The law enforcement fightback must mirror the war against illegal drugs, said John Scanlon, secretary general of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites), with undercover operations and harsh penalties.
The warning comes as officials from 177 countries gather in Bangkok for the first Cites summit for three years, with major battles expected over protection for polar bears, ending “trophy” hunting for rhinos and the free trade in ivory in the host nation, Thailand. The vast trade in shark fins and turtles will also come under attack, as will the large-scale felling of tropical rosewood and sandalwood, as well as less well-known issues such as Indonesia’s huge exports of frogs’ legs, and the trade in cheetahs and python skins.
“Illegal trade in wildlife has now reached a scale that poses an immediate risk to wildlife and to people,” Scanlon wrote in the Guardian. “It increasingly involves organised crime syndicates, and in some cases rebel militia. This poses a serious threat to the stability and economy of affected countries and robs them of their natural resources. They must be stopped.
“The UN security council recently linked the Lord’s Resistance Army to ivory smuggling in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, while al-Qaida’s al-Shabaab group has been linked to illegal ivory in Somalia. Wildlife officers serving in the frontline are being outgunned and they need support from police, and sometimes the military, as well as the international community,” said Scanlon, who will meet officials from Interpol and the UN office on drugs and crime.
“It is time to treat this as serious crime and to deploy the techniques used to combat illicit trade in narcotics, such as undercover operations. Bringing this destructive activity to an end will also require harsh penalties.”
The global black market in animal and plants, sold as food, traditional medicines and exotic pets, is worth billions and sees an estimated 350 million specimens traded every year. But while the profits are high, the penalties are often only fines. Drug smugglers often risk the death sentence.
“It is right up there with drug trafficking, illegal arms sales and people-trafficking,” said the UK’s wildlife minister, Richard Benyon. “It is an appalling crime on a massive scale and it is a crime that affects people as well as animals. The parts traded [such as rhino horn] have a value greater than gold or heroin – it is an appalling incentive.
“Military-style action can kill it off but the real goal has to be to kill the demand,” he said. “That needs co-operation at the highest level and the UK is working hard towards that.”
China is the main market for elephant ivory ornaments and Vietnam, where the native rhino has been driven to extinction, is where most rhino horn is sold as medicine. Thailand will face calls for trade sanctions unless it outlaws its trade in domestic ivory, which is used by criminals to launder African ivory. “This is an opportunity for Thailand to show what it is doing to drive out illegal trade,” said Benyon.
“As few as 2,500 wild elephants are left in Thailand,” said Janpai Ongsiriwittaya, of WWF-Thailand. “That’s as many elephants as were wiped out each month in Africa in 2012 to fuel demand for ivory trinkets. If Thailand fails to take bold action, its elephants could be next.”
Thailand is also seen as a hub for other illegal wildlife, with recent captures at Bangkok airport including live leopard cubs, pythons, gibbons, bear cubs and parrots in luggage.
The UK leads the Cites working party on rhinos and will seek to force a ban on the export of “trophy” white rhinos shot in South Africa, wherepoaching has soared in the past year. The UK also backs a ban on the international trade in polar bears, hundreds of which are shot each year for export. The UK has legally imported more than 500 polar bear parts in the past decade. But the Canadian government will fight the proposal hard, claiming that the bears are not threatened with extinction.
However, the species most affected by criminal plundering of millions of animals a year are not the largest animals, said Vincent Nijman, a wildlife trade expert at Oxford Brookes University. “We often think about tigers or elephants, but the high volume is in species like frogs, snakes, turtles, lizards and sea horses. We have seen a huge increase in Asia in the exotic meat trade.”
The world’s fast-rising human population and growing prosperity in countries such as China mean demand for exotic creatures, such aspangolins, has left “ghost forests” in places where all the wildlife has been stripped out. This also happens in the oceans, said Nijman, pointing to the dramatic fall in the tonnes of soft-shell turtles flown out of Sumatra every week to China in the early 2000s. “That’s not because the demand has fallen: basically the animals have gone,” he said.
The Cites convention is now 40 years old and has largely been successful, according to Nijman. “It is by no means perfect, but it is much better than all the other conservation or environment-related conventions.”
But Will Travers, chief executive of the Born Free Foundation, said the meeting in Bangkok must be ambitious. “The situation is now so bad that without a dramatic step-change in our efforts, we shall, in my view, end up with a handful of ‘wildlife fortresses’ – heavily guarded national reserves and parks, protected by garrisons of armed rangers and wardens – and that’s it.”
- Sanctions call over Thai elephant ivory trade (worldnews.nbcnews.com)
- Thailand a “bottomless pit” for ivory laundering: NGOs (reuters.com)
- Ahead of CITES, pressure to ban Thai ivory trade (cnsnews.com)
- Thai premier accepts half – million signature petition from WWF to ban ivory trade (wwf.panda.org)
- Thai ivory trade criticized before wildlife conference (usatoday.com)
WILDLIFE UPDATE : IUCN cries foul over trade in python skins but CITES issued 400,000 export licences….
Study raises concern over international trade in python skins. Wildlife Extra reports
A new study finds that close to half a million python skins are reported as exported annually from South-East Asia. The main importer is the European fashion and leather industry. The study raises concerns over the illegality in parts of the trade, animal welfare issues and the trade’s impact on the conservation of python populations.
Concerns raised about legal quotas.
Wildlife Extra raised concerns in May 2012 about the sustainability of the trade in python skins - Purely based on CITES export quotas, which make them legal transactions. One of the striking facts revealed by the 2011 quota is the vast trade in pythons from around the world, but mostly from West Africa & Indonesia. The 2011 quota for pythons was more than 400,000! Now it isn’t always possible to tell exactly what that number means, but it includes live animals and skins, and, most worryingly, gall bladders. Why on earth are CITES issuing permits for while IUCN are raising concerns about the trade?
Aside from gall bladders, the annual quota for 2011 of 400,000 items seems totally unsustainable – And when you look closer at the figures more than half of this total is for exports from Indonesia – who have a quota for 212,000 pythons or python skins (and an extraordinary 135,000 spitting cobras too!).
Gall bladder permits – Why?
Why does CITES permit trade in python (or any other) gall bladders when the only demand for them is from sad misguided people who believe that it has curative properties for many ailments. CITES also gave permits for 3000+ kilograms of galls and gall bladders to be exported from Russia to Korea alone (many other permits were given too.
To access the CITES database, please click here.
The report, Trade in South-East Asian Python Skins, was launched by the International Trade Centre (ITC), in co-operation with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and TRAFFIC, a joint programme of IUCN and WWF. It reveals that the trade in python skins is worth an estimated US $1 billion annually.
If IUCN are worried about the trade in python skins, why do they issue 400,000+ export licences?
“The report shows that problems of illegality persist in the trade in python skins and that this can threaten species’ survival,” says Alexander Kasterine, Head of ITC’s Trade and Environment Programme. “The fashion and leather industry has a stronger role to play in supporting the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES) and the developing countries to ensure supply is legal and sustainable.”
Indonesia, Malaysia and Viet Nam
Indonesia, Malaysia and Viet Nam are the main sources of exports of python skins, with European Union countries – in particular Italy, Germany and France – the biggest importers. Around 70% of all python skins are re-exported via Singapore. The report notes that a lack of transparency concerning undisclosed stockpiles in the country could be facilitating the laundering of illegally sourced skins.
Illegally sourced skins
“It would appear a substantial proportion of the skins in trade are sourced illegally from wild animals, beyond agreed quotas, and using false permits to launder the skins,” says Tomas Waller, Chair of IUCN’s Boa and Python Specialist Group (BPSG).
“With potentially large mark-ups along the supply chain, there is a strong financial incentive for illegal trade in python skins and considerable scope for traders to issue false permits,” says Olivier Caillabet, Programme Officer with TRAFFIC in South-East Asia, and a co-author of the report.
Although more than 20% of exports of Reticulated Python skins from South-East Asia (mainly Viet Nam and Lao PDR) are declared as captive-bred, the report argues that the “commercial case is not convincing and needs to be specifically assessed”, noting that the cost of breeding, feeding and maintaining the snakes to reach slaughter size appears much higher than the market price.
Most pythin skins end up in the fashion trade in Italy, Germany and France – So as long as rich Europeans get to spend their austerity cash on unsustainably sourced python skins the IUCN is happy.
The report recommends that the fashion industry implements a traceability system to demonstrate to consumers that its sourcing is legal and sustainable. This would complement the existing CITES permitting system to allow identification of skins along the length of the supply chain.
Lack of sustainability
An additional concern regards the possible lack of sustainability of sourcing. Large numbers of wild pythons are slaughtered before they reach the reproductive stage, meaning harvest quotas may have been set at unsustainable levels. The report recommends a precautionary approach is applied to harvesting, with legally binding minimum skin size limits to ensure protection of immature snakes.
The report highlights previously unknown slaughter methods, yet argues that trade bans are not an effective or fair way to address illegality and animal welfare issues.
- Study raises concern over international trade in python skins (legalaction4animalrights.net)
- Study on International Trade in Python Skins Shows Concerning Situation (news.softpedia.com)
- Fashion Industry Continues to Enable Unsustainable Trade of Wild Python Skins (ecowatch.org)
- Snakeskin fashion putting pythons at risk – report (nzherald.co.nz)
- Concerns raised over python trade (bbc.co.uk)
- Skin Trading Threatens Python Survival, Says Report (naturenplanet.com)
- Snakeskin fashions threaten pythons (skynews.com.au)
- Snakeskin fashions threaten pythons (bigpondnews.com)
- Python skin trade worth a billion – time to clean out the Everglades! (seshippingnews.typepad.com)
The bare statistics are horrifying. In South Africa, more rhinos are being slaughtered for their horns in a single week than were killed in a whole year a decade ago. And the death toll is fast accelerating. In 2007, a mere 13 were killed. In 2008, it was 83, and, a year later, 122. Last year it was 448, and this year, by 19 April, it was 181. That is equivalent to 600 a year in a country which is home to 93 per cent of all white rhinos. One expert thinks that at this rate the species could be wiped out by 2025. Others think it could take longer. Patrick Bergin, chief executive of African Wildlife Foundation, said: “If the poaching of rhino continues at current rates, we could see their extinction within our lifetime. The situation is absolutely at crisis levels.”
This attrition is being driven by the astonishing street value for rhino horn, which fetches £40,000 a kilo, more even than gold. Chinese medicine and jewellery are the main markets, but, in recent years, widespread rumours in Vietnam that rhino horn can cure cancer has seen demand there rocket. As a result, the Javan rhino became extinct in that country in November, the last known animal being found dead with its horn hacked off.
There has also been a huge and sharp rise in elephants being killed for their ivory. Mozambique reports that in just one reserve the number of elephant carcasses found in 2011 is nearly 25 times greater than 10 years before. And the wildlife trade monitoring network Traffic said that 2011 was by far the worst year for ivory seizures since the group’s records began more than 20 years ago. The amount of ivory seized last year probably equates to some 2,500 dead elephants, according to Traffic.
Organised crime has moved into both rhino and elephant poaching, with hi-tech equipment used for industrial-scale killing. Reuters reported last week from the Garamba National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo on a family of elephants killed when poachers swept over them in a helicopter gunship. The report said: “The scene beneath the rotor blades would have been chilling: panicked mothers shielding their young, hair-raising screeches and a mad scramble through the blood-stained bush as bullets rained down from the sky. When the shooting was over, 22 elephants lay dead … their tusks and genitals removed for sale in Asia.”
Richard Emslie, scientific officer for the African rhino group at the International Union for Conservation of Nature, said: “We are facing a horrific situation at the moment where some of the poachers are using veterinary drugs, drugging the rhinos and then hacking off the horns and part of the face at the same time, so they get the whole lot, while the animal is still alive.”
So critical is the situation that earlier this month, an emergency summit of wildlife authorities, scientists, owners of private rhino reserves and security experts was hosted in Nairobi by the African Wildlife Foundation and the Kenya Wildlife Service.
A statement issued afterwards said: “The situation is rapidly reaching crisis levels and requires far-reaching efforts to ensure the continued survival of rhinos across Africa … Africa’s rhino population is currently estimated at 25,000 – still low in relation to historical numbers – and it is suggested that, if poaching continues at current rates, there will no longer be any rhino left in the wild by 2025.”
Jo Shaw, a Johannesburg-based rhino specialist for Traffic, said: “Very serious levels of organised crime are orchestrating this illegal activity. The people now trading in rhino horn used to be trading in drugs and arms and human trafficking, and probably still are, but they’ve found this new valuable resource that is less well protected.”
Helen Gichohi, president of African Wildlife Foundation, said: “Wildlife authorities, private rhino reserve owners, conservation organisations and others have made valiant efforts to halt the rhino poaching crisis, but these disparate actions have sadly been no match for this epidemic that is plaguing Africa.”
As an example of the kind of resources available to crime groups, Ken Maggs, the head of the environmental crimes investigation unit for South African National Parks, said one person who was recently arrested for trade in rhino horn had £401,180 in cash in the boot of his car.
Ben Janse van Rensburg, head of enforcement for the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites), the international treaty that governs trade in plants and animals, said: “The biggest challenge is that in the past few years there has been a big shift from ordinary poachers to organised crime groups. They are really, really well resourced and they have significant networks globally. You’re dealing with serious transnational organised crime.” And their targets are Africa’s white and black rhino, a total population estimated by some to be as high as 25,000, but by others to be as low as 11,000.
This month’s Kenya summit listed the actions needed to combat the situation; these included increasing the number of anti-poaching units, creating a DNA database of rhinos, using helicopters to track poachers, and establishing tougher laws on poaching and trading in horn. A statement said: “Strong protection forces on the ground are a must. Case studies of Asian rhino protection in certain national parks in Asia have demonstrated that the more trained and properly equipped anti-poaching staff there is in the field, the lower the rates of poaching.”
In addition, Cites officials are in talks with authorities in South Africa and Vietnam in an effort to find a solution to the rhino poaching crisis. And Britain is leading a special working group to find ways of tackling the illegal trade. This will report to Cites in July.
Meanwhile, on the ground in Africa, according to the African Wildlife Foundation’s Dr Bergin: “There is an arms race going on as to who can first use the latest advanced technologies – the rhino horn poachers or those of us fighting to protect this endangered species. For example, Namibia has been piloting the use of automated drones to monitor large areas for illegal incursions by poachers. In small areas, sonar can actually be used to monitor for incursions, but it is very expensive.” So bad has the situation become that South Africa has sent in scores of troops to guard the border of Kruger National Park, and increased the number of rangers from 500 to 650.
These measures are unlikely to be enough on their own. A more militant approach is needed says Damien Mander, a former special forces soldier and the founder of the International Anti-Poaching Foundation in Zimbabwe, which trains rangers in combat skills.
He said: “If we’re to save the rhino, we really have no choice other than to employ these kinds of tactics against the poachers. Rangers can no longer function like a bunch of boy scouts in the bush. We’re no longer dealing with amateurs here; we’re dealing with professional criminals who have access to the latest technology. They’ve militarised their assault on rhino so we must militarise our response against them.”
The stakes could hardly be higher. Dr Emslie, of IUCN, said: “In terms of African rhinos, we’ve lost one and almost lost another of the six subspecies that existed when I was born. Just recently, the Javan rhino subspecies in Vietnam was poached to extinction; the Javan rhino is reduced to 44. There are probably only 150 to 200 Sumatran rhinos – poaching threatens them, too. If the illegal demand continues to increase and prices remain high, then it’s a severe threat, not just to rhinos in Africa but all the world’s five species.”
Mr Janse van Rensburg of Cites said: “If the world’s enforcement authorities cannot stop this increasing trend, rhino population growth will not be sustained and we could see populations in Southern Africa decline to highly endangered status in a very short time, which will be a tragedy in terms of conservation and for the rhino.”
There are very few wildlife specialists who are optimistic. The conservationist Ian Craig, who helped to found Lewa Wildlife Conservancy in Kenya, said: “The current surge in poaching of rhino, and more recently elephant, across Africa, led by demand from the Far East is essentially just starting. I expect that the worst may yet still be to come.”
- Poaching in Africa: the scale of the problem (telegraph.co.uk)
- RHINO FACT FILE: Rhino Action Group Effort (inyatigamelodge.com)
- African big game poaching surges on Asian affluence (vancouversun.com)
- Rhino poached at refuge where Prince William proposed (telegraph.co.uk)
- ‘Mass Murder’: Rhinos Being Poached at Record Rates (commondreams.org)
- Poaching Has Devalued The Rhino (preciousjules1985.wordpress.com)
- Poaching may wipe out rhinos (canada.com)
- Rhino Dies During Demo of New Anti-Poaching Strategy (treehugger.com)
- ‘Mass Murder’: Rhinos Being Poached at Record Rates | Common Dreams (2012indyinfo.com)
- Wildlife trade stopped in its tracks : Thai Customs seize hundreds of smuggled turtles (environmentaleducationuk.wordpress.com)
- Video of the Day: It’s a Zoo at the Airport! (bushwarriors.wordpress.com)
- Has exotic-animal smuggling got out of hand? (guardian.co.uk)
- Thai Customs seize hundreds of smuggled turtles (guardian.co.uk)
- Luggage stuffed with 431 reptiles found in Bangkok (telegraph.co.uk)
- Luggage stuffed with 431 reptiles found in Bangkok (seattletimes.nwsource.com)
- Thai Authorities Seize Luggage Containing 431 Reptiles at Bangkok Airport (foxnews.com)
- Crocodiles and tortoises on a plane (seatoshiningsea.wordpress.com)
- Drugged baby leopards, panthers seized at Bangkok airport (cbc.ca)
In this year of Biodiversity, we need a debate about the state of the UK enviromment. Here’s is a start by Michael Mccarthy of The Independent
The tragic loss of British wildlife
Some truths are never voiced because they are virtually impossible to perceive. For example, I have never heard anyone declare how appallingly impoverished Britain’s wildlife is. That’s not the subject of a national debate (although it ought to be). That’s not even a national perception. In fact, I don’t know if it’s anybody’s perception. But it’s no less than the truth.
I have spent most of my life hearing time and again a peculiarly smug proposition, which is that “Britain’s xxxx is the best in the world.” Fill in the exes at your leisure from a long list: civil service, dinner-party conversation, breadth of heritage, movie technology, sense of humour, overseas broadcasting, gentlemen’s tailoring, armed forces, you name it. It’s a statement which trips ever so comfortably off the tongue. But how would you like to be told: “Britain’s wildlife is among the poorest in the world”? How would that look on a tourist poster?
Not that what we have isn’t wonderful in itself, not that we don’t cherish every feather, every flower, every footprint of it. But the fact remains that our wildlife today, British biodiversity, is but a mean, miserly fraction of what its true, “natural” level is, of what it has been in the past and what it really ought to be. And we are blind to the fact.
The reason is a curious one: every generation tends to take what it finds around it to be the norm. American marine biologists have coined an evocative term for this: the shifting-baseline syndrome, first applied to the management of fish stocks. You may think that the baseline, or natural state, of a stock is what it was at the start of your career, yet actually it may once have been very much greater. And of course this applies right across the natural world – to poppies, to skylarks, to tortoiseshell butterflies, of which your grandparents saw thousands, your parents saw hundreds, you saw dozens, and your children will see the odd one and never apprehend there is anything amiss. They will gaze on impoverishment and take it as standard.
I have felt this for a long time, yet my sense of it was triggered anew this week when I found myself in the delta of the River Mississippi, covering the BP oil spill. The Louisiana marshes are swirling with sparky life, graced with clouds of exotic herons and egrets and birds of prey, even at the side of the road, and I was put in mind of the Norfolk Broads or the Fens, wildlife showpieces of our own, and thought how little they had in comparison.
Louisiana is sub-tropical, of course, and species richness increases as you move towards the equator, so let’s do a comparison in more temperate zones. How many wild bird species do you think have been recorded in St James’s Park in central London? About 65. How many in Central Park in New York? More than 200. Or we can bring it back to Europe. We have about 60 butterfly species in Britain; go to France and you will find 250. We have but three woodpecker species and one, the lesser spotted, you will be lucky to see in a lifetime now; go to France and you can find seven. And it’s the same story with mammals and reptiles and amphibians and pretty much everything.
This is partly geographical accident; since we are cut off at the end of Europe it is impossible for many species to replenish their populations from the continent. But why do we often seem to have so little of what we do have? Why is there so little abundance?
Three years ago, in a groundbreaking book, Silent Fields, the biologist Roger Lovegrove provided the answer: he revealed in detail how, for the best part of 400 years, an unremitting campaign of organised slaughter was waged against wildlife in Britain. From the time of Henry VIII until the First World War, systematic killing on a scale unthinkable today was directed at most of our familiar wild animals and many wild birds: badgers, foxes, hedgehogs, otters; green woodpeckers, jays, kingfishers, bullfinches. Millions were slaughtered, first, by country people, from about 1530 to 1800, to claim bounties under the Tudor vermin laws, and second, by gamekeepers controlling predators on aristocratic shooting estates, from about 1800 to 1914.
Besides “thinning out” wildlife everywhere, this drove to the edge of the abyss, and to the remote corners of the land, a whole series of creatures which in Shakespeare’s day were familiar to everyone in the countryside: polecat, pine marten, wild cat, hen harrier, red kite. We have never recovered; and since the arrival of intensive farming 40 years ago the situation has only worsened: half the birds in the fields of England have disappeared since the Beatles broke up. Britain’s wildlife is one of our dearest assets and a balm for our souls, but it is very far from what it ought to be, and its impoverished nature seems to me now to be its most striking attribute.
Got those Mississippi geography blues
As a one-time aficionado of folk-blues, I had heard and listened to many of the famous singers who came from the Mississippi Delta – Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Howlin’ Wolf, Robert Johnson – so when I got to the mouth of the great river this week I was hot to find their traces. It took me some time to realise that the delta of the Mississippi river, and the Mississippi Delta, are two quite separate locations, the latter (where the bluesmen came from) being a plain in the north-west of the state. Just thought I’d pass it on.