New report finds wildlife trafficking on the rise and continued use of global hubs

New analysis of global wildlife trafficking seizures in the air transport sector has revealed wildlife traffickers are highly dependent on commercial air transportation systems to smuggle endangered wildlife and are using hub airports more than ever to move illegal shipments.

The report, In Plane Sight: Wildlife Trafficking in the Air Transport Sector, produced by C4ADS as part of the USAID Reducing Opportunities for Unlawful Transport of Endangered Species (ROUTES) Partnership, analysed global airport seizures of illegal wildlife and wildlife products from 2009 to 2017, finding trafficking in at least 136 countries worldwide.

Of the seizures, air freight made up 18.5 per cent of the total, 43 per cent were smuggled through checked baggage, 11 per cent hidden on the passenger’s body or in their carry-on bags, 2.8 per cent by mail, 0.4 per cent on a private aircraft and the remaining 34.4 per cent the mode of transport was not known.

Ground Pangolin at Madikwe Game Reserve in South Africa.

Data from 2017 shows a 40 per cent increase in recorded seizures since 2016, including a massive spike in rhino horns seizures, which nearly tripled from the year prior.

The report found seizure data indicates wildlife traffickers moving ivory, rhino horn, reptiles, birds, pangolins, marine products, and mammals by air tend to rely on large hub airports all over the world.

Collectively, these categories account for about 81 per cent of all trafficked wildlife, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), and serve as indicators for broader trends within illicit wildlife trafficking.

The top 10 countries for known air seizures were China; Thailand; Kenya; India; Indonesia; Vietnam; Malawi; the UAE; Uganda and South Africa (1st to 10th).

The top 10 countries by known air trafficking instances and the number of times illegal wildlife was moved through an airport in a country regardless of whether it was seized were China; Thailand; the UAE; Vietnam; Indonesia; Kenya; India; South Africa; Malaysia; and the USA (1st to 10th).

Seized ivory. Department of National Parks, Bangkok.

Between January 2009 and December 2017, officials at airports around the world seized at least 44,609 kilogrammes of ivory, 1,920 kg of rhino horns, 131,564 live reptile, 13,131 live birds and 22,612 kg of pangolins.

Known rhino horn seizures in the air transport sector increased by 193 per cent from 2016-17 and originate from Africa before transiting across Europe, East Africa, the Middle East and destined for Asia.

According to the In Plane Sight report, routes of wildlife products such as ivory, rhino horn and pangolin tend to flow from Africa to Asia, often transiting first through the Middle East and Europe.

Wildlife traffickers carrying live animals, such as live birds and reptiles, generally rely on direct flights worldwide with different hotspots for wildlife trafficking in every region. China was by far the most common destination for all seized wildlife products between 2009 and 2017.

TRAFFIC’s Michelle Owen, the ROUTES Partnership Lead, said: “Wildlife trafficking has global implications for the environment, people and communities, and national security. Seizure data like this is vital to helping regulators, enforcement, and industry take action.

“Criminals involved in wildlife trafficking are often directly connected to other illegal networks, including narcotics and human trafficking. By addressing wildlife trafficking, airports and airlines not only help protect endangered species, they also strengthen their operations and supply chains.”

In Plane Sight outlines more than a dozen recommendations based on seizure data for preventing wildlife trafficking through the air transport sector. These include building awareness among personnel and passengers, training air industry staff, strengthening corporate policies and seizure protocols, and sharing seizure information.

International Air Transport Association (IATA) assistant director of environment, Jon Godson said: “Many airlines recognise the need to combat wildlife trafficking and are stepping up as leaders in this global effort. Airline staff spend more time with passengers and baggage than customs authorities and can provide a key source of intelligence for enforcement agencies.”

Airports Council International (ACI) World senior manager of environment, Juliana Scavuzzi said traffickers are increasingly “abusing transport systems” to move their products quickly and securely and during the journey from source to market, airports may be used in the transit

He added: “This provides airports with an important opportunity to play their role in preventing wildlife trafficking. ACI is committed to developing a framework to fight wildlife trafficking, and support our members with their efforts.”

In Plane Sight is the most comprehensive assessment of wildlife trafficking in the air transport sector to date, and builds on the previous ROUTES report, Flying Under the Radar, which was released in 2017 and focused on seizures of rhino horn, ivory, live birds and live reptiles from 2009-2016.

By including 2017 data and assessing trafficking incidents of pangolin, marine products, and mammal products, In Plane Sight provides a more in-depth look at wildlife trafficking methods and trends around the world.

C4ADS author, Mary Utermohlen added: “Wildlife seizure data is vital for identifying, understanding and combatting wildlife trafficking in airports around the world.

“Still, it’s important to recognize that seizure data of any kind only provides a partial window into the true nature of trafficking activity. What seizures can’t show are the patterns and routes associated with trafficking activity that is not detected, seized or reported by enforcement authorities.”

The illegal trade of wildlife is the fourth largest black market in the world – worth in the region of $20 billion annually—and impacts more than 7,000 species of animals and plants. Criminal organizations involved in wildlife trafficking are often directly connected to other trafficking networks, with the profits being used for all manner of illegal activities.