The International Herald Tribune reports on the trade that literally killing creatures
MOSCOW — The 26 elk lips were just the tip of the pile. The items the Russian customs agents reported seizing Tuesday were exotic even by the standards of Russia’s border with China, where wildlife smuggling is rampant: 1,041 bear paws, lynx fur, unspecified claw parts and five tusks from the extinct woolly mammoth.
Officials said they discovered the cargo after a dog alerted them to the contents in the bed of a Chinese driver’s seemingly empty truck. On closer examination, officials found a secret compartment with the cache of contraband.
“The illegal cargo weighing almost 1.4 tons was detained by border guards and customs officials” a statement explained. The items were individually wrapped, the statement said, though it did not say if the compartment was refrigerated. The elk lips alone weighed 143 pounds.
Smuggling is generally blossoming in Russia’s Far East. The long border with China, closed for decades, is now open for travel and trade.
“China is a vacuum cleaner for Siberian wildlife,” said Aleksei L. Vaisman, a senior coordinator for Traffic Europe-Russia, which is sponsored by the conservation group WWF, which monitors trade in wild animals. The largest cache of bear paws he knew of previously was 787 paws (one paw shy of 197 full sets of four).
As Russian border agents using dogs have become more adept at catching small-time traffickers, smugglers have been compelled to risk large shipments, he said. The large number reported Tuesday (from about 260 bears) were most likely accumulated by brokers who bought them from hunters over the winter, he said. A set of four brings the hunters about $50.
Bear paws are a ritual dish for Chinese, elk lips a delicacy. Also smuggled daily, for food or medicine, are bear gallbladders, frogs, deer antlers and the genitals of spotted deer. The bones of highly endangered Amur tigers are sought for their aphrodisiac qualities.
The mammoth ivory poses an unusual set of legal and ethical issues.
The tusks are more abundant than many people in the West realize. Encased in an upper layer of Siberia’s permafrost are the remains of an estimated 150 million mammoths that lived from 3,600 to 400,000 years ago. The parts surface in the spring thaw across vast stretches of Russia’s far north and are routinely collected. Most are exported — legally — to China, South Korea and Japan to be carved into personal stamps used in place of signatures on documents.
Russia, though, requires an export license. This is intended to ensure that traders send tusks with possible scientific value — like prehistoric slaughter marks or signs of ancient disease — to researchers. Generally, conservationists concerned about the illegal ivory trade from Africa into Asia encourage buyers to turn to the legal trade from Siberia of ivory from mammoths.
Still, it was unclear how the tusks were hidden in the truck intercepted at a border crossing in the town of Blagoveshchensk or how the smuggler had obtained them. The tusks are often cut up and sold by the kilogram.
- Over one ton of smuggled animal parts intercepted in Russia’s Far East (rt.com)
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- Kenyan police seize 1 ton of ivory at airport (seattletimes.nwsource.com)
- Thailand seizes hundreds of elephant tusks (cbc.ca)
- Thai police raid secret ivory carving workshops (sfgate.com)
- Russian and Chinese leaders meet in Moscow (rt.com)
- Thais seize 2 tons of ivory in largest bust ever (seattletimes.nwsource.com)
- The view from St Petersburg: John Faraci (rt.com)
- Thais seize 2 tons of ivory in largest bust ever (sfgate.com)