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Wildlife Smugglers Are Exploiting our Freedom to Fly

IATA is committed to tackling the illegal wildlife trade, but what will it take to squash it? The following is an in-depth FCMedia perspectives report.

The democratisation of air travel resulting from advancements in aviation over the past decades is good news for travellers. The skies are now more convenient and cheaper than ever before. But what’s cheap for us comes at a great cost to endangered species.

Larger aircraft with longer range, and the continued growth of global airport hubs have also benefited wildlife smugglers, providing easier connections, lower fares, and fewer barriers.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA), an industry group representing over 260 of the world’s airlines recently acknowledged, “Transnational criminal gangs are exploiting the increasingly interconnected air transport system.”

When announcing a program “Wildlife Friendly Skies” last year, Kenya Airways CEO Mbuvi Ngunze said, “As a result of globalisation, and the ease of long distance travel, wildlife traffickers are exploiting commercial airlines to smuggle illicit wildlife products.”

There are now more direct flights connecting the key markets of supply and demand for this illegal trade.

An easy link between these two points also reduces the number of potential checkpoints for baggage screening, and concentrates the burden in places where officials are already tasked to their limits to discover and seize shipments of elephant tusks, rhino horns, pelts, pangolins, turtles, seahorses, rare birds, and a number of other endangered species which are worth more than gold to traders.

Fourth Most Profitable Criminal Enterprise

The value selling price of illegal wildlife paints the only reliable picture of a trade which operates in the shadows and is nearly impossible to pin down in real numbers. As the World Wildlife Foundation writes, “Run by dangerous international networks, wildlife and animal parts are trafficked much like illegal drugs and arms. By its very nature, it is almost impossible to obtain reliable figures for the value of illegal wildlife trade.”

The illegal wildlife trade is valued around $19 billion a year. That puts it fourth in the ranking of the other transnational criminal enterprises that aviation tackles every day; narcotics, counterfeiting, and human trafficking come in first, second and third.

Ivory can demand market values of between $1,100 to $2,100, according to Save the Elephants, while rhino horn is more expensive than gold, and in some cases more expensive than cocaine—selling with values quoted between $60,000 to $133,000 a kilo.

Africa’s elephant population has been cut by a third in the last decade alone, according to the first continent-wide aerial census published this week. At least 144,000 African elephants have been killed by poachers.

And our elephants aren’t the only victims of this criminal enterprise.

No Emotional Connection

The purported medicinal effects of rhino horn–buyers believe it improves mood and is an effective cure for hangovers–have boosted the price of this illicit product. Though in some cases, it’s just about proving you can afford it.

“Rhino horn consumers are wealthy and powerful and as such are seen as influential people within Vietnamese society,” WWF-SA’s Rhino Co-ordinator, Dr Jo Shaw said in 2013, as reported by TRAFFIC. “There is a current trend of use to enhance social standing,” she added.

Users are generally “successful, well-educated” men in their 40s who, Shaw said, “value their luxury lifestyle”.

This and the fact that animals are merely viewed as commodities, according to Shaw, with no “emotional connection,” has kept demand in Vietnam high and made Hanoi’s ports hotspots for this trafficking.

Smugglers Adapt

With weak enforcement and high demand, there’s money to be made. Wildlife smugglers are emboldened by the ratio of risk to reward, and the ease of finding buyers—a problem made far worse by the internet. Ebay, the world’s largest online marketplace, has made an effort to delete ads for illegal wildlife products, “but only the few it notices or hears about,” Ted Williams wrote in a report for Yale 360 at the end of last year.

Smugglers adapt, Tony Tyler, Director General and CEO of IATA told those gathered at the association’s Annual General Meeting in Dublin this year.

“There are many examples of very sophisticated smugglers. Some travel in groups on convoluted routes. Others mis-describe shipments. Some carry contraband on their body in ingenious ways,” Tony Tyler, Director General and CEO of IATA told those gathered at the association’s Annual General Meeting in Dublin this year. “Government enforcement authorities work hard to spot and stop these activities. But their window of observation is limited.”

The Evidence in the Bags

The records of items confiscated at the world’s airports give us some idea of the challenges the airline industry faces every day.

In January of this year, Vietnamese police officers caught smugglers at Hanoi’s Noi Bai Airport carrying six suitcases packed with 180 kilograms of tusks and ivory products. The three Angolan citizens had boarded a direct flight from Angola to Vietnam on Vietnam Airways, and claimed they had been hired by smugglers to transport the goods.

In March, at Maputo International Airport, Mozambique, officers discovered two suitcases carrying 76.6 kilos of rhinoceros horn and six kilos of lion claws and teeth.

This April, officials at Hanoi airport confiscated 98 kilos of elephant tusks carried on a Turkish Airlines flight which had departed from Almaty International Airport in Kazakhstan.

And also this April, Hong Kong International airport officials found 26 kilos of ivory, valued locally at HK$260,000 ($33,500). The ivory was hidden in two tailor-made vests packed into the smuggler’s carry-on luggage. The man had travelled from Abidjan, Ivory Coast, connecting through Dubai, before arriving at HKI.

IATA reports that between January and May of this year 600 kg of ivory and rhino horn, and over 8000 endangered reptiles were seized at the world’s airports.

“Thousands of wild animals are trafficked through airports everyday.”–

The Blood Road

The problem is ongoing and the finds are always tragic, sometimes baffling.

In June of 2014, fifteen passengers risked a multi-stop journey carrying 790 kg of ivory spread over 32 suitcases which were packed full of elephant tusks.

These criminals, destined for Cambodia managed to get from Angola to Ethiopia to South Korea to Hong Kong before an unexpected technical fault with aircraft caused their bags to be off-loaded and subject to customs inspection. The group was sentenced to six months in prison.

In July of 2015, three passengers traveling from Tanzania to China, were caught at Zurich airpot trying to smuggle 262 kilos of ivory, and one kilo of lion’s teeth and claws, again packed loosely in suitcases with no attempt to disguise the contents.

In November of 2015, tusks, carved bangles and beads weighing 110 kg were discovered at Heathrow’s Terminal 4. This cargo was left abandoned in transit from Angola to Germany.

The Scorpion Sting

The smuggling of wildlife also poses a risk to airline passengers.

“We have several examples of sometimes dangerous surprises escaping luggage,” Tyler said in his speech to attendees of IATA’s AGM in Dublin. “These have been as small as scorpions or as large as crocodiles and baboons! And more broadly, public health benefits from controlling the movement of animals which may carry infectious diseases if not properly handled through quarantine procedures.”

A smuggled scorpion stung a passenger last year on a flight between Los Angeles and Seattle.

This year, two smuggled tarantulas scuttled through the cabin on a flight from the Dominican Republic to Canada.

Corruption and Impunity

Catching these illegal shipments is complicated by a lack of adequate manpower, corruption and impunity when it comes to convicting smugglers.

While Vietnam has said it wants to crack down on criminals, on July 1 TRAFFIC reported the country had delayed implementing a new penal code which would have advanced efforts to curb this trade by issuing stricter penalties and adding protections for endangered species not indigenous to Vietnam.

Airlines have fought back by collaborating with groups like the US Agency for International Development on a Partnership for Reducing Opportunities for Unlawful Transport of Endangered Species (ROUTES); the World Customs Organisation; CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora), which is the UN body responsible for regulating the international trade in protected species; and the Duke of Cambridge’s United for Wildlife Transportation Taskforce.

In 2015, IATA signed an agreement to work with CITES to adopt the principles of the United for Wildlife Declaration in operations. IATA has created a dedicated Wildlife Taskforce to help airlines better recognize and address the problem.

During this year’s AGM, industry leaders signed a formal Declaration of the United for Wildlife International Taskforce on the Transportation of Illegal Wildlife Products.

While this Declaration sends a positive message, the association emphasized that the “primary duty for enforcing wildlife regulations remains with enforcement authorities.”

But those same authorities must tackle an optimised market for this and the other illegal trades which exploit our greater freedom to travel by air every day.

In Part 1 of an investigative report published this July, Tipping Point: Transnational organised crime and the ‘war’ on poaching, investigative reporter Julian Rademeyer identifies the tear in the government enforcement artery which bleeds out into the skies:

“Borders, bureaucracy and a tangle of vastly different laws and legal
jurisdictions are a boon to transnational criminal networks and a bane to
the law enforcement agencies rallied against them. Entities like Interpol,
Europol, CITES and the World Customs Organisation are only as good as
the government officials in member states who are delegated to work with
them. Again and again, their efforts to target syndicates in multiple jurisdictions
are hamstrung by corruption, incompetence, governments that are unwilling or
incapable of acting, a lack of information-sharing, petty jealousies and approaches to
tackling crime that wrongly emphasise arrests and seizures over targeted investigations and convictions as a barometer of success.”

A Force for Good

A streamlined transport network, the inflated values which stem from continued high-demand, tenacious smugglers, criminal ingenuity and rampant corruption complicate enforcement.

IATA and Airports Council International committed this year to a more sophisticated awareness-raising approach to fight the trade, and have partnered with government agencies and NGOs including CITES and United for Wildlife. Airline staff are being trained to be on the lookout for suspicious passenger behaviour, unusual flight connections with baggage checked through to the destination, suspicious baggage and cargo, and “unusual smells sounds, and weights.”

Airports have also committed to investigating new technologies which could ease detection, though a representative of ACI says they have not yet identified these what those technologies might be.

A representative from IATA said the question of what technologies might be used for detection is beyond their scope, but did say that sniffer dogs have proven effective at some key airports affected by the trade, specifically naming Nairobi.

The theme during this year’s IATA AGM was that aviation is a force for good, helping bring people closer and driving positive change on a local and global level.

But aviation lacks the force to enact change if governments—through lax laws and inadequate policing—send a different message.


1 thought on “Wildlife Smugglers Are Exploiting our Freedom to Fly”

  1. Pingback: New Solutions Will Help Curb Illegal Wildlife Shipments by Air, IATA | Flight Chic

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