Contraband and the Illegal wildlife trade across the world
International conventions, laws, and regulations of all kinds have been defined for the purpose of regulating the trade of animals, but these measures, admirable though they may be, are not succeeding at putting an end to the smuggling and the illegal trade of wildlife.
While it is relatively easy to formulate laws, it is less simple to put them in place and, above all, to enforce them. The best example is the multiplication of violent crimes in our society, or the persistence of behaviors contrary to the law, like drug usage an trafficking of humans for prostitution for example, despite stricter laws, closer surveillance, and more and more severe punishments. The difficulty involved in getting people to treat animals decently is less surprising when we look at how people behave towards each other.
Countries, like China, that participate in conventions such as CITES do not always respect the established quotas, and continue, sometimes at the same rhythm, to pillage and plunder. There are also several countries, like Taiwan, which do not even feign interest in such efforts to curtail the problem. Australia is the only country to have completely forbidden the trade of its wildlife, but certain species there, like cockatoos, are the object of intensive trafficking nevertheless.
To make things worse, very little is done on the consumer end to stop the demand for exotic animals, especially in Western countries where pet mania for example has reached and all time high. For some reason, most NGO’s do not adress the root causes of the problems they are intent on solving.
According to a 2005 US embassy cable released by Wikileaks, on a global scale, the trade of wildlife, of which the main markets are the oriental medical industry, the clothing industry, and the pet industry in the U.S and Europe, is “$US10 billion to $US20 billion a year, ranking third after arms and drugs trafficking.” For poor countries, it is an important source of income.
Each year, thirty thousand primates, five hundred thousand parrots, between four and five hundred million aquarium fish, between one and two thousand tons of coral, and an unknown number of reptiles and mammals illegally cross international borders in order to supply the pet market, for instance.
Because of this commerce the population of Hyacinth macaws, the largest and one of the most beautiful parrots in the world, has gone from one hundred thousand birds in the 1950s to five thousand today. Amazon parrots are even more endangered, especially the Yellow-headed Amazon, whose trade was finally outlawed in Mexico.
The poaching of wild animals such as monkeys and parrots is reaching a critical state in Brazil Atlantic’s rainforest as reported in another Wikileak Embassy cable. In 2005 police have confiscated 50 000 animals up from 15 000 five years earlier. According to The Brazilian National Network to Fight the Trafficking of Wild Animals – RENCTAS – Brazil traffic accounts for 10% of global trade. It is estimated that nearly half of the animals are shipped to the US and the EU to be used as pets or in zoos, for example. According to zoo historians Éric Baratay and Élizabeth Hardouin-Fugier, 79% of the San Diego Zoo animals are bought on the black market.
Parrots are second only to drugs when it comes to goods smuggled from Mexico to the United States. The profit margin is identical and the risk of getting caught is much smaller. Only two federal agents are charged with the surveillance of the border between Texas and Mexico, and they are overwhelmed. A parrot that costs $15 U.S. in Mexico will sell on the American black market for between $250 and $10,000, and sometimes up to $35,000 for the rarest specimens. From 100,000 to 250,000 parrots are sold illegally each year in the United States, of which 25,000, valued at $40,000,000, pass illegally through Texas. These birds come from all of the countries south of the border, but most often from Mexico. Some 25,000 die in transit from asphyxiation, hunger, dehydration, and mistreatment. Neotropical parrots have become one of the most endangered groups of birds in the world, mainly because of the pet industry and the destruction of habitats. About 30% of the 140 parrot species from Latin America are endangered, and the others are quickly on their way to sharing that status. Out of the 335 parrot species across the globe, 77 are threatened with extinction.
According to several other US embassy cables published by Wikileaks, the toll of trafficking on African countries is dramatic, as is the collusion of government officials with poachers. In Tchad, for example, most poachers are gulf state Arab hunters/falconers and Sudanese poachers. The rich Arab hunters rent powerful vehicles and chase antelopes to exhaustion before shooting them. Their dried and uncured skins, which are thought to have aphrodis properties are then exported. Elephants of the Zakouma National Park, a key refuge for this species, are hunted down and the ivory transported by poverty stricken Chadians through sophisticated poaching networks.
In Haiti and the Dominican Republic, rhinoceros iguanas are chased down without reprieve; in Madagascar, the wilderness is plundered for the capture of animals like chameleons and a few very rare turtles and tortoises (such as the plowshare tortoise). It is already too late for the Egyptian tortoise, once sold by the thousands in America and in Europe; there is but a small population of them left in Libya, and while they have been officially protected since 1944, they are still pursued by poachers.
Thailand and Taiwan constitute important hubs within this contraband. Countries around the world dispose of their protected animal merchandise through Thailand, including different species of monkeys, like the marmoset monkey (Callithrix jacchus) and the squirrel monkey (Saimiri sciureus), both whose origins are in South America. Tigers as well as numerous other protected species pass through Thailand or Taiwan before being sent towards western markets.
In Big Bend National Park, in Death Valley in Texas, as well as in Arizona, a common summertime sight is that of people on the side of the road, in the middle of the day, raising rocks with the help of iron bars and peering into crevices in an attempt to catch snakes. Some snakes sell for $10,000 on the black market. As a result, surrounding towns are infested with rats, which have no natural predators left.
The orangutan, which appears on the CITES list of the most endangered species, sells for anywhere between $6,000 and $15,000 on the black market. More than a thousand of them have been illegally imported over the course of the last few years. Taiwan is the source. Scientists estimate that from four to six young orangutans die for each one that arrives alive at its destination. Young orangutans, very dependent like most other primates, are captured easily – the hunters kill their mothers, to whom the babies continue to cling. No more than 10,000 adults remain in the wild.
Leopards, tigers, and smaller wildcats, who appear on the same CITES list, are also the objects of heavy trafficking. The United States, Great Britain, Japan, and Holland are the largest legal importers of primates, who are destined mainly to go to zoos and to scientific research.
There are several ways to foil vigilant customs officials, whose numbers are insufficient for the task. To get animals across borders, smugglers attach them to the insides of hubcaps; stuff them into tubes, baskets, and boxes; pile them into suitcases with false bottoms; and hide them under women’s dresses. Some are drugged so they can better withstand the conditions of the trip. Beaks are taped shut and wing feathers are cut. Some protected species, like the Egyptian tortoise and the Indian star tortoise, are mixed with species for which trade is authorized, and thus pass through unperceived, the customs officials being unable to distinguish them from the rest. The best organized smugglers pile animals into boxes that they hide among other merchandise in transit.