- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 2, 2003

Undercover operations to expose the illegal trade in protected species are rescuing thousands of animals and decreasing demand for their pelts and body parts, but the operations also are provoking violence from criminal gangs.

A recent report by the international environmental organization Wild Aid revealed a series of gang-style killings related to the shark-fin trade in East Asia, a market dominated by Chinese triads.

In August, five person were killed in Fiji, apparently fighting for space in the black market. In February, a man sentenced to house arrest was slain in his home in Cape Town, South Africa, as part of the “Chinese mafia shark-fin war,” the report said.

The Russian mafia and Latin American drug cartels also participate in illegal wildlife trade, while some poaching groups specializing in smuggling plants and animals or their parts using drug- and gun-smuggling routes.

In Europe, enforcement agents have been shot in gunfights with gangs, and in Latin America, several drug shipments have been discovered mixed with animals or plants. Snakes with bags of drugs inside are just a sample, according to a previous report by Traffic, of the World Wildlife Fund.

It showed, too, that the past two Chinese anti-poaching leaders in Tibet have been slain and that anti-poaching teams in many countries are often targets of assassination.

This type of trade is attracting organized criminals because of the high profits (up to 800 percent in some cases) and the lack of serious punishment, which leads to an estimated trade worth at least $6 billion annually in the world black markets.

“It’s the most profitable illegal trade after drugs and guns,” said Peter Knights, executive director of Wild Aid.

An example is rhinoceros horns, with prices of up to $40,000 per kilo, more than five times the price of gold, according to the organization Asian Conservation Awareness Program (ACAP). Not surprisingly, 97 percent of the world’s rhinos were lost in the past 30 years.

Animals are wanted for food; for their skins, organs and bones; as exotic pets; or for traditional medicine in Asia. Several species are being pushed to the edge of extinction. The main markets are probably the United States and China.

In Cambodia, from 2001 to 2002, Wild Aid rescued 8,250 animals from illegal traders, helped apprehend 239 criminals and confiscate 1.3 tons of fresh meat and two tons of dried animal parts.

About 100 million sharks and shark-like fish are caught every year, and about 50 percent of them have their fins sliced off while still alive. Then, they are thrown back into the sea, where they sink and slowly die, so the rest of their bodies is wasted.

The fins are used for soup, an expensive delicacy in some parts of Asia, but finning has increased so much in recent years that fins are used even for canned cat food, said the Wild Aid report.

Wild Aid recently urged the United Nations to ban this widespread practice in international waters because all shark species have declined by more than 50 percent (in some cases by 80 percent) in the past 15 years.

After more than 2 million years of existence, only 5,000 to 7,000 tigers are left and the Caspian, Javan and Bali tigers already are extinct. Even though trade was banned in 1975, tigers continue to be killed — mainly for their skin, but practically all parts of their bodies are used.

Lions are killed for similar purposes and also are traded as exotic pets. But the cost of feeding and accommodating them are very high and they’re dangerous pets, so many end up euthanized, killed for their body parts, abandoned or doomed to live in deplorable conditions.

Some are given to rescue organizations or zoos. For example, the two new lionesses at the National Zoo — Lusaka and Kisangali — came from a private owner in California.

Elephants, which can live 60 to 70 years, hardly ever make it to a natural death. Every piece of ivory attests to that. They are hunted for their ivory, which is used for jewelry and carvings, and for their meat, among other uses. There are only an estimated 600,000 elephants still alive.

“Between 1970 and 1989, African elephant numbers were halved as over a million elephants were brutally slaughtered for their ivory tusks. Public outrage and fears for the very survival of the elephants led to an international ban in the trade of ivory,” an ACAP report said. But the trade continues.

As for bears, all species are internationally enlisted as critically endangered, but many are hunted for fun and trophies or to use their body parts. In China, there are bear farms, where the animals are housed in small cages for life. They are fed to later painfully extract their bile to supply the traditional medicine market.

ACAP’s report said this treatment of bears is very cruel. The cages are so small that the baby bears can’t move and their muscles atrophy. In addition, the confinement causes them deep psychological disturbances. While a free bear naturally lives about 25 years, these bears die when they are between 4 and 10 years old. In North America, even though there are more than 900,000 black bears, these populations are decreasing, according to a Traffic study.

Giant pandas are close to extinction, with only 1,000 of them remaining.

Caviar — the eggs of sturgeon — also invites overfishing of the species that produce it. The Russian mafia is said to be involved in overexploitation of sturgeon in the Caspian Sea, and a recent study by Traffic North America showed that protected species in the United States might be caught illegally.

The study recommends looking for ways to increase compliance with regulations. In several cases, courts have sentenced individuals for selling illegally collected American caviar as Caspian sturgeon roe, which brings higher prices.

The rhinoceros has no predators except human beings. In the 1970s, there were about a half million rhinos; now, there are only 13,500, belonging to five species. They are hunted for their horn, which is used for carvings and dagger handles in northern Yemen, where they’re status symbols. And their blood and urine are used for Chinese traditional medicine.

Turtles, parrots, gorillas, cactus, orchids and many other species also are being exploited.

Even though every country where species have been declared endangered should enforce that protection, many don’t do enough.

For that reason, international organizations work on three areas — protecting those in the wild from poaching; infiltrating illegal trade networks to help authorities break them up; and urging the public to decrease demand.

Wild Aid regularly intercepts poachers, prevents them from killing animals and destroys their camps. It also goes undercover with hidden cameras to expose the traders’ inner workings.

The gangs involved in illegal trade often take advantage of small communities. People in these communities do the killing or collecting and sell their catch cheap to the gangs, which profit. A parrot, for example, can be caught for $5 and sold commercially in the United States for $500.

International organizations send speakers to Third World communities to publicize alternative products and inform villagers and police about how to conserve wildlife. In Thailand, the poaching of some species has decreased 70 percent with these efforts.

Campaigns in the media also have shown results. In Phnom Penh, Cambodia, where from 2001 to the end of last year more than 8,000 animals were rescued, 75 percent of restaurants stopped serving wildlife dishes.

Wild Aid also operates an animal facility to care for creatures that are injured or have been in captivity too long to be released into the wild.

Not all wildlife trade is illicit. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), signed by 164 countries, allows the commercial use of some species according to their extinction risks.

Noncompliance with the rules can lead to sanctions against trade coming from violator countries, said Simon Habel, director of Traffic North America. “But [illegal traders] know what they’re doing — clearly, corruption is an issue too,” he said.

Some methods of smuggling involve falsifying certificates or sending animals to a country where it is not illegal to hunt them, then re-exporting them from there. Smugglers also hide wildlife in shipments of other goods and airport luggage.

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