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Locations and activities relating to wildlife trafficking

 

Concentrations of wildlife trafficking

Like other crimes, wildlife trafficking is concentrated among places, time, routes, and products. Case studies on different species point to underlying opportunistic factors for why wildlife trafficking is concentrated in various ways while offering a number of ways by which trafficking can be reduced through spatio-temporal explicit prevention interventions.

Hot products

Not every species of wildlife is equally desired by humans, or even accessible, and as such, there is an expectation that poaching should be unevenly distributed among wildlife species. So-called 'hot product' analysis examines whether certain species are poached and/or trafficked more often than others. For example, wildlife seizures made at entry points in Asia, the European Union, and the United States show that certain taxonomic groups of wildlife are disproportionately trafficked into major demand markets while others are rarely seized (see, for example, Kurland & Pires, 2017).

The 'CRAVED model' (concealable, removable, available, valuable, enjoyable, and disposable) has been used to explain why certain products, such as parrots (Pires & Clarke, 2012), fish and crustaceans (Petrossian & Clarke, 2014; Petrossian et al, 2015), are more frequently taken from the wild and subsequently trafficked. This line of research has found that a mix of opportunity- and demand-side variables explain why certain species are at higher risk of being taken illegally. For example, parrot species that are the most abundant and accessible are the most frequently poached in Peru and Bolivia (Pires & Petrossian, 2016; Pires, 2015).

Spatio-temporal patterns

Several studies have found spatio-temporal concentrations of poaching. DNA assessments of seized ivory, for instance, has revealed that poaching of elephants is geographically concentrated in several hotspots in Africa (Wasser et al, 2015). Corroborating these findings, other studies reveal that elephant poaching has been found to be particularly problematic in only a few countries over a 20-year period (Lemieux & Clarke, 2009). At the local level, in one study, hot spots for elephant poaching were found within a national park in Kenya, and such incidents were concentrated during the dry season. Within this same park, elephant poaching was significantly related to where higher elephant densities, water, and roads were found (Maingi et al, 2012). Consistent with these findings, other research on poaching of deer, rhino, American ginseng, and redwood burl have shown spatial concentrations and a link to accessibility (i.e. roads) and availability of targets (Kurland et al, 2017).

Hot routes and risky facilities

Several studies show that crime is often concentrated among 'hot routes' (Tompson et al, 2009) and 'risky facilities' (Eck et al, 2007). This type of research suggests that 'hot routes' are being used from particular countries to particular ports. Using information retrieved from the US Fish and Wildlife Services (USFWS) LEMIS database, a study published in 2017 found that only a small number of export countries account for the majority of wildlife seizures entering the United States and that a small number of entry points seize a disproportionate amount of wildlife contraband (Kurland & Pires, 2017). 'Risky facilities' research has shown, for example, that fishing ports that were visited more often by problematic fishing vessels (i.e. vessel involved in illegal, unreported or unregulated (IUU) fishing) were those ports that were larger, experienced more vessel traffic, and were located in countries experiencing higher levels of corruption and with less effective fishery inspections (Petrossian et al, 2015).

 

Collecting and harvesting

The initial step in wildlife trafficking is the collection, poaching, or harvesting of the animal or plant-be it alive or killed in order to be further processed into a product or derivative of some sort. Wildlife trafficking is different from the trafficking of other forms of contraband. In most criminal markets, most damage only accrues when the contraband reaches its final consumer. In contrast, the main harm caused by wildlife trafficking occurs when the contraband is sourced. Once wildlife has been illegally sourced, the damage has been done, regardless of what happens later in the market (UNODC, 2017).

Example: Trapping of live birds

Trafficking in birds usually involves living animals, often exotic species, that are used as pets by consumers. Poaching thus requires methods that catch the bird rather than kill it. Nevertheless, many methods used to trap birds are nothing short of cruel and harmful to the animal involved. Alternatively, poachers may steal eggs or young birds from nests.

Owls, for instance, are often trapped using the 'latex or bamboo method'. Latex glue is smeared onto a bamboo pole. Once an owl is located, the trapper slowly moves the glue-smeared twigs towards the bird, which becomes stuck to it upon contact and can then be pulled down. This method is used because owls are not meant to be released later, or to be kept as pets, and little consideration is given to its soiled plumage (Ahmed, 2010).

Liming, another term that refers to coating a branch with a sticky substance in order to catch birds, also used to be a common method to catch parrots, but has been abandoned by most trappers as it can leave the bird badly damaged, which also reduces their market prices. Instead, nest poaching is more common and one of the easiest ways to obtain parrots. Two methods are generally used to collect nestlings: cutting down the nesting tree (for species like macaws that nest very high) or cutting open the nest cavities in order to remove the chicks. Both methods are very destructive, not least because sites become useless for future nesting. In order to compensate for mortalities, up to four times as many parrots are captured than make it to market (Weston & Memon, 2009; Cantú Guzmán et al, 2007).

A further method used to catch parrots is setting nets. Mist nets made of black silk nylon are often employed since birds have difficulty seeing them. his method, too, comes with a high mortality rate due to stress (Cantú Guzmán et al, 2007).

Singing birds are usually caught using wooden or wire cage traps. A bird is placed inside the cage to attract others. In some cases, mobile phone or audio devices playing the sound of songbirds are placed inside the cage. The cage has two or more entrances on the top with trap doors. The trap door closes when the bird alights on a perching stick, which is the trigger (Cantú Guzmán et al, 2007).

 

Example: African elephants

Based on estimates from 2013, elephants can be found in 37 countries in Africa. 60 percent of the known and probable elephant population live in just three of them, namely Botswana, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe. In 2011, it was estimated that about 7 percent of Africa's elephants are poached annually. Since elephant populations do not increase at rates greater than 5 percent each year, the net decline is significant (UNODC, 2016).

As mentioned earlier, poaching activities are often concentrated in specific locations. The places and patterns of elephant poaching have changed over the past ten years along with depletion of elephant populations. Some of the countries most affected by poaching are those with unregulated markets for ivory (i.e. countries without policies on and enforcement of domestic sale of ivory), those affected by corruption, civil war, and those bordering these countries (Lemieux & Clarke, 2009).

In the first decade of the 2000s, central African countries were at the epicentre of poaching activities. Over the past ten years, these activities have shifted to two principal locations. One is the border area of the Congo, Equatorial Guinea, and Gabon, known as the TRIDOM (Tri-National Dja-Odzala-Minkébé) area in the Congo Basin. The other is the Selous-Niassa corridor on the border between Mozambique and Tanzania (Miller et al, May 2015). According to the IUCN, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, Tanzania has lost over 60 percent of its elephants in the last decade. Estimates from areas surveyed in Mozambique show a loss of about half of the comparable current population estimate, with losses particularly intense in the north of the country. The importance of southern Tanzania/northern Mozambique to the illegal ivory market has also been repeatedly demonstrated in DNA analysis of seized tusks (UNODC, 2017).

 

Trafficking

Following the initial collection (poaching or harvesting), the animal, animal part or plant needs to be transferred to the buyer. Depending on the products and use, it may first undergo processing, modification, or manufacturing to alter it for the intended use.

The methods used to bring the contraband from source to destination depends on a myriad of factors including locations, distance, border controls and other inspections, documentation, but also on specific requirements of the transported goods (whether they are fragile or solid, small or large, living or inanimate). Further impacting on the methods, means, and routes chosen are the legal frameworks pertaining to the protection of endangered species, animal welfare, customs and the like, and the level of their enforcement.

Trafficking may involve simply hiding the illegal wildlife or wildlife product, forging permits, misusing real permits, or bribing customs and border officials. For some wildlife species, parallel markets and legal industries exist through which illegally obtained products may be laundered. Protected animals and plants can be trafficked across borders using a plethora of methods, including concealment on a person and in luggage, alteration of required permits and other documentation to reflect a different quantity, origin, or type of species, and modification of the trafficked items themselves (EIA, 25 March 2015).

There is little evidence to suggest that the majority of wildlife crime networks maintain their own parallel supply chains, i.e. use their own ships or planes to transport cargo. Rather, the relatively small size of most consignments means that traffickers use the services of various licit transport logistics providers such as regular mail, commercial passenger and cargo airlines, shipping, trucking, container-leasing and warehousing companies. In most cases, these companies are unaware of the contraband they carry because it has not been disclosed to them or it has been declared falsely or fraudulently (Miller et al, May 2015). In some cases, however, carriers have been complicit in wildlife trafficking, as have been corrupt officials in customs, border control, and other inspection and loading points. Trafficking may also be carried out by ignorant tourists who purchase wildlife products and pets and take them home in their luggage or ship them by mail or courier.

Concealment of contraband

Much like any other high-value contraband, wildlife traffickers go to significant lengths to hide illicit products from law enforcement and customs inspections. The methods used to conceal illicit shipments of ivory, for instance, range from traffickers filling containers with pungent cover materials like fish maws or anchovies to disguise the smell of ivory from inspection dogs, to modifying containers themselves to create false backs and compartments to hide the ivory (Miller et al, May 2015).

A seemingly endless range of methods are used to hide or disguise animals, animal parts, and plants, especially when contraband crosses international borders. Individual travellers, including tourists, sometimes hide live animals, animal products, plants, and plant material in their luggage. Ivory is sometimes painted to disguise it as wood or plastic. A trafficker based in West Africa, for instance, was found boiling ivory and soaking it in resin to stain it and make it appear more antiquated before exporting the contraband to the United States, thereby exploiting a CITES loophole that may permit trade in antique ivory. In 2013, customs authorities in Macau intercepted two South African nationals attempting to traffick 34kg of ivory disguised as chocolate bars in their hand luggage. The ivory had been cut up into smaller pieces, individually wrapped in fake packaging, and covered in a brown substance to create the impression of chocolate bars (Miller at al, 2015).

Some traffickers hide eggs, animals, or other contraband in their clothing, sometimes in specially designed compartments. In one instance, a man used a compartment in his prosthetic leg to traffick three iguanas from Fiji to the United States (Rosen & Smith, 2010). In the case of falcons, sedated live birds are wrapped in cloth and placed into tubes which are then carried in people's luggage or hidden in other products like fruit. It is not uncommon for wildlife to be trafficked on people themselves: for example, trafficking rare bird eggs in pockets and snakes in trousers (Miller et al, May 2015).

In many locations, it is, however, not necessary to conceal the contraband, especially if border controls are non-existent or ineffective. It has been reported, for instance, that in parts of Asia, 'large quantities of wildlife are transported across borders by truck without any special effort at concealment' (Rosen & Smith, 2010, p. 27)

Example: Trafficking of turtles and tortoises

Freshwater turtles and tortoises are frequently purchased as pets for private homes. Many collectors deliberately seek out endangered species and are prepared to pay high prices for them, despite the fact that the trade in many species is illegal. Trafficking thus involves the transport of live animals, which poses additional challenges for transportation and concealment. Many trafficking methods, however, are cruel and potentially harmful to the animals.

A 2008 report on trafficking in freshwater turtles and tortoises in Thailand included interviews with several traffickers and dealers who gave insight into common trafficking methods: 'one can put the turtles or tortoises in a suitcase, making sure to put tape over the legs and head, keeping the animal in one position, as movement would be noticeable on the X-ray machines at the airport.' He went on to say that 'small turtles and tortoises can be placed in pockets, whilst ensuring that there are no metal objects or cell phones on the person, as these would be detected when going through the metal detector. If the metal detector is not set off, the Customs officer will likely not conduct a search, and therefore the animals will not be detected.'

(Shepherd & Nijmann, 2008, p. 10)
 

Fraudulent documents

Once a part has been removed from an animal or the animal or plant removed from its natural surroundings, it can become extremely difficult to establish or distinguish the species, the location it has come from, or the method with which it has been obtained. If the species is the same, but one source (for example captive breeding) is legal, and another (poaching) is illegal, it can be difficult, if not impossible, to distinguish which one the animal or plant came from.

Great advances have been made with regard to identifying and using DNA, such that experts can identify legal from illegal commodities or track the origin of a product (such as shark fins and meat) (see, for example, Liu et al, 2013). However, DNA analysis is not available in some locations and it cannot be applied across the board. Expensive and sophisticated methods to establish the origin of a product or species (such as carbon-dating used for ivory (Schmidberger et al, 2018; Cerling et al, 2016)) are not available for many places. Customs officials and other law enforcement personnel are often not sufficiently trained to tell the difference between species (such as turtles), which makes it easy for false declarations and fraudulent documents to remain undetected.

When it is hard or impossible to verify the source of a specimen, laundering becomes a significant problem (Wiersema, 2016). Similarly, oud or agarwood products are sometimes laundered through plantations with the result that they appear to come from a legal source (UNODC, 2016).

Example: Reptile skin

In the reptile skin industry, laundering of wild caught specimens through the legal trade appears to be common. Although many of the reptiles in the legal trade are wild-sourced, quotas are generally set for this harvest, which can provide an incentive for misdeclaration. In some cases, crocodile farms have exaggerated their production capacity in order to secure large export quotas, only to then fill these quotas with wild-caught caimans. Illegally caught reptiles may be introduced into legal supply chains within the source country when field collection is not directly monitored, allowing them to be exported as legal trade.

(UNODC, 2016)
 

Trafficking routes

Trafficking routes for wildlife frequently do not follow direct lines between source and destination countries; they can be circuitous and involve multiple transit stages. Research published in 2018 also reveals that trafficking does not always conform with the traditional stereotype of trafficking wildlife, animal parts, or plants from developing to more developed countries (Symes at al, 2018). Complex routes serve to conceal the origin or destination of the shipment to take advantage of transit points with underdeveloped legal frameworks or poor law enforcement.

Example: Trafficking of ivory

Every year, law enforcement authorities in Africa and Asia make large ivory seizures, many weighing over 500 kg. The CITES Elephant Trade Information System (ETIS) collects ivory seizure data from States Parties to CITES. Between 2009 and 2014, ETIS has recorded 91 such shipments, totalling 159 metric tons of ivory. This represents ivory from at least 15,900 elephants. Due to the considerable volumes of goods crossing international borders, it is likely that only a fraction of any contraband flow is seized.

It appears that most ivory trafficked from the African continent departs by sea in large shipments of raw tusks: over 70 percent of the ivory seized between 2009 and 2013 has been found in large shipments of raw ivory. About 70 percent of the ivory seizures between 2009 and 2013 reported to CITES emanated from Eastern Africa, principally Kenya and Tanzania. The ports of Mombasa, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam and Zanzibar in Tanzania are frequently associated with large ivory seizures. Large volumes of ivory seized in Uganda also indicates the country functions as a further staging area. There appears to be trafficking within the region to Uganda and possibly Sudan, which serve as transit countries. A second flow emanates from Western Africa, with seizures associated with departures from Nigeria and Togo. Much of this ivory comes from Central Africa, particularly Cameroon, Gabon, and the Republic of the Congo (Brazzaville).

The main mechanism of international transport appears to be containerized sea freight (for examples of good practices in risk management, supply chain security and trade facilitation in seaports, airports and land border crossings, see UNODC-WCO Container Control Programme). Based on the seizure records, key transit countries for containerized trafficking include Malaysia (particularly Port Klang), Viet Nam (particularly Da Nang and Hai Phong), Nigeria, Uganda, Togo, the United Arab Emirates, and Singapore. The use of air couriers has also been detected recently. Some media report a trend towards mixed loads, in which ivory is detected alongside rhino horn, lion teeth, and pangolin scales, suggesting a confluence of these trafficking chains. The predominance of large-scale seizures in the seizure total and the geographic concentration of poaching suggest a market controlled by a limited number of large players.

(UNODC, 2016)
 

Example: Trafficking of glass eels

Eels are widely consumed as a food in Asia, particularly China and Japan. Breeding eels has proven problematic, so nearly all the global eel supply comes from wild sourcing. Most eels are captured during seasonal mass migrations as juveniles, before they acquire pigmentation. These so-called 'glass eels' are then grown to adult size at farms in Asia, particularly China.

Traditionally, Japanese eels were preferred, but when populations began to dwindle, imports of European eel increased. According to the IUCN, Japanese eel is considered endangered and European eel critically endangered. In 2009, the listing of the European eel on CITES Appendix II came into effect, and in December 2010, the EU imposed a ban on exports of European eel. As a result, demand for American eel and Philippine mottled eel began to rise and large illicit shipments of European eel started to be regularly detected. According to the World WISE database, at least 3.4 metric tons of glass eels were seized between 2011 and 2015, accounting for millions of individuals and worth as much as USD 7 million in destination markets.

Trafficking of glass eels from Europe involves direct movement from the main source countries, including France, Portugal, Spain, and the United Kingdom, to East Asia, primarily though air freight, often mislabelled as other fish products. The value of the glass eels, up to USD 2000 per kilogram in destination markets, is such that air couriering is financially viable. Some detected shipments have transited Eastern European countries (including Albania, Bulgaria, Greece, Hungary, and Northern Macedonia), as well as Morocco and the Russian Federation.

(UNODC, 2016)
 

Selling

 

Market places

Trafficked wildlife, including live animals, animal products, and derivatives, as well as timber, plants, plant material and products, is offered for sale-overtly and covertly-in a wide variety of markets. The range of places where such contraband may be sold is seemingly endless, ranging from stores and physical markets to persons selling goods in the street, to advertisements for private or commercial sales, to catalogues and restaurant menus. In some places, wildlife products, even if they come from an illicit source or involve an endangered species, are on public display for sale. Elsewhere, they may only be shown if specifically asked for or after middlemen establish a connection between the seller and the buyer (to ensure illegal sales remain undetected by authorities). Depending on the commodity, it is also not uncommon for contraband to be co-mingled with licit products to disguise its origin. Some sellers specialize in offering wildlife contraband for sale; others sell them in addition to licit goods. Some only sell to trusted buyers to avoid detection and arrest; others sell to the general public, including buyers who are ignorant about the source of the product or the species they are purchasing.

Online trade

The Internet is an important platform for legal and illegal wildlife trade. It is a convenient medium for traffickers to advertise and sell anonymously. Furthermore, it enables direct sales to the buyer thereby eliminating the need for intermediaries. Despite increased awareness and vigilance by some online companies, the proliferation of illegal wildlife products on the Internet continues. Several reports also point to the use of social media and the 'dark web' for the sale of wildlife contraband (see, for example, Harrison et al, 2016; IFAW [undated]; for further reading on the dark web, see also the E4J University Module Series on Cybercrime).

Regular monitoring of social media and online sales sites has become an essential part of efforts to detect and curb wildlife trafficking. Furthermore, research into online markets has the potential to uncover other trends, such as shifts in consumer preference and market reactions to special events (e.g., new legislation, uplisting of species on endangered lists). However, many countries do not engage in routine Internet surveillance to detect wildlife crime, instead undertaking such monitoring only in pursuit of further information regarding specific cases that have already been established. As one of the primary contemporary marketplaces for wildlife trafficking, more comprehensive surveillance of the Internet is clearly desirable (Sung & Fong, 2018; Alacs & Georges, 2008).

Example: Online turtle sales in China

A study of Internet-based sales of turtles in China and Hong Kong published in 2018 found that trafficking in CITES-listed turtles online is occurring in plain view, and that there is strong evidence that trade regulations in their current form are ineffective. The study further shows that the price of turtles increased with rarity associated with IUCN status. Notably, the five most expensive turtle species were all critically endangered species belonging to the Asian box turtle genus Cuora: Zhou's box turtle (C. zhoui; offered for sale for a mean prince of USD 38,461), Pan's box turtles (C. pani; mean price of USD 20,940), yellow-headed box turtle (C. aurocapitata; mean price USD 19,872), McCord's box turtle (C. mccordi; mean price USD 16,667) and golden coin turtle (mean price USD 6,418). The higher prices of rare and wild-caught turtles exemplify the so-called 'anthropogenic allee effect', a standard approach for conceptualizing the threat of economic markets on endangered species: rarity increases the price of an item, and the disproportionally high prices provide incentives for persistent harvesting of the already depleted wild populations.

The study further showed that turtles, pure species or hybrids, with special morphology were particularly highly priced. Turtle keepers may prefer rare or strange forms. The most expensive individual recorded in this study was an albino common snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina) adult, which was offered for USD 50,800. Wild individuals or populations with special colour forms may be targeted for producing so-called 'designer' turtles. Hybrid turtles represented a small proportion (4 percent) of the trade, yet some were highly priced. Hybrid turtles may be attractive to hobbyists because of the high variability and uniqueness of morphology, as 'designer' turtles. Hybrids of the Indochinese box turtle (Cuora galbinifrons) and keeled box turtle (Cuora mouhoutii) were over nine times more expensive than the price of their parent species. Production of hybrids does not lead to elimination of turtles from the wild, however, increasing popularity of hybrid turtles in the market may render trade regulation more difficult.

(Sung & J Fong, 2018)
 

Example: Online illegal orchid trade from Southeast Asia

Offline sales for the specialist market are restricted to personal connections, direct purchase from nurseries, or visits to international orchid shows, which often necessitates expensive international travel on the part of the buyer, thus placing constraints on the consumer market. Therefore, the Internet has undoubtedly made it much easier for buyers looking for a specific type of plant to find it for sale. In particular, the large numbers of sole traders selling wild plants on social-media platforms are unlikely to have offline access to international consumers, with the main potential avenue for such sales being attendance at international orchid shows.

Reports from those involved in the orchid industry in the United Kingdom, Thailand, Taiwan and several other Asian countries suggest that the Internet trade for orchids is growing, although this does not always mean that offline markets are decreasing. In addition, increased facilitation by social-media platforms for online commerce is likely to mean that the use of these platforms by orchid traders is increasing. Furthermore, the illegal trade is expanding from traditional e-commerce platforms, such as eBay, where it has been observed for years, and to sites where it was not previously found, such as Instagram.

The spread and diversity of platforms used for the online orchid trade indicate the fragmented nature of online markets, underscoring the limitation of focusing on any single platform's policy as a means of enforcement. Despite the variations in the platforms that are used, and their locations, seller and buyer types, there are also some notable similarities, even between countries and languages. For example, Facebook is significant among Indonesian and Vietnamese traders but is not accessible in China, where websites such as Alibaba are used instead.

(Hinsley, September 2018)
 
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