” said INTERPOL Secretary General Jürgen Stock.
Senior officer Grant Miller of the UK Border Force and head of the UK national CITES enforcement team, said: “Through Operation Thunderstorm, criminals have seen the products they need to ply their trade seized and their illegal profits targeted. Organised crime groups engaging in wildlife crime will feel the impact of this operation for a long time.”
“By revealing how wildlife trafficking groups use the same routes as criminals involved in other crime areas – often hand in hand with tax evasion, corruption, money laundering and violent crime – Operation Thunderstorm sends a clear message to wildlife criminals that the world’s law enforcement community is homing in on them,” added the Secretary General.
An intelligence-driven operation
An investigative crime intelligence was gathered ahead of the operation to help target specific hotspots for action, including land and airport border points and wildlife parks.
Cars, trucks, boats and cargo transporters suspected of moving illicit products were also targeted with searches carried out by officers, often with specialist sniffer dogs and x-ray scanners.
“By leveraging the global network of worldwide environmental law enforcement experts and customs community’s commitment to protecting wildlife, World Customs Organisation and its partners have clearly illustrated the power and effectiveness of international cooperation in keeping our natural heritage safe,” said WCO Secretary General Kunio Mikuriya.
“Operation Thunderstorm clearly demonstrates that by pooling our transnational law enforcement collaboration in the field, WCO and INTERPOL firmly contribute to making sure that borders everywhere divide criminals but connect customs and law enforcement as a whole to make the world a safer place,” added Dr Mikuriya.