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Q&A with TRAFFIC’s Michelle Owen on wildlife trafficking

Global hub airports are being used by widllife traffickers around the globe to smuggle endangered wildlife to transport illegal shipments and the problem is not easing despite a worldwide effort to counter it.

Earlier this month a 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 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.

And 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.

CAAS spoke to TRAFFIC’s Michelle Owen, the ROUTES Partnership Lead, about the report and wildlife trafficking to gain a more in-depth insight into the fourth largest black market in the world.

Ground Pangolin at Madikwe Game Reserve in South Africa.

How big is the illegal trade of wildlife trafficking and is it growing?

Estimates vary, but several put the economic value at over $20 billion USD a year, making wildlife trafficking one of the world’s largest illegal markets, ranking fourth in size behind drugs, arms, and human trafficking. Over the last decade, illegal wildlife trade has grown to industrial scales, becoming a sophisticated transnational crime often linked to dangerous criminal networks.

Rhino and pangolin poaching has seen some of the sharpest increases in recent years. Only 62 rhinos were poached across Africa in 2006, but this figure shot up to 262 animals in 2007, and in 2014 reached over 1,200. Similarly, in the past 10 years alone, 20 per cent of African Elephants have been lost. The growth in demand for a variety of species from birds, to tigers, to marine life has led to an international crisis. As the world becomes more inter-connected, the need for immediate and coordinated responses grows more pressing.

Since the campaign started with IATA have you seen any changes in wildlife trafficking numbers or trends in air transport a) if so how and where b) Is there progress being made?

Since wildlife trafficking is illicit and underground, it is impossible to know the full scope and trends. Seizure data gives us an insight, but that only represents the wildlife that is successfully detected, which is only an unknown fraction of the actual amount of wildlife being trafficked.

The USAID Reducing Opportunities for Unlawful Transport of Endangered Species (ROUTES) Partnership recently released a new report, In Plane Sight, analysing recorded incidents of wildlife trafficking in air transport over the past eight years to determine the current methods and routes that traffickers employ to smuggle wildlife and wildlife products.

In 2017, a number of new trends emerged, including a 40 per cent increase in seizure rates. While this indicates that wildlife traffickers are still highly dependent on commercial air transport supply chains, an increase in seizures can also signal increased detection and reporting, which is vital for combating smuggling activities.

Seizure data can only provide a window into overall trafficking activity, but air transport personnel should be empowered to help detect and report wildlife trafficking, leading to more seizures and seizure information.

What are the most concerning and biggest wildlife trafficking lanes by air in the world?

The illegal wildlife trade is truly global, with incidents recorded in over 136 countries and every region. Traffickers tend to rely on large hub airports and will often take circuitous routes to hide suspicious flight paths.

For certain wildlife products – such as elephant ivory, rhino horn, lion bone, and pangolin scales – there is a clear Africa to Asia connection. However, traffickers often stop in airports in the Middle East or Europe before continuing to their destination in Asia, providing these regions with an important opportunity to intervene.

For live wildlife – such as birds, reptiles, and small mammals intended for the illegal pet trade or collections – traffickers tend to rely on direct flights and their patterns span worldwide, with the Americas, the Middle East, and Europe serving as significant destinations.

To combat these crimes, airports and airlines should understand what types of wildlife or wildlife products are commonly being trafficked through their region, which flight paths are most at risk, and how to detect and report suspicious behavior and red flags.

What are the main reasons that wildlife is trafficked?

Over 7,000 species are affected by the illegal wildlife trade, with a variety of underlying factors driving their demand. Wildlife and wildlife products are most commonly used both legally and illegally for food, ornaments, (traditional) medicine, as well as fashion and furnishing, and as pets.

Alongside policy changes to stem illegal supply, local and global organisations and governments are working to shift consumer perceptions about wildlife products. For example, leading traditional medicine practitioners in Vietnam and China have committed to refrain from using illegal wildlife products such as rhino horn or tiger bone for medicinal uses.

There are also a number of informational and behaviour change campaigns aimed at consumers to influence buying behaviours and reduce demand for wildlife products. For example, there are targeted campaigns around rhino horn and ivory in Southeast Asia and China where consumers are often motivated to purchase these products as public indicators of social status and wealth.

What animals are being trafficked the most?

Elephant ivory, rhino horn, birds, reptiles, and pangolins (the world’s most trafficked mammal) make up more than two-thirds of all illegally traded wildlife, excluding illegally-sourced timber and seafood.

Many species are at risk of extinction within our lifetime under the status quo. Looking at some of the numbers can be especially daunting:

  • one Rhino is poached every seven hours in Africa for its horn
  • 55 elephants are killed every day for their tusks
  • Around one million pangolins have been trafficked in the past two decades
  • An average of 110 tigers are entering illegal trade chains in Asia every year
  • Each year, 73 million sharks and 24 million seahorses are taken from the sea

There is no one-size-fits-all solution, but addressing the illegal wildlife trade is recognised as a vital component of sustainable development efforts worldwide.

Recently, the United Nations made this connection explicit by writing wildlife directly into its Sustainable Development Goals agenda, setting targets to “take urgent action to end poaching and trafficking of protected species of flora and fauna and address both demand and supply of illegal wildlife products”.

Wildlife crime has also been linked to other forms of organised crime including corruption, money laundering and even impacting on national security. In July last year, leaders of the G20 issued a pledge to address the corruption that facilitates wildlife trafficking.

What methods are used to traffic wildlife by air?

Wildlife traffickers are opportunistic and will adjust their methods and strategies to find the path of least resistance for the largest possible profit. Because of its efficiency and accessibility, the aviation sector is particularly vulnerable to being unwittingly used by traffickers to transport illegal wildlife and wildlife products.

Most wildlife traffickers use a combination of trafficking methods to evade detection in airports and on flights. According to our latest assessment, the most common air transport method used by wildlife traffickers was through checked luggage, followed by air freight and carry-on bags.

Often traffickers abandon or exchange luggage at airports, or carry an unusually high number of suitcases per passenger. To hide the luggage or cargo contents from detection by scanners or scent, traffickers tend to utilise an array of obfuscation methods including aluminum foil, paper, blankets and agricultural products. Many of these methods are also typical among traffickers of drugs, arms, and other illicit goods.

Do you have any particular recent examples of seizures that have been made at airports?

A passenger carrying nine rhino horns was intercepted last week in Ataturk Airport in Istanbul, Turkey after his luggage was deemed suspicious by customs officers. This seizure was startling, not only for the large number of rhino horns that the man was carrying in his luggage, but also for the fact that he was able to initially pass through customs in South Africa’s O.R. Tambo International Airport on his way to Turkey.

This seizure is in line with broader trends within the sector. According to the recent In Plane Sight report, rhino horn seizures in air transport nearly tripled between 2016 to 2017, and in a large number of instances, the report found that trafficked wildlife is being missed leaving Southern and Eastern African airports and is seized later in the transport route, either at the transit point or the destination airport.

ROUTES recently worked with Turkish Airlines to install a permanent Counter Wildlife Trafficking awareness exhibit and to deliver a training workshop for air transport staff in Ataturk Airport. This incident underlines the importance that all airports be equipped to handle wildlife trafficking cases, as this is not solely an Africa to Asia issue.

What challenges remain and what are the next steps to cutting the illegal trade of wildlife trafficking by air?

Wildlife trafficking has reached unprecedented levels of sophistication and will require a concerted global response at a scale that is capable of combatting these widespread wildlife crimes. While the task may seem daunting, momentum and collaboration from a variety of sectors and areas of expertise are bringing us closer every day to addressing the drivers of illegal wildlife trade and clamping down on organised trafficking networks. From the air transport sector, many airlines and airports have already stepped up as early leaders in this fight.

Air transport personnel can:

  • Improve their understanding of the regional status and trends in illegal wildlife trade, with a focus on trade routes and target species.
  • Collaborate with industry partners and organisations promoting actions to reduce and control the illegal wildlife trade.
  • Raise awareness of illicit trade amongst employees, peers, and corporate leaders globally.
  • Implement sector-specific training on combating wildlife trafficking and ensure that all staff members are aware of red flag indicators.
  • Where appropriate, review standards and practices to be better able to identify and report illegal wildlife shipments.