By Rachel Nuwer | March 26, 2012
A rhino poached for its horn in Zimbabwe. Credit: Anti-poaching Unit, Zimbabwe
Reeking of infection, the elephant stumbled into the Tanzanian camp where Thomas Appleby works as a safari manager. Its back legs festered with gangrene radiating from the open, pungent wounds that the animal had evidently endured for at least two long weeks. Ivory poachers had shot the elephant in both legs, but it had probably bolted before they could subdue the massive beast enough to hack off its tusks. The infection had slowly spread throughout the animal’s limbs, and Appleby had to put it down.
“The poor thing, it completely tore my heart out,” Appleby said. “We are losing thousands—and I mean thousands—of iconic animals because of some kind of rapacious hunger from far off countries.”
The ivory poachers who shot Appleby’s elephant were most likely African, but their orders probably came from thousands of miles away—from China or Vietnam. In many parts of Asia, traditional Chinese medicine, a taste for wildmeat, a desire to display pricey horn and ivory trophies, and a lust for rare pets have merged into a cultural infatuation with wildlife consumption.
This voracity is taking its toll. The World Wildlife Fund declared the Javan rhino to be extinct in Vietnam in September. The Western black rhino was declared extinct in the wild in November. The Sumatran rhino is almost certainly now extinct in Thailand. Between January and October 2010, South Africa lost 230 rhinos to poaching—on average, one every 30 hours. Last year, South Africa lost a record 443 rhinos.
In Asia, tigers are in a worse state than ever; fewer than 3,500 now live in the wild, occupying less than 7 percent of their historic range. “With the tiger, we are witnessing the tragic winking out of one of the planet’s most beloved animals,” wrote Elizabeth Bennett, the vice president for species conservation for the non-governmental Wildlife Conservation Society, in the journal Oryx.
The world is in the midst of a global extinction crisis primarily driven by illegal hunting for highly valuable animal body parts. Having largely emptied its own jungles of furry, scaly, and feathery creatures, Asia’s thirst for exotic blood, bile, and bones has turned to the African continent. The Far East’s middle class is becoming more affluent; it is no coincidence that poaching on the African continent has spiked in recent years, as more and more people are able to afford luxury goods like ivory or exotic pets.
“With this demand spreading to Africa, it’s only a matter of time before we see populations of animals in Africa start to decline in a similar manner to Asia,” said Chris Shepherd, the Southeast Asia deputy regional director of the non-governmental organization TRAFFIC that deals with illegal wildlife trade. Shepherd doesn’t think Asia’s demand will stop with Africa, either. Once the animals are depleted there, if nothing is done, “it’ll just keep spreading and spreading until nothing’s left,” he said.
Shepherd is part of a group of increasingly desperate conservationists who deal with these statistics on a day-to-day basis. He witnesses illegal Madagascan tortoises openly displayed in Jakarta pet markets, despite Indonesian legislation that bans their trade. He deals with the logistical nightmare of sorting out 2,800 pounds of African ivory seized in Vietnam in a single week. On the worst days, he and his colleagues must draft the public extinction notices when another animal succumbs forever to the trade. Despite the scale of these crimes, politicians and the public are all too complacent. “We’re losing all of our wildlife, and people are just sitting back and letting it happen,” Shepherd says.
A cultural palate
The trade link between Asia and Africa is not new. Ivory, rhino horn, and other wildlife products have for years found their way into the Asian market. In the 1980s, Japan was what China is today in terms of wildlife exploitation. Japan was the largest importer of sea turtles, reptile skins, and fur coats, but as the leading importer of ivory—mostly used to fashion intricate seals for stamping official documents—the country drew huge criticism from the international community when African elephant populations began to collapse. In 1989, the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) banned ivory trade. This event marked an important milestone for Japan, and the government decided to play by the international rules and crack down on contraband trade. “Apart from whales and marine issues, Japan is acting rather responsibly on most aspects of the wildlife trade today,” said Tom Milliken, the elephant and rhino program leader for TRAFFIC.
Ivory carving confiscated by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, Credit Rachel Nuwer
Today, China has assumed the paramount role as the driver behind most wildlife trade, Milliken says, with countries like Vietnam and Thailand also coming on strong. And this demand is increasing on a seemingly exponential scale.
In Vietnam, wealthy businessmen and government officials show off by taking colleagues out for expensive feasts of rare wildmeat, dining on stews of endangered pangolin fetuses or barbeque spreads of threatened civets. In China, products like tiger bone and bear bile are regarded as potent disease cures and virility boosters. Wealthy households also value sculptures; an ivory carving is seen as a status symbol not available to the masses. In Indonesia and Thailand, collecting highly endangered pet tortoises is all the rage, with a single animal sometimes costing several thousand dollars. Accessing these exorbitant products “is a way of showing that you have expendable income and you can spend it on things that bring status to you as an individual,” Milliken said.
Centuries-old Asian values and beliefs are embedded in wildlife products, especially with regards to traditional Chinese medicine, a practice with more than 3,000 years of cultural history. “It’s a different medicinal system and philosophy,” Bennett said. Rather than rely on scientifically based studies to measure drug efficacy, she explained, traditional Chinese medicine considers “more the spirit of animals and long-term holistic views of what we are and the energy of us.”
A traditional Chinese medicine shop in Beijing. Credit: Rachel Nuwer
Vietnam also heavily relies on this system of medicine. Rumor has it, in 2006 a high-ranking Vietnamese official announced that rhino horn had cured his liver cancer. Regardless of the rumor’s origins, Shepherd says the number of rhino horns now imported into Vietnam is “incredible.” Needless to say, rhino horn does not cure cancer—it has about the same medicinal value as chewing on your own fingernails, according to several studies. But prices have skyrocketed: the horn’s market value exceeds its weight in gold, and people will do just about anything to get their hands on the stuff. “That’s going to be very hard to stop,” Bennett said, “If you or you child has liver cancer, you’re going to do anything you can to try and cure them.”
All this demand has taken a toll on Asia’s own animal populations. With the Javan rhino now extinct in Vietnam—the last lonely female found in a heap in Cat Tien National Park, her horn hacked off—conservationists think only 40 of the animals are left in the world. Tigers, which 15 years ago were frequently seen in Nakai-Nam Theun in Laos, are now extinct in that region, too. The same dismal story can be told throughout Asia, both for large charismatic animals and lesser-known species, like the shy pangolin and chirping Tokay gecko. The forests are emptying of animals.
Africa, thanks to a high Asian presence and lax laws, is now the new frontier for obtaining wildlife. Lion bones are shipped to China in lieu of tiger, African pangolin hides are hidden in cargo bound for Vietnam, and elephant and rhino products are leaving the continent in the tons.
Milliken and his wife, who is Japanese, have lived in Africa for 21 years. “Africa’s never seen as many Asians on this continent as there are today,” he said. In their Zimbabwe town, Milliken’s wife is inevitably greeted with a perky “Ni hao!” — Chinese for “hello.” Every community has at least one Chinese restaurant, Milliken says, and the town where he lives now has about ten.
This growing Asian influence is “bringing disaster to us” in Tanzania, said Alfred Kikoti, a research scientist with that country’s World Elephant Center. Over his lifetime, Kikoti has witnessed the change in poaching trends brought on by Asian demand. “This killing is not a normal one,” he said, “In the past poachers were selective, but now no more—they kill whole elephant families and take even the tiniest ivory.” The high demand for ivory motivates the poachers to kill quickly and indiscriminately. Kikoti believes that, at this rate, elephants will largely disappear from the African continent within five years.
The new poacher
Concealed ivory confiscated in the Brussels airport. The ivory was being smuggled out of West Africa, bound for Asia. Credit: Belgium Customs
This distinction—hunting for subsistence versus hunting for trade—has caused some confusion in the conservation and development communities. “This is organized crime, its about big money,” Bennett said, “it’s not about poverty and a source of income for poor rural people living next to wild areas.”
Though bushmeat can be found locally for sale around Africa, it’s “just a source of well-needed protein for impoverished people,” Appleby said. Unlike Asia, where medicinal and hierarchical significance is placed on consumption of wildlife parts, in Africa it may simply be cheaper to go into the forest and shoot a monkey than raise a cow. When Appleby asked his Swahili partners whether or not they prefer beef or wild buffalo, they opted for beef.
At the safari park, Appleby has noticed the change. When he first came to Africa in 1998, the only elephant carcasses he came across died from natural causes and still had their ivory. But now the bodies turn up at least monthly, always missing their tusks. Several weeks ago, Appleby came across three elephant carcasses—riddled with bullets and stripped of their tusks—near a water hole only about two miles from the reserve’s main entrance.
In South Africa, where rhino poaching is most common, the feeling on the ground is similar. “If you see a dead rhino with its horn hacked off 30 times in a year, you just absolutely start losing faith,” said Milliken, who works all over the continent.
Milliken’s investigations recently took him to Gauteng, South Africa, to analyze samples from what appears to be the largest Asian seizure in the past 10 years: 33 rhino horns, 758 ivory chopsticks and 127 ivory bracelets. The goods were concealed inside a container shipped to Hong Kong from Cape Town, and Milliken hopes they can lend clues to the perpetrators’ identity. Matching DNA extracted from the rhino horns to rhino database records could help the researchers figure out which individual animals were killed, narrowing the scope of the investigation.
A TRAFFIC investigator inspects part of the 1.4 tons of ivory seized in Malaysia last December. Credit: Elizabeth John / TRAFFIC Southeast Asia
Legislation is in place to issue serious punishment to illegal wildlife traffickers. All of the Asian countries partaking in the trade, including China and Vietnam, are members of CITES, which emphasizes international cooperation and provides thorough guidelines for enforcing wildlife trade laws. Under Hong Kong’s Import and Export Ordinance, anyone found guilty of importing un-manifested cargos faces seven years imprisonment and fines up to US$257,000; anyone guilty of importing endangered species for commercial purposes faces two years imprisonment and US$642,000 in fines. In mainland China, the death penalty used to be issued for people caught importing large consignments of ivory, though those sentences were typically suspended for good behavior and capital punishment no longer applies to wildlife crimes.
All too often, in Asia and Africa, criminals get away with their actions. “Penalties are generally weak and loopholes are exploited,” Milliken says. Judges in Africa allow foreign nationals out on bail—usually the equivalent of a measly fraction of a rhino horn or elephant tusks’ value—only to find the criminals skip the country. When guilty parties do make it to court, fines for wildlife crimes are readily paid, and again constitute a sum much less than the value of the wildlife products for which they are being prosecuted.
When asked how much these body parts cost, Milliken declines even to say what the market value of the wildlife goods might be because of the corrupting impact such information can have. Enforcement officers, upon finding out how much horns are worth, sometimes seize the horns and then immediately go into negotiations with the criminals. When Milliken first got involved in conservation over 30 years ago, an Indonesian diplomat asked him for wildlife good prices. “You usually think we’re all on the same side, but the next thing I realized, that person was directly involved in the trade,” he said, “It was a big wake-up call, let me tell you.” Milliken said the wildlife goods have never been as valuable as they are now, and “that’s as good as it gets from me.”
South Africa recently bolstered rhino poaching and horn possession to a priority one crime, putting it on par with human trafficking and murder. Across the country, 21 prosecutors are now dedicated exclusively to rhino crime. In June, a South African judge sentenced two Vietnamese nationals to 8 and 12 years imprisonment for rhino poaching. The judge commented, “I want my grandchildren to be able to see rhinos,” and warned that no leniency would be shown to anyone entering his court guilty of wildlife crimes. This case seems to be isolated, though, and local South Africans often get much leaner sentences.
Even with the increased legal support, conservationists worry that it won’t be enough. Corruption runs rampant, rangers are outnumbered, and multi-national cooperation is still largely lacking. “Despite improvements in the situation, we’re still struggling,” Milliken said.
Inevitably, every large-scale seizure ends up without a successful arrest, prosecution, or conviction. Bennett suspects a vast global network of players is involved in this trade, probably with a few head honchos calling most of the shots. Though Anson Wong, a notorious Malaysian “kingpin” wildlife smuggler, was arrested about 17 months ago, he was released in February on good behavior. At some point, the legal system usually fails, Milliken says.
“Right now, the traders are basically running circles around everyone,” Shepherd said. “They’re still winning the game.”
Doggie bags & call girls
The means of procuring the animal parts vary by country. For elephants in East Africa, poor Africans are generally hired for small sums—US$100 or so—to do the actual killing. Poachers take advantage of huge areas of wilderness left unpatrolled and bring several clips of ammunition with them on their hunts. “As we speak, people are in the bush poaching elephants,” Kikoti said. “If rangers see these guys, they’ll say wow—they’re not someone you can just attack. The rangers wind up running away.”
If a poacher is caught in Tanzania or Kenya, oftentimes he will spend just two or three weeks in jail because court systems are weak and officials are easily bribed. Kikoti said this arrangement results in an “I’ll show you” mentality, with poachers returning to the field even more determined to burn the rangers than before.
Bennett said more awareness training of prosecutors and judiciary officials is needed, because a good ranger may arrest someone but a higher-ranking officer may not take the crime seriously and then let the perpetrator go. “It’s demoralizing and sends a message to the poachers that they can get away with this,” she said.
In South Africa, where registered safari hunts are legal, criminals sometimes get more creative. Vietnamese traffickers pose as tourists and register for hunts; sometimes, Thai businessmen have hired call girls to do their hunting for them. “They don’t know one end of a gun from another,” Bennett said. “All they’re interested in are the horns.”
In South Africa, an “unholy alliance” is emerging between Vietnamese middlemen dealers, game ranchers and sports hunters, and wildlife veterinarians, Milliken said. Rangers found a number of poached rhinos with crossbow arrows sticking out of them. Unlike rifles, crossbows make no noise and so avoid drawing attention to the killing, but the only people in South Africa who are skilled bow hunters are “white professional sports hunters who have gone to the dark side,” Milliken said. In other cases, traces of immobilization drugs were found in rhinos’ post-mortem analyses, indicating that the animal was anesthetized and its horn hacked off while it was still alive. Only wildlife veterinarians have access to such drugs, or the skills to administer them.
A shipment of pangolin scales disguised as dog food intercepted in France and destined for China. Credits French Customs
Once the illegal goods are in hand, the traffickers have many concealment tricks up their sleeves. Airport authorities in Paris discovered Thailand-destined bags labeled “dog food” full of pangolin scales, described Jaap Reijngoud, a Dutch wildlife trafficking consultant who formerly worked as a CITES enforcement officer. Hidden compartments in shipping containers contain frozen pangolins, bear paws, or ivory and are overlaid with timber, fish, or plastic or computer scraps, he said. Shipping containers are oftentimes destined for Malaysia, Thailand, or the Philippines, where new stamps are put on them, and traces of their African origins disappear. This subterfuge makes it easier for them to slip by customs authorities at their final destination, usually Vietnam or China. False documents abound, too.
In one case, Reijngoud recalled, Belgian customs officials suspected a CITES document on a Thailand-bound shipment from Guinea was false. They transferred the package—packed full of pangolin hides—to officials in Thailand, where the box was seized. When the Thai enforcement officers called the Guinea CITES management authority, the officials said that the document was indeed valid, so the Thai government surrendered the box to its intended recipient. But the Belgian officials also called the Guinea office, and were told the opposite. The Guinea authorities said that many of their CITES certificates had been stolen, and they feared that criminal organizations were intercepting their phone calls to confirm that the forged certificates were valid. “We’re dealing with a huge criminal organization,” Reijngoud said.
Where do we go from here?
A shipment of pangolin skins from Guinea bound for Thailand and seized at the Belgian airport. Belgian authorities later found that the CITES document accompanying the hides was forged. Credit: Belgium Customs
Efforts are underway to combat this trade. In 1997, Milliken helped establish the elephant trade information system mandated by CITES. Governments around the world are required to submit data on elephant seizures, whether from a tourist returning from a trip to Africa with ivory trinkets or from a commercial consignment of tons of ivory. This reporting allows CITES authorities to piece together illegal ivory trade dynamics, from source to destination.
When Milliken first analyzed the data in 2002, it clearly showed that China had emerged as the world’s driver in illicit ivory trade. “The Chinese government threw an absolute tantrum at the meeting,” Milliken said, “They tried to suppress our presentation.” Thanks to the shake-up, though, China began to scratch below the surface on its own shores, and ivory seizures increased. In 2009, China reported 733 cases of illegal ivory imports; in 2010, it was 635. On average, China makes two ivory seizures each day. Milliken now has over 17,000 records of ivory trafficking around the world. The data show that, between 2004 and 2010, the upsurge in ivory trade has been uninterrupted.
In December, China further bolstered its commitment to the issue when the country’s endangered species of wild fauna and flora import and export management office drafted a plan to implement CITES recommendations—including cooperation with African and Southeast Asian countries and improved technology and training for enforcement officers—by 2015.
No one knows how large the trade really is; seizure figures almost certainly represent only a fraction of the total amount of trafficked goods. Based on impounded caches and animals found dead in the field, Milliken estimated that 1,521 rhino horns were destined for East Asia between January 2006 and September 2009. In that time, authorities seized only 43 and a further 129 were found in the field, totaling a dismal 11 percent recovery rate.
Some efforts to buckle down on the ground are underway. Several months ago, Kikoti helped organize the National Elephant Protection Committee, which brings together government officials, non-governmental organizations, safari operators, and rangers from East African countries to figure out how to stop the poaching. On the short term, the group hopes to mobilize national militaries to control poaching in the bush. They also have plans for a more long-term strategy to make sure rangers have proper training and motivation to do the job. “We need good, committed personnel,” Kikoti said. “If you see an animal killed, you should feel something.” Partly in response to this call, Appleby recently quit his job at the safari park to pursue a career in conservation.
Kikoti’s approach will only work if all nations are equally committed, since elephant populations do not respect national borders. He hopes to attain resources from the government, from tourists companies, and from the donor community, which will be pooled together. “If one country does not have resources, other countries can share,” he said.
In Asia, action is sorely needed to shut down markets where illegal wildlife is openly displayed. In China’s huge markets, most animals look similar to an untrained eye, so the Wildlife Conservation Society developed species identification smart phone apps for rangers conducting market surveys. The apps point out subtle distinctions between turtles, which help rangers make accurate identifications.
In Holland, Reijngoud developed a database that identifies about 7,000 wildlife products in Chinese, Thai, Russian, Vietnamese, and Pin Yin. He hopes it will help international customs officers—who are usually not so well versed in wildlife identification—to make accurate identifications and seizures.
Sniffer dogs from the non-profit Working Dogs for Conservation are also increasingly relied on to identify animals, like tigers, in the field. There’s talk amongst inspectors about using the dogs to find ivory amidst the thousands of shipping containers at big ports.
In China, authorities are constantly trolling the web for any sites offering illegal goods like tiger bone or ivory, though doing so is challenging because it’s hard to identify even where a suspect site is based. A couple years ago, the International Tiger Coalition partnered with Ebay to make sure the site was not illegally advertising wildlife products.
Awareness is always an issue. Many people, both consumers and authorities, don’t even realize it’s illegal to possess ivory, Bennett says, or that elephants must be killed to attain ivory.
If the cultural mindset of Asian consumers is to change, that shift will probably have to come from within rather than be imposed by foreign conservationists, Bennett said. It’s going to take an advertising and awareness campaign of the right tone and nuance to reach an Asian audience, Milliken added. TRAFFIC recently aired a story in Chinese discouraging wildlife trade on the Chinese national radio station in Africa, and ads by Jackie Chan and the retired basketball player Yao Ming protesting shark fin soup and wildlife trade have begun popping up in Asia. The educated middle class in China and Vietnam—the equivalent to the Facebook generation—are beginning to challenge traditional Chinese medicine and wildmeat consumption. They are “our real hope,” said Bennett.
In the west, Bennett encourages lobbying to make sure agencies like Interpol, CITES, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service continue to receive funding and training for international species protection. Current budget cuts impact U.S. multinational species funds, yet the U.S. is one of the key funders and providers of technical support to overseas conservation initiatives. Only a tiny proportion of federal funds go to conservation, Bennett said, but it’s crucially important for many conservation organizations in Africa and Asia.
Illegal wildlife specimens confiscated by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, Credit Rachel Nuwer
Private donors can also help. The Liz Claiborne Art Ortenberg Foundation, for example, supports conservation and plays a prominent role in trying to fight for grassroots species protection in Africa. “Honestly, if it wasn’t for people like them, so many of us wouldn’t be able to do half the things we do,” Milliken said.
When all of these factors come together, things can work out. In western India, the Wildlife Conservation Society and local government collaborated to designate a tiger reserve that had long term monitoring, enforcement, science, and community involvement. Although the reserve is located in an area with high human populations, tiger numbers have increased by about 400 percent in the past 20 years. “This is not rocket science,” Bennett said, “It’s just a question of having enough resources, awareness, and political will for people to just actually do it.”
Overall, conservationists hope the rest of the world will become more engaged with these issues. “If one country has weapons of mass destruction, everyone makes sure they are destroyed,” Kikoti said. “Why can’t we do the same for poaching?” Kikoti calls for influential nations, like the U.S., to put pressure on China and Vietnam to clamp down, or even threaten them with sanctions if wildlife trade is not adequately addressed.
“A lot of people come to Africa to see our wildlife,” he said, “If these animals are killed, we’re finished.” Tourism currently contributes about 14 percent of Tanzania’s GDP, though the government hopes to increase it to about 30 percent in coming years.
When asked what the feeling is on the ground, Milliken pauses, then quietly reflects, “As I get older and older, I just keep wondering if we’re winning, if we can really defeat global demographics.” His son—now 21—is studying wildlife management. While Milliken is proud to pass on the torch, he worries about a more complicated, less-wildlife rich future. “I don’t know, I guess ultimately I have to be optimistic and just hope that we can do it,” he said.