COMBATING THE ILLEGAL ANIMAL TRADE

COMBATING THE ILLEGAL ANIMAL TRADE

According to the Los Angeles Times: “Endangered species are covered by a complex web of local, state and international laws and treaties, which include a number of exceptions. For example it is legal to sell lion meat but not tiger meat in the United States and tigers can not sold internationally or between states but they can be sold within a state. Sentences for smuggling animals are much less than those for smuggling drugs. In the United States, first time offenders are fined $500 and second time offenders get six months of home confinement.

In September 2004, the governments of Southeast Asia announced the first coordinated effort to combat the illegal animal trade. The announcement by ASEAN was very general and focused on the need for action rather than defining measures that needed to be taken. The general view in Asia it seems is that governments have more important things to worry about---like terrorists, crime, drugs and poor people---than the illegal animals which provide jobs and pumps a lot of money into the economy.

Michael Casey of AP wrote: “Long outgunned and outmaneuvered by smuggling gangs, the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations agreed last year to form the Wildlife Enforcement Network to combat a black-market trade in plants and animals that generates $10 billion in revenue each year _ third behind illicit dealings in weapons and drugs. "We're not only talking small-scale poaching here but organized crime that threatens biodiversity, global health and regional security," said Winston Bowman, regional environmental director for the U.S. Agency for International Development in Bangkok. Bowman noted that since the United States is one of the largest importers of wildlife, it wants to ensure the animals landing on its shores are legal. Thus the U.S. is providing $2.7 million over three years to the anti-smuggling groups WildAid and Traffic for training and technical support in Thailand and eventually in the Philippines, Indonesia and Vietnam. [Michael Casey, AP, December 23, 2006]

Pitted against the poachers in Thailand are rangers with M-16s. Many have a deep respect for animals and have spent long periods of time in the forest and mountains. Some have been trained in United States-financed government programs. Once, a mob of poachers and villagers armed with guns and swords killed a forestry official and wounded another in a wildlife protection camp on northern Thailand. The villagers were avenging the shooting in the leg of a villager caught poachers by the official who was killed.

See Tigers, Rhinos and Orangutans

TRAFFIC International s a global network formed in 1976 to monitor the wildlife trade.

Hundreds of Rangers Die Combating the Global Wildlife Trade

Amelie Bottollier-Depois of AFP wrote: Hundreds of rangers have been killed over recent years as poachers stop at nothing in their quest for lucrative animal parts such as ivory and rhino horn, according to experts at a global convention on protecting wildlife in Bangkok. The death toll among the rangers has risen as the slaughter of elephants and rhinos reaches record levels -- with photographs of carcasses stripped of horns or tusks stirring public outcry. [Source: Amelie Bottollier-Depois, AFP, March 9, 2013]

At least 1,000 rangers have been killed in 35 different countries over the last decade, said Sean Willmore, president of the International Ranger Federation (IRF), adding that the real global figure may be between 3-5,000. "There is an undeclared war going on on the frontline of conservation," he told AFP citing the example of a group of 50 rangers in the Democratic Republic of Congo who stumbled across a 5,000-strong militia group out poaching armed with AK47s. And while attacks by lions or elephants make their work "dangerous enough", he says 75 percent of the dead were killed by traffickers, with their lack of equipment, training and low wages weighing against them.

Overwhelmed by the Task of Combating the Illegal Animal Trade in the United States

Thomas Curwen wrote in Los Angeles Times: “In the United States the Fish and Wildlife Service is overwhelmed by the task. Nationwide there are 199 Fish and Wildlife special agents, responsible for investigating illegal trade and the deaths of protected species, and 115 wildlife inspectors, who focus on import and export regulations. (In Southern California, there are six agents and 13 inspectors.) Given these numbers, it's not surprising that most agents estimate that only one-tenth of 1 percent of the illegal wildlife brought into the country is intercepted. [Source: Thomas Curwen, Los Angeles Times, June 18, 2009]

“The initial budget was $11 million. Terry Grosz, at the time the endangered species desk officer for the Division of Law Enforcement, remembers being run ragged during those early days. Inadequate staffing and critics who wanted the Endangered Species Act declared unconstitutional added to the burden. [Ibid]

“The breaking point for Grosz occurred when 11,000 pounds of green sea turtle meat was intercepted in New York City. The importer said it belonged to the one turtle species that was not endangered. Grosz thought otherwise but had no way of proving it. The shipment was allowed into the country, a bitter loss that eventually led to the creation of a forensic laboratory in Ashland, Ore., that could provide DNA tests -- and positive identification -- of seized items. The lab opened in 1989 and is the only one of its kind in the world. [Ibid]

“There was a time -- 1984, to be exact, in testimony to Congress -- when Grosz argued that the illegal trade could be stopped. Nowadays he isn't so sure. "Given the poverty and the corruption that exist in other parts of the world, there will always be pressure to resort to the illegal wildlife trade," he says. "People have to eat. When people are hungry, this is what they do." [Ibid]

Crackdown on the Illegal Animal Trade in Thailand

In recent years the Thai government has been making more of an effort to crackdown on the illegal animal trade. The Thai queen has made public pleas for more animal protection, a sentiment held in particularly high regard in Buddhist Thailand.

Police have tried to bring the smugglers to justice and wipe out the practice, After one raid one police official told National Geographic, “I don’t know of any other country in the world that has mobilized their national police force to hit wildlife traders.”

The effort however is hampered by weak laws with fines of up to $1000 and jail sentences of up to four years. Police have been charging animal traders using smuggling laws which have much stiffer penalties such as fines up to four times the animal’s value and 10 year prison sentences. Officials have also used money laundering laws which allows them to seize the assets of traders and smugglers.

High-tech methods are also being employed. Takashi Ozaki wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun, “Twenty-one tigers, 12 orangutans and other animals rescued from smugglers have been given refuge at the Khao Prathap Chang Wildlife Breeding Research Station in Ratchaburi Province, central Thailand. Researchers at the facility implant microchips in the animals so that they can be identified, then returned to the countries they came from. "There have been cases in which the same animal has been smuggled and given refuge more than once," an official of the research station said. "The level of protection given to animals in the countries where they live is a problem." [Source: Takashi Ozaki, Yomiuri Shimbun, January 16, 2010]

Rare Animal Trade Thrives in Thailand from Lax Laws

Denis D. Gray of Associated Press wrote: “Thailand's decades-old wildlife law also awaits revision and the closing of loopholes, such as the lack of protection for African elephants, and far stiffer penalties. "The bottom line is that if wildlife traffickers are not treated as serious criminals in Southeast Asia we are just going to lose more wildlife," says Chris Shepherd, TRAFFIC's Southeast Asia deputy director. "How often is anyone arrested? They just run off, they must be the fastest people on Earth." [Source: Denis D. Gray, Associated Press, August 15, 2012]

In AFP reported: “Thousands of tourists and locals throng the congested aisles of Bangkok's popular Chatuchak market every weekend, hunting for everything from a new pair of shiny leather shoes to a puppy. But among the racks of caged creatures is an illegal trade in endangered animals that wildlife police say they are powerless to stop as sellers take advantage of lax Thai laws and punishments. The illicit international trade in rare species is worth an estimated six billion dollars per year, academics estimate, and wildlife campaigners say much of that money now changes hands in the Thai capital. [Source: AFP, November 6 2008]

"It's difficult to arrest these smugglers," Lieutenant Colonel Thanayod Kengkasikij of Thailand's anti-wildlife trafficking taskforce told AFP. His problem is practical and legal as keeping an eye on smugglers as they move about the market is tough enough, but once arrests are made getting the courts to punish them is even tougher. "If the court handed down harsher verdicts to traffickers I think they would be more afraid of us," Thanayod said.

Months of police surveillance at Chatuchak, also known as JJ market, preceded a raid last March, organised with the help of wildlife charities TRAFFIC and PeunPa. During the operation, 40 undercover Thai officers arrested two traffickers attempting to sell three Madagascan Ploughshare tortoises, so rare that conservationists say only 300 remain in the world. In another section of the market a dealer was caught secretly selling slow lorises, endangered primates that live Southeast Asian forests. "Dealers stated openly that many specimens were smuggled into and out of Thailand," said Chris Shepherd, a senior programme officer for TRAFFIC. "They even offered potential buyers advice on how to smuggle reptiles through customs and onto aeroplanes."

The surveillance and raid cost campaigners thousands of dollars. Of the three men arrested, none went to prison -- two were not punished at all and one received a 20,000-baht fine, half the maximum financial penalty. These sort of meagre penalties frustrate wildlife campaigners. "The biggest wildlife traffickers in the world have decided to base themselves in Bangkok because they know that if they get caught the worst that can happen is about a 1,000 dollar fine," saud PeunPa's Steven Galster.

"Nobody's going to jail, not even the guys caught red-handed. Meanwhile the traffickers are laughing all the way to the bank, using Thailand as a base." The international law governing these crimes is called CITES -- the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species -- to which Thailand is a signatory.But the CITES provisions have not yet been fully translated into Thai law, and gaping loopholes still exist that Galster said will not close until attitudes throughout Thai society are changed.

PeunPa and TRAFFIC spent three years training police to understand the damaging environmental effects of wildlife crime, and now need to persuade judges too. "The police working on wildlife crime used to be called the forestry police, mainly focused on illegal logging and timber trafficking. We've been training them up to go after wildlife criminals," Galster said, adding: "They've gotten pretty good.""But they are seriously discouraged by the current law. They're raring to go but they need the law behind them," he said.

Police say new training seminars for judges are making a difference. "Judges and prosecuting lawyers have changed their attitude since we began campaigning -- they used to think that violators were just earning a living but now they understand they are causing environmental damage," said Thanayod.

But change is slow and the drafting of a new tougher law, which has been the subject of years of discussion, seems as distant a prospect as ever. "The situation's getting better but it's like with anything in Thailand: unless it's drugs or murder they don't think the police are going to take it all that seriously," Galster said.

Raids on Illegal Animal Traders in Thailand and Stiffer Penalties in Singapore

In July 2003 65 elephant tusks and a rhino horn were confiscated at Bangkok airport. They were believed to have been smuggled into the country from Africa. Raids in private homes and zoos during a six week period in November and December 2003, netted more than 33,000 animals, including tigers, bears and orangutans. The raid took place after investigators found a house crammed with tiger carcasses, bear paws, starved animals and orders by restaurants for bear paws, tiger meat and other animal partss. At another house they found civet cats, pythons and a dead baby orangutan frozen in a freezer and a zoo with 114 orangutans that was only registered to have 44.

Around the same time as the raids the government offered amnesty for animal owners during a 90 day period. More than 60,000 people registered 1 million birds and animals listed as protected by the Thai government. Those who did not register were deemed in violation of the law. A hotline was also set up for information for tips on illegal wildlife trafficking.

Michael Casey of AP wrote in 2006: “Traders in Thailand and the Philippines say business has become more difficult in recent months as authorities step up monitoring and increase raids at markets and air and sea ports. In November, Thai authorities arrested a Japanese trying to smuggle out nine slow lorises, furry primates from Southeast Asia. Over the summer, they closed down a Bangkok store selling shawls made from the endangered Tibetan antelope and confiscated 245 pangolins and 64 freshwater turtles bound for Laos. "The situation at the market is much better," said Thai police Lt. Thanayod Kengkasij, whose beat includes Chatuchak. "But we can't expect all the traders will disappear. Some are already shifting to other locations." [Michael Casey, AP, December 23, 2006]

“Trainers, including some from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, taught Thai officers about surveillance and interviewing as well as identifying illegal animals and plants. They also encouraged creative thinking in charging traffickers, avoiding weak wildlife laws and instead using statutes with tougher sentences such as money laundering, weapons possession and tax violations. WildAid's Steve Galster, who helped train Thai officers, said that despite increased efforts, authorities in Southeast Asia still have failed to break up the gangs involved in wildlife smuggling because they usually only go after small-time poachers or dealers.

"What they need to stop the trade or curtail it significantly is go undercover and get close to the major dealers and find out all about them and catch them red handed," he said. "They can then publicize the arrest and spook the rest of them out of the business." Galster also said countries need to put more money into state-of-the art weapons and strengthen wildlife laws.

Under a new law in Singapore, traders face fines ranging from $32,000 per specimen to a maximum of $316,000, along with a jail term of up to two years. Galster noted the region's typical $1,000 fine isn't much of a deterrent for a dealer who can make $10,000 selling a tiger and said animal traffickers rarely get jail terms. "Judges won't hear the cases because they don't think these people are a threat to society," he said.

Combating Poachers and Obstacles Doing So in India

Poachers in India caught poaching an endangered animal face a six year prison sentence in accordance with the Wildlife Protection Act. In the 1980s, P. Kannan, an agent of India's Directorate Wildlife Preservation, is a busy man. He busted street merchants for selling lizard skin wallets; oversaw confiscations of US$10,000 tiger pelts from foreign diplomats at the airport; and looked into the shipments of rare birds exported with forged documents. [Source: Noel Grove, National Geographic, March 1981]

Park rangers in India see themselves as police. "In the late 1960s," one guard told National Geographic. “There was poaching everywhere. Poached tigers were paraded on the road, and nobody did anything. Now there is none of that." Park Warden K. M. Chinnappa fought poachers hand to hand and survived a murder plot against him. Other rangers were awarded medals of honor for their efforts. [Source: Geoffrey Ward, National Geographic May 1992]

Rangers are commonly offered brides to open up the forest for poaching and logging. Forest guard guards are easy targets for bribes and corruption. If a poacher gets caught he can usually avoid serving jail time by bribing forest guards, who are pad starvation wages; paying off the vets that do the post mortem reports; or bribing politicians, prosecutors or judges. Even if his case does get to court, it can get lost in India’s Byzantine legal system for years. Rarely does a case result in a prosecution.

India has so many daily crises that conservation is given a low priority. There is little money for vehicles and gasolines. Poachers and firewood collectors have no trouble getting into the parks.

In March 1992, a planters son, carrying a shotgun and apparently bent on poaching, was shot to death inside Nagarahole National Park. Although guards in the park carry only buckshot and the boy was killed by a large slug, villagers blamed the guards and a mob of 300 descended on the park, carrying the boy's body and demanding retribution. The guards, fearing for the lives, abandoned the park and the mob destroyed vehicles and buildings and finally set the forest on fire, igniting a blaze that lasted for four days and destroyed 13.5 square miles of forest. Afterwards the guards were afraid to go back to the park and bazaars soon offered wild animal meat for sale. [National Geographic Geographica, September 1992].

Combating the Illegal Animal Trade in Bangladesh

Soraya Auer and Anika Hossain wrote in The Daily Star of Bangladesh, “The enormous task of ensuring Bangladesh's wildlife is not disturbed is a challenge, admits Aparoop Chowdhury, Additional Secretary of the Environment and Forests Ministry. “We have people who are in charge of the surveillance and safety of wildlife in the forest areas but the number of people is not sufficient to do this job as well as it should be done,” explains Chowdhury. “The guns and weapons they carry are from the British era and, naturally, do not work well. Communication with them is also difficult, since they have no new technology at their disposal and are practically in the middle of nowhere.” [Source: Soraya Auer and Anika Hossain, The Daily Star of Bangladesh, July 7, 2012]

“Chowdhury, however, goes on to say that where the ministry has lacked on the ground, it has made up legislatively. “We have amended the Wild Life Conservation Act in 2010,” the Additional Secretary informs. “If anyone kills a wild animal for trade or any other reason apart from self-defence, they have to pay a large fine to the government and depending on the case, can be imprisoned for a long period of time.” He adds, “There are also severe punishments issued for trafficking wild animals.”

Over the years, stories of rescued wildlife, such as the 480 rare Starred Tortoises seized by Dhaka airport customs officials in 2010, have captured the public's interest. Last month, the nation's heart strings were plucked not once but three times by three two-month-old tiger cubs, rescued by RAB from a smuggler's house in Shyamoli, Dhaka.

Inadequate Laws Related to the Illegal Animal Trade in Bangladesh

Soraya Auer and Anika Hossain wrote in The Daily Star of Bangladesh, “One of the reasons why poachers and traffickers have enjoyed business in Bangladesh is because we have laws, but they are rarely enforced properly. Dr Asif Nazrul, Professor of Law at Dhaka University, explains how Bangladesh is one of 175 countries with international obligations under the Convention on Biological Diversity, and the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). There is a list of endangered species specified by CITES. Bangladesh has an international obligation to stop poaching and trading of animals on this list. It cannot allow any person or any institution, governmental or non-governmental, to conduct a business involving endangered wild animals on the list. [Source: Soraya Auer and Anika Hossain, The Daily Star of Bangladesh, July 7, 2012]

“Commander M Sohail is of the belief that, “the law deals with Bangladeshi animals being illegally captured and trafficked abroad, but if foreign birds are imported, this is not covered by the current law. Of course there are certain regulations that have to be followed when importing anything from abroad, and in most cases in Katabon [well-known pet market on Dhaka University property], they import foreign animals legally. It is the wild animals of Bangladesh that are banned from this trade.”[Ibid]

“However, Dr Nazrul points out how traders can get around the rules and bring in illegal endangered species. “Sometimes, tradesmen obtain a license to import one animal but will bring a completely different one into the country. This should be strictly monitored.” He adds, “The international convention that we are a part of [CITES] prohibits the import of endangered wild animals into the country and Bangladesh is currently violating international agreements and obligations by not restricting the import of these animals.” [Ibid]

“Professor of Zoology at Jahangirnagar University, Dr Moniruzzaman, opines, “There are laws in place but they are useless without proper enforcement. I think the solution to this problem is raising mass awareness. In a country like Bangladesh, creating laws is not enough to stop these crimes. People need to be aware of the implications of trafficking and poaching endangered animals. They need to be made aware of the fact that these animals are endangered.” He suggests teaching children at a young age in school about the effects of disrupting the ecosystem and making documentaries on the topic. [Ibid]

“Wildlife Trust of Bangladesh is in the process of developing a wildlife crime monitoring strategy to help increase the Forest department's capacity to deal with wildlife crime in the future, as the latter struggles to cover the large landscapes that are home to hundreds of species. However, when that work will transform from policy into practice is the big question. The laws may not have been properly enforced until now, but many people who entertain the idea of owning an exotic animal think the law only applies to poachers and traffickers, not to themselves. The country's population is already fast encroaching upon our wildlife's habitat, making it all the more important to protect. The majestic endangered animal that fell prey to the poacher does not belong in a cage, be it of metal or cement walls---not that all of them are even lucky enough to be wanted alive. [Ibid]

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: National Geographic, Natural History magazine, Smithsonian magazine, Wikipedia, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, The Guardian, Top Secret Animal Attack Files website, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, The Economist, BBC, and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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