East Asia, Africa and Ivory Smuggling

US Secretary of State Clinton spoke out against the threat of wildlife crime in a recent speech, she highlighted the rising danger to animals across the world and also the increased security threat as the proceeds from these crimes are being used to aid terrorism and civil conflict.

At the same time wildlife experts from around the world gathered in Beijing in an event organised by the Chinese Animal Welfare Association to demand more protection for the world’s rhinos, which are under massive threat because of the demand from East Asia, where rhino horns are coveted for their supposed medicinal properties. Behind this series of meetings and speeches around wildlife crime are some chilling statistics; Rhino poaching has soared. In 2007 only 12 incidents were reported globally, but in 2011 there were 448 in South Africa alone. The horns are literally worth more than gold, the price per kilo is $65,000 on the black market, the cost is driven by rarity value and because of its supposed medicinal properties, the dust from the horn is believed to cure both cancer and hangovers.

The human cost is also high, with dozens of game wardens killed by poachers in Africa this year alone. Other reports find that rebel groups like the notorious Lord’s Resistance Army and the Somali based Shabab are using ivory poaching to fund their wars. Campaigners are trying to turn this tide by influencing Chinese public opinion against the trade through education; hopefully by learning of the cruelty and scale of the slaughter along with awareness of the endangered status of the animals they can prevent an escalation in demand.

Because environmental crime rarely affects people directly, or when it does they are often poor and marginalised, it does not get the same attention that other criminal activity does, like drug smuggling and people trafficking. But of course the consequences for the environment are devastating, illegal logging destroys’ habitats, indigenous peoples’ lives and the carbon emissions from illegal logging easily outweigh those produced by global transport.

A largely unanswered question remains; namely who is behind these crimes and what happens to the money earned by these criminals, estimated at an incredible $19.5 billion. While some would be used for living expenses and for the bribery of officials, much of it would be have to be laundered into the legitimate financial system.

The World Bank have a policy of “crowding out” for crime prevention, by helping bolster law enforcement officials, prevent, detect and suppress such criminal activity. In many developing countries this strategy or any other poses a problem due to under resourced police and customs.  

Detection is difficult as wildlife living or dead is way down the list of priorities for most customs officials.  For example smuggling horns is relatively easy, while elephant tusks more difficult, but they can be easily hidden in a shipment of another bulkier cargo, when you consider that even a small port like Luanda or Durban handles over a million tonnes of cargo a week, then compare that to mega port like Shanghai or Singapore. Of course realistically it is impossible to check even a fraction of cargo.

As Carolyn Nordstrom in her book: “Global Outlaws, crime, money and power in the contemporary world” explains only 1% or so of cargo actually gets checked, and this does not even take in account the potential for bribing officials to turn a blind eye. Customs and the police can of course use intelligence and investigations to track smugglers, but the money and scale of wildlife smugglers operations combined with so many other problems competing for their attention make life very difficult for the crime fighters.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: