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Criminals are exploiting air transport to smuggle wildlife


What do you think of when you picture the illegal wildlife trade? I’d imagine you might conjure up an image of a poached elephant in the African savannah or of tiger skins seized from an online trader. But what you might not consider is the critical missing link in the illegal wildlife trade: the trafficking.

Rhino Horn Seizure18 rhino horns were seized by Malaysian Customs after the shipment was falsely declared as a ‘Work of art’ at Kuala Lumpur Airport © TRAFFIC

Trafficking is the key element to the trade that ensures that the illegal products get from their source to the customer. Illegal wildlife products often need to be shifted hundreds, if not thousands, of miles, and to do this quickly, traffickers exploit the air transport industry.

Unbeknownst to most air travellers and the staff who work for airlines and airports, organised criminals are taking advantage of the air transport sector in order to smuggle endangered animals and wildlife products onto commercial flights.

Where are illegal wildlife products going?

A new report, entitled: ‘flying under the radar’ (PDF) by the data analytics company C4ADS looked into airport seizures of ivory, rhino horn, birds and reptiles that occurred between 2009 and 2016. These species alone account for nearly two-thirds of seized wildlife. The report found that traffickers use large airport hubs all over the world. The most seizures occurred in China – predominantly due to its role in the ivory trade – followed by Thailand and the United Arab Emirates. Surprisingly, the US also ranked within the top ten countries with the highest seizures.

Total seizures of illegal wildlife goods at airports © WWF-UKTotal airport seizures of illegal wildlife goods in each country © WWF-UK

As expected, ivory and rhino horn seizures were mostly concentrated between Africa and Asia, although some routes did go via the Middle East and Europe too. When it came to bird and reptile seizure though, trafficking routes were global, but focused in North America, Europe, the Middle East and South Asia.

What can be done to tackle wildlife smuggling?

The report, Flying Under the Radar, outlines more than a dozen data-based recommendations for preventing wildlife trafficking through the air transport sector. These include creating awareness among both personnel and passengers, training air industry staff to detect possible illegal wildlife activity, strengthening enforcement seizure protocols and reporting and sharing any seizure information obtained.

Routes used to smuggle illegal wildlife goods around the world © C4ADSRoutes used to smuggle illegal wildlife goods around the world © C4ADS

“Wildlife seizure data is vital to identifying, understanding and combatting wildlife trafficking in airports around the world,” says author Mary Utermohlen from C4ADS. “However, seizure data only provides a partial window into the true nature of trafficking activity. What seizures can’t show are the patterns and routes associated with trafficking activity that is not detected, seized or reported by enforcement authorities.”

With the illegal trade of wildlife currently running as the fourth largest black market in the world, holding a value of around $20 billion a year, public awareness of wildlife trafficking and specialist training are both key to detecting the transportation of illegal wildlife products, which are currently impacting more than 7,000 species of animals and plants worldwide.

This report was produced via the USAID-funded Partnership, Reducing Opportunities for Unlawful Transport of Endangered Species (ROUTES) This partnership brings together government agencies, the private sector, international conservation, development and law enforcement organisations, including WWF, and donors to disrupt wildlife trafficking activities.  ROUTES forms a key element of the concerted international response to addressing wildlife poaching and associated criminal activities worldwide.

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