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Unfair trade: A week in the world of illegal wildlife trafficking

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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frozen pangolinsIllegal trade in endangered species continues to grow around the world. How big is the problem? Here are 10 major cases that have hit the media in just the past week:

Six pallets containing 765 kilograms of elephant tusks worth an estimated $1.2 million were seized in Thailand July 13. The shipment contained 117 tusks, plus a single rhino horn. Thai customs blocked an earlier shipment of tusks weighing 1,260 kilograms back in April.

More than 2,000 frozen pangolins were recently seized from a single fishing vessel in China, the wildlife trade group TRAFFIC International announced last week. The shipment contained 7,800 kilograms of the toothless, scaled mammals, which were frozen, along with 1,800 kilograms of pangolin scales. Two of the four pangolin species are endangered, and trade in all four is banned by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

Poachers last week used a helicopter and tranquilizer guns to take down the last female white rhinoceros in South Africa’s Krugersdorp Game Reserve. They hacked off her valuable horn and then left the rhino to bleed to death. According to a report in the Guardian, poaching in the park is out of control: “Five men had been arrested there in the past week alone, four of whom were caught with two bloodied rhino horns, AK-47 assault rifles, bolt-action rifles and an ax.” As we reported last year rhino poaching has increased dramatically lately, and it keeps getting worse: There have already been more rhinos killed in South Africa this year than all of 2009.

Two Vancouver-based companies were charged last week with importing $378,000 worth of endangered plants and animals, including meat from African elephants, monkeys, bears and crocodiles as well as a rare tree fern (Cibotium barometz) and three orchid species.

The frozen carcasses of two tigers and a panther, along with several kilos of suspected tiger bone, were confiscated last week in Vietnam, a country which now has as few as 30 tigers left in the wild.

More than 190 endangered animals were confiscated recently in Mexico City, including a Cooper’s hawk, yellow-headed parrots, owls and turtles. Animals like this are frequently bound for the pet trade.

In India an illiterate snake charmer was arrested for possessing five endangered black cobras as well as two unidentified endangered birds. Police arrested him in a sting after he agreed to sell them 11 cobras for $23,200. He was also charged with illegally harvesting snake venom.

A raid last week at Malaysia’s Kuala Lumpur International Airport netted 369 radiated tortoises, five Madagascar tortoises, 47 tomato grogs and several chameleons worth more than $60,000. But this was just the most recent seizure over the course of four days last week when the Malaysia’s Department of Wildlife and National Parks intercepted a total of 1,050 endangered animals and 111 items made from endangered animal parts (including tiger claws, elephant tusks and python skins).

In the U.S. Virgin Islands a Taiwanese couple was sentenced last week for trying to ship 10 boxes of endangered black coral into the U.S. They were each fined $12,500; the wife was sentenced to 20 months in prison, whereas the husband will receive 30 months—the longest prison sentences for illegal coral trade ever dished out. The couple admitted that between 2007 and 2009 they shipped $194,000 worth of black coral from Taiwan to Saint Thomas.

Finally, a new study estimates that more than 5,000 kilograms of illegal bushmeat are smuggled through Paris’s Charles de Gaulle Airport every week. The study, published in the journal Conservation Letters, extrapolated the results from 17 days worth of seizures at the airport. During those 17 days, officials intercepted 188 kilograms of bushmeat, including meat from two primate, two crocodile and three rodent species. Four of those species were legally protected, albeit all of the imports were illegal because they were smuggled into the country in personal baggage.

As with any type of crime, this just scratches the surface. For every case of ivory that is discovered by police it is anyone’s guess how many slip through customs. Prosecutions for wildlife crime remain low, as do the punishments. Until that disparity is resolved, poaching and smuggling will continue unabated, and the world’s rarest species will continue to pay the price.

Photo: Descaled, frozen pangolins. Courtesy of and © EW / TRAFFIC





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  1. 1. hotblack 6:49 pm 07/20/2010

    When I retire, I’m going to do a little poaching of my own.

    Poaching the poachers.

    Link to this
  2. 2. AJB 8:01 pm 07/20/2010

    How about a trade in poachers’ parts? The heads, especially.

    Link to this
  3. 3. AJB 8:02 pm 07/20/2010

    Poachers should be an endangered species!

    Link to this
  4. 4. AJB 8:03 pm 07/20/2010

    comment

    Link to this
  5. 5. AJB 8:03 pm 07/20/2010

    How about a trade in poachers’ parts? The heads, especially

    Link to this
  6. 6. kristi276 4:34 pm 07/21/2010

    the trade of illegal poaching has been going on for decades and the outrught extenction of species has occured time and time again. In the past we drove many into extenction due to human greed; like the doddo. The secintific community has stated that there has been mass extenctions throughout history, but we are now the motor force driving todays mass extenctions. We have thrown both the ecological systems and the enviornment into chaos, and it seems that it will not recover from this onslaught. You reap what you sow and we have sown the whilwind. To see our future we need to look no further than Mars.

    Link to this
  7. 7. John_Toradze 6:35 pm 07/21/2010

    47 tomato grogs?

    Link to this

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