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June 18, 08

NEWS / Experts say criminal networks mix and match contraband on trade routes

Wildlife Trafficking Is a Serious Problem, Lucrative Business

By Lea Terhune
Staff Writer

Washington -- Peter Younger, director of Interpol’s wildlife crime division, is among the few law enforcement officials wholly dedicated to policing global illegal wildlife trafficking, a huge business that shares smuggling routes with illegal trade in drugs, guns and people.

“This is serious and organized transnational crime,” Younger, speaking from Lyon, France, where Interpol is based, told America.gov.

Smuggling wildlife products feeds into multipurpose criminal distribution networks that generate what Younger called “peripheral crime.” This includes corruption of officials, falsification of documents, intimidation and murder.

“Once we start to dig into these things we find that not only are they smuggling wildlife, for example, but they’ll be smuggling narcotics, or diamonds or gold bullion,” he said.

“The money to be made is considerable,” Younger said. Large quantities of contraband are shifted from country to country via an established infrastructure. Younger said this highly organized underworld courier service is facilitated by corrupt officials.

“Once you have that pipeline open, then you can smuggle pretty much anything down it. So if you can’t source wildlife today, and somebody says ‘Listen, I’ve got a shipment of heroin, or I’ve got some illegal immigrants, or I’ve got some prostitutes that I want to get to somewhere,’ you have a ready-made pipeline.”

A middleman collects tiger bones or rhino horn from poachers in India. To move the goods, he goes to the transport fixer. “He’s got the connections in country B to get something through. He’s got somebody in his pocket or he’s got a system whereby he can get illegal contraband across a border. So if it’s not ivory or tiger skins or rhino horn … it can be another commodity.”

Syndicates smuggling ivory from West Africa to Southeast Asia are streamlined operations. “When we started to look at some of these syndicates, we found that they had developed a very sophisticated structure to move that ivory. We’re talking about quantities of around 3 tons a shipment. Now that’s not something you can stuff in a suitcase and carry on an airplane,” Younger said.

The ivory was moved in containers disguised as legal import-export commodities. “There was a legitimate business which was operating as a front for the illegal trafficking.”
Police found this green parrot during a raid in Costa Rica. Live birds often are trafficked from Latin America to the United States.

The 20 tons Interpol examined likely would have fetched a wholesale price of about $26 million, Younger said.

Younger described the complexity of the business: “Somebody’s got to go out and shoot these things, and you don’t get them all in the same place, so there has to be a collection point. There has to be domestic shipment. There has to be concealment. There has to be international trafficking. There has to be a distribution network at the consumer end, which includes it going to factories and workshops to be turned into things that tourists like to buy.”


Wildlife smuggling hot spots occur around the world, including Russia and Eastern Europe, South and Central America, South Asia, Africa and Indonesia, Younger said.

Moises Naim, author of Illicit, a study of global crime, concurred. He told America.gov, “This trade is not geographically centered, and this boom that we have witnessed in all of this trade owes more to logistics than to product specialists.” He added, “In the case of endangered species, both flora and fauna, the origins are geographically determined, but the markets are connected by a variety of logistics specialists that are not necessarily specializing in these product.”

Criminals have unprecedented sway, Naim said, because of “the criminalization of politics and the politicization of crime. In a lot of countries, politics has been deeply penetrated by criminals who specialize in the highest-margin businesses, and those typically involve international transactions.”

Also, criminal networks are nimbler to adapt than government bureaucracies, Younger said.

Both Younger and Naim agreed that improved transport technology and the Internet are significant stimulants for criminal trade. Naim pointed to Internet auction sites like eBay, which he said facilitate trafficking of illegal ivory because there is insufficient vetting of what is sold.

The International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) asked eBay to ban ivory sales in 2007. Some eBay affiliates around the world complied, drastically reducing ivory sales, but not eBay U.S. According to IFAW, North American ivory sales have spiked on eBay in the past year.

Interpol, which is in its second year of a wildlife trafficking pilot project funded by private U.S. donors, estimates the trade at between $10 billion and $20 billion a year. Most wildlife is lawfully traded, and the illicit trade is hard to quantify. Using seizures as an indicator, “Our best guess is anything from 10 to 15 percent of the lawful trade … but it’s only an educated guess,” Younger said.

There are so few law enforcement officials working exclusively on wildlife trade that nongovernmental organizations must fill the void. “You have to look at the success rates in the light of the resources that are there to do it,” he said, adding that without countries cooperating, “it can be really difficult.”


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