Last time we heard about wildlife smuggling, it was the curious case of a Chinese man attacked by a piranha, despite piranhas not being native to China. It served to highlight that Asia is the world’s driver and epicenter of wildlife smuggling, which, of course, is sending animals like elephants to the brink of extinction. But as much as China and Thailand are huge markets for animal parts, increased enforcement has pushed traffickers into less-regulated parts of Southeast Asia. According to a report by the World Wildlife Federation, the worst offender is now Vietnam.
The WWF’s Wildlife Crime Scorecard (PDF) ranks countries’ compliance and enforcement efforts via their protection of three halo species that are hugely popular (and threatened) in the trafficking world: tigers, rhinos, and elephants. According to the report, Vietnam is failing in meeting CITES compliance and enforcement standards with regards to rhinos and tigers, and aren’t much better with elephants. Long story short: Vietnam is basically a free zone for smugglers to transport goods into the lucrative Chinese market.
“It is time for Vietnam to face the fact that its illegal consumption of rhino horn is driving the widespread poaching of endangered rhinos in Africa, and that it must crack down on the illegal rhino horn trade,” Elisabeth McLellan, WWF Global Species Program manager, said in a statement.
China is indeed driving demand, and according to the report, is still the major destination for all three types of animal. (According to the report, “China was the intended destination of a minimum of 54 per cent, and likely more, of intercepted large consignments (more than 1,000 kg) of illegal African ivory.”) But how are illegal parts getting there? Organized crime.
Elephant tusks and rhino horns are both harvested in Africa, and smuggled into China and Thailand via various trade routes that increasingly are passing through Southeast Asia. The report notes that, of all the large ivory seizures (1,000kg and up) in Vietnam, Laos, and Malaysia, at least 90 percent had ties to organized crime, a rate not even matched by the poaching hotspots of Kenya, Tanzania, and Malawi. That’s a startling statistic, especially considering that the rate of seizures with organized crime ties in source countries in African were somewhat to much lower. Basically, that means that while organized crime is involved to some degree in poaching operations, trafficking throughout Asia is almost exclusively controlled by the mob.
As long as people think eating tiger balls will make their penises bigger, the world’s most threatened species will continue to die.
While the report notes that improvement, especially in terms of regulation and enforcement, has been made in a number of countries (including China), it states that business is still booming, which means key species are still under dire threat. According to the report:
Major gaps in enforcement at the retail market level are primarily responsible for the failing scores in destination countries, while Egypt, Thailand and Viet Nam fail for key areas of compliance as well. It is critical that demand countries, including China, Thailand and Viet Nam, urgently and dramatically improve enforcement effort to crack down on illegal wildlife trade in their countries.
Overall, the components of demand reduction and public awareness represent a significant gap in implementation of CITES commitments in these countries.International wildlife crime is demand-driven, and it is recommended that China and Viet Nam, in particular, prioritize the development and implementation of well-researched demand reduction campaigns. Targeted strategies should be developed to influence consumer behaviour around tiger parts, rhino horn, and ivory of illegal origin.
That right there is the crux of the issue: while enforcement can help mitigate smuggling itself, as long as people demand animal parts, there will be poachers and traffickers to supply it. It’s no different than the drug trade, a point that’s extremely evident by the fact that organized crime is such a dominant force in the market. So what’s there to do? Well, awareness, legislation, and policing are all very important — and effective, as the report states. But as long as people think eating tiger balls and snorting rhino horns will make their penises bigger, the world’s most threatened species will continue to die.
Follow Derek Mead on Twitter: @derektmead.