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The illegal wildlife trade is a biodiversity apocalypse

An estimated annual $175-billion business, the illegal trade in wildlife is the world’s fourth-largest criminal enterprise. It stands to radically alter the animal kingdom.

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In October 1994, I was on assignment in Vietnam’s northern Truong Son Mountains, hard against the Laos border at an illegal logging camp on the remote Khe Môi River. I was accompanying a group of scientists conducting biodiversity surveys in previously unexplored areas. The primary forest here harboured a wealth of rare mammals, with remnant populations of elephant, tiger, gibbon, pangolin, barking deer and the just-discovered saola — or Vu Quang ox. After several weeks in the jungle, the scientists had extended this bio-bonanza to numerous undescribed species of snakes, frogs and insects, typically found during night excursions.

On reconnaissance one evening, I waded upriver, searching out entrances to smaller streams to return to later. Rounding a bend, I surprised a clutch of men huddled around a fire on a sandbar. Clad in rags, skin darkened by smoke and grit, they radiated conspiracy — and with reason. Behind them sat a brace of ancient rifles and bamboo-frame packs on which were lashed the dried bodies of several gibbons and sun bears — both critically endangered species afforded the highest level of protection under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, also known as CITES. As the men closed ranks to avoid eye contact, I waded past against the far bank, ludicrously pretending I hadn’t noticed anything. The poachers were undoubtedly killing time until dark, when they’d presumably make their way downriver to trade their booty along a pipeline to China, the beckoning maw into which most of the world’s illegally obtained wildlife flows.

Though I’d never beheld such a scene, I knew precisely what I was looking at: if Southeast Asia’s remaining forests were a gold mine of wildlife resources, then exotic outposts such as the Khe Môi were its cutting face, a tableau of lawless isolation where CITES was meaningless. What I didn’t know at the time was that the same could be said of Canada’s vast forests for the same reasons and, perhaps worse, that one could also buy the equivalent of a powdered gibbon smoothie on the streets of Vancouver.

“There’s been a significant increase in wildlife trafficking and poaching over the last decade,” says Sheldon Jordan, director general of the wildlife enforcement directorate for Environment and Climate Change Canada and chair of Interpol’s wildlife crime working group. Given his dual roles, Jordan has special insight into the reasons behind the surge. “Increased demand for wildlife products is driven largely by more disposable income in Asia and other parts of the world that have food, medicinal and spiritual traditions around these items.”

A mounted turtle head in the evidence room of Environment Canada's wildlife enforcement directorate. (Photo: Peter Power/Canadian Geographic)
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With “wildlife trade” defined as the sale or exchange of any wild animal or plant (including trees), one might also finger both a rising population and sharp increase in the globalization of commerce over the same period. According to TRAFFIC — a network established in 1976 to monitor global wildlife trade — the value of legal wildlife products in the early 1990s hovered around US$160 billion annually; by 2009 that had doubled to US$323 billion, which includes everything from seafood to timber. A hint of the remainder lies in a CITES-compiled list of the 2005 to 2009 legal trade: 317,000 live birds, more than six million reptile skins, 1.1 million beaver pelts, 73 tons of caviar, a reef’s worth of coral and 20,000 mammal hunting trophies. Though black-market trade in these same items is, by its very nature, difficult to assess, United Nations estimates of US$7 billion to $23 billion for fauna trafficking alone, and US$57 billion to $175 billion when flora and lumber are added, are staggering — enough that on the scale of illicit global enterprises, wildlife now ranks fourth behind drugs, counterfeiting and human trafficking. Canada’s substantial legal wildlife trade — forestry, commercial and recreational fisheries, wild plant harvesting, guided hunting — aids communities when undertaken sustainably. But continued unsustainable harvesting and illegal export and import of wildlife resources both here and abroad threatens to undermine any broader efforts at stewardship, affecting communities and economies worldwide. 

What Canada lacks in diversity of desirable species is made up in sheer numbers of organisms, distributed over 10 million square kilometres, an area that could comfortably fit 30 Vietnams. With just more than a third of the population of that small country famously concentrated in a few discrete areas, there are plenty of isolated areas where, for example, poaching bears to harvest gall bladders and paws — both in demand in Chinese traditional medicine — might go unnoticed. The Rise of Environmental Crime, a white paper published in June 2016 by a Norwegian think-tank and cosigned by Interpol, cites the troika of pollution, smuggling and poaching to be rising at five to seven per cent per year — double the pace of world economic growth. Canada is in lock-step with this increase, notes Jordan. “And when you couple that with downward trends in government spending, that means more work for us and fewer resources to do it.”

While Environment Canada’s wildlife enforcement directorate is responsible for enforcing regulations of, among others, the Migratory Birds Convention Act, the Wild Animal and Plant Protection and Regulation of International and Interprovincial Trade Act, the Species at Risk Act and the Canada Wildlife Act, it has only 75 field officers nationwide. Excluding the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, across all other government organizations and levels in Canada, less than 1,500 people attend to wildlife laws — compared with 70,000 police officers. That makes modern intelligence- gathering methodologies crucial to efficiency, as does using the resulting information to decide where the biggest problems are and how to leverage the right partnerships to deal with them — a sort of jurisdictional triage.

In practice, wildlife trade fits into a broader category of connected “environmental crime” that includes pollution, illegal fishing and logging (with up to one-third of the world’s paper obtained from illegally sourced wood, economic impacts accrue for countries such as Canada that strictly regulate such sectors). Jordan works both to squelch internal trade and to identify and cut off export and import routes of everything from butterflies to birds to fish to frogs.

Between 2015 and 2016, the wildlife enforcement directorate logged 4,900 inspections, 908 enforcement measures, 167 new prosecutions and 158 convictions, handing out a record $1.1 million in penalties. Among the infractions: the illegal harvesting of migratory birds in Quebec, the illegal export of narwhal tusks by a Montreal auction house, a litany of bear parts turned up in a New Brunswick border blitz, a Dall’s sheep poached in the Yukon (where it’s protected) and smuggled into B.C. (where it isn’t) so hunters could claim that province as its origin, and the illegal harvesting of endangered American ginseng, a slow-growing, low-seed plant whose colonies require 170 individuals to remain viable. “The reason for that particular trade is maddening,” laments Jordan. “A good wild ginseng root is 10 to 15 centimetres long; the more it resembles a human — with branches that approximate arms and legs — the more it’s worth, up to thousands of dollars.”

Like it or not, we’re all dependent on the Earth for our survival. The more that’s taken without being regulated, the less ecosystems are able to continue the services they provide all life — including ourselves.

Sheldon Jordan, director general of the wildlife enforcement directorate for Environment and Climate Change Canada and chair of Interpol’s wildlife crime working group

The wildlife enforcement directorate engages not only in enforcement but also in proactive training and joint efforts aimed at stemming illegal activity while protecting legal trade. For example, non-threatened Canadian populations of globally threatened wildlife provide economic opportunity to communities when managed sustainably. Emblematic is our most iconic large mammal, the polar bear. While Canada’s significant efforts to protect its populations ensure their continued health, polar bears continue to confer cultural, sustenance and economic benefits to many isolated Indigenous communities. But when auction prices for hides spiked from $5,000 to $25,000 apiece several years ago, illegal harvest rose in tandem. In response, the wildlife enforcement directorate joined provincial, territorial and federal agencies to collaborate with Indigenous communities on an approach to identify and track legal polar bear hides from harvest through export, including DNA analysis and tagging with easily scanned microchips. These provide information on when and where a hide was obtained, helping thwart illegal trade while facilitating a more efficient tracking process for legal hides.

But while this system can help with non-compliant exports, the tide of illegal imports, according to Jordan, continues unabated.

Bruce scans inventory in the directorate’s evidence room. (Photo: Peter Power/Canadian Geographic)
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In the early 1980s, a curator at Ottawa’s Museum of Nature invited me to tour a warehouse across the river in Gatineau, Que., where illegal wildlife items seized at Canadian airports, seaports and border crossings were stored. I recall a dimly lit mortuary of metal shelves stacked floor to ceiling with stuffed, glassy-eyed crocodilians and birds, sea turtle carapaces, conch shells, rolled snakeskins, numerous ivories, and the hides of lions and tigers and bears. Though this particular cache has long since been destroyed, the wildlife enforcement directorate currently maintains small exhibit rooms near Toronto and Ottawa stocked with similar items, plus a pharmacopoeia made from prohibited plant and animal species. While the sheer scope of material remains disturbing, a single rhino horn sitting on a shelf also can’t help but conjure a gruesome image of its deceased owner, bleeding in the dirt, horn severed from its head. And that raises a troubling question: How long until these great beasts are gone from our midst?

Not long, considering what amounts to an 8,000 per cent rise in rhino poaching: in 2007, 13 of the animals were killed, while the past four years have each seen more than 1,000 removed from the wild, driven by black-market prices of up to $350,000 per horn. “Ten years ago, someone started a rumour that powdered rhino horn cures cancer — except its only keratin like hair and nails,” notes Jordan. “You have as much chance of curing cancer or erectile dysfunction with rhino horn as you do chewing your fingernails.”

Pangolins, scaly anteaters of Asia and Africa, are likewise slaughtered at the rate of one million or more annually for the whimsical properties of their scales. Elephant populations are decreasing annually by about 8.5 per cent (against a reproductive rate that optimally allows for only a four per cent increase). In the Horn of Africa, ivory is smuggled from the lawless Democratic Republic of the Congo through unstable South Sudan into Somalia, whose ports are controlled by jihadist organization Al-Shabaab, which happily taxes its passage. “With upwardly mobile collectors in emerging economies paying top dollar for decorative ivory carvings, we could be down to very few wild elephants within a generation,” says Jordan. “Many of those countries are at the stage we were at 50 years ago in terms of cultural taboos, so it’ll take time.”

Meanwhile, Asian enclaves in large North American cities will continue to keep to traditional beliefs despite the cultural — and legal — prohibitions of the West. “There’s a large trade in anything charismatic or useful in traditional medicines that mainly has Asian Canadians as clients,” says Jordan, echoing news reports about what one might find during a tour of Chinese markets and apothecaries in Toronto and Vancouver, where all manner of live (turtles, fish), dried (geckos, sea cucumbers, shark fins) and powdered (endangered large mammal bits) contraband is transacted. China itself, however, may be coming around, having pledged, at least, to ban ivory by the end of the year. Jordan wishes them luck, knowing the trade will simply go underground for a few years.

Before encountering the Khe Môi poachers, I’d already seen how China’s insatiable appetite for alimentation, wishful aphrodisiacs and traditional medicines accounted for many of Vietnam’s endangered species — and several that soon would be. When a single king cobra could net US$200 — equivalent to Vietnam’s average annual wage at the time — providing for a hungry family trumped all. The traffic I observed in consumable snakes and frogs alone was staggering — thousands crammed into burlap sacks crossing into China every day. Add in lizards, turtles, fish, birds, mammals and invertebrates, with the same occurring in a hundred other countries, and you had a major global crisis. This was the real China syndrome — not the nuclear meltdown of the eponymous 1979 Hollywood flick, but a biodiversity apocalypse now.

A taxidermied sea turtle was confiscated by wildlife enforcement officers and is now kept in the directorate's evidence room. (Photo: Peter Power/Canadian Geographic)
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Reptiles are surprisingly common contraband. In 2009, an undercover operation involving the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, Environment Canada’s wildlife enforcement directorate and U.S. agencies documented the illegal trade of more than 2,400 protected turtles and venomous snakes, charging two dozen people. Three Ontario men rounded up in the sting faced 34 charges for selling two protected species — eastern massasauga rattlesnakes and spotted turtles — across the border. American investigators posing as vendors at commercial reptile shows in New York and Pennsylvania befriended poachers and trawled Internet sites before nabbing one of the men with 33 rattlesnakes hidden in his van. The Pennsylvania show was so popular with Canadian reptile enthusiasts that wildlife enforcement directorate officers set up at the Queenston-Lewiston border crossing between New York and Ontario, charging several under the customs act for smuggling venomous snakes and frogs into Canada. Their $1,000 fines, however, were mere slaps on the wrist that didn’t cover the time spent catching, charging and processing them. “Generally speaking, our laws go back many decades and need a tune-up,” says Jordan. “It’s a challenge to the enforcement community when deterrents are mild. By and large, judges and prosecutors don’t use the penalties available.”

Though you can receive up to five years in jail for wildlife smuggling in Canada, Jordan has never seen more than a four-month sentence, attributable, he believes, to a perception of environmental crime as victimless among a judiciary hardened by drug crimes with clear human cost. For instance, if a smuggler brings in a kilo of fentanyl, it’s assumed a certain number of people will die; not so with a kilo of endangered critters. But where Canadian law leaves things up to the discretion of a court system, U.S. legal proscriptions are stronger, the penalties much harsher: a Waterloo, Ont., man caught heading south with dozens of turtles in his pants is now serving 57 months in an American jail.

Busts can be dramatic — worthy of reality TV treatment. In a case near Cornwall, Ont., Canadian and U.S. authorities monitored a boat as it crossed the St. Lawrence River from New York to Ontario to deliver boxes to a waiting van. With officers descending on the smugglers, a woman took off with the boat, while the man driving the van was arrested. The boxes contained Chinese striped turtles, African sideneck turtles, South American red-footed tortoises and numerous lizards bound for pet stores and private collections. Ontario averages four or five such files a year. “Of course, we don’t know how much we’re not detecting,” Lonny Coote, the wildlife enforcement directorate’s director for wildlife enforcement in Ontario, told the Canadian Press in 2016.

According to documents obtained under warrant, Dennis Day, the man arrested, processed more than 18,000 illegal reptiles with a street value of $700,000. Convicted of smuggling in 2013, his sentence was a $50,000 fine and six months in jail to be served on weekends. The boat driver was charged and convicted by U.S. officials. A third conspirator, who owned a Montreal reptile store, received a $45,000 fine and was successfully sued by the store’s landlord after 250 reptile carcasses were discovered inside the building’s walls.

Smuggling comes with such surprises. In another case, a Richmond, B.C., individual who’d been shunting iconic wildlife in and out of Canada was lured to New York for a buy and arrested there. “Then we called the officers waiting outside his antique shop in Richmond. They went inside to retrieve his computer on which all the evidence would reside — you know, who were the suppliers, who were the clients — but they also found ivory and coral, as well as ecstasy and marijuana,” says Jordan. “He was clearly involved in organized crime.”

According to Jordan, wildlife trade is attracting organized crime because of its outrageous profit margins — higher, in many cases, than for illicit drugs (see sidebar “Proceeds of crime,” below). “That element has definitely increased over the 15 years I’ve been working. Every couple of years, a bear gall-bladder ring is taken apart … One in Quebec involved 80 people.”

The wildlife enforcement directorate’s evidence collection also includes items manufactured from wildlife, such as bear gall wine. (Photo: Peter Power/Canadian Geographic)
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When it comes to illegal wildlife trade, stemming the tide of supply requires lowering the high-water mark of demand, a difficult proposition when you’re up against human nature, ingrained cultural beliefs and big money. Though this equation has always existed, it’s compounded by the nouveau riche of emerging economies who can now afford products previously seen as luxuries.

As long as someone is willing to pay good money, desperate people will continue to kill gorillas simply to cut off their hands. And demand for supposed aphrodisiacs is as likely to go away as traditional Chinese medicine that relies on animal parts, despite the largely superstitious basis of both. In late 2006, Zhang Gongyao, a medical history professor at Central South University in Hunan, ignited a furor in China when he wrote: “Chinese traditional medicine has neither an empirical nor a rational foundation. It is a threat to biodiversity. And it often uses poisons and waste as remedies. So we have enough reasons to bid farewell to it.”

On that Vietnam sojourn two decades ago, illegal wildlife trade was apparent everywhere: local markets sold putatively protected animals, restaurants specialized in them, the Hanoi hotel where I stayed had a snake dealer in the lobby, gift shops brimmed with animal contraband and illegal — yet state-sanctioned — logging was legion. Worst was the mid-coastal port of Vinh, where our group was guided on an incomprehensibly heart-wrenching tour to view live animals — sun bears, clouded leopards, pangolins, monitor lizards, pythons and birds kept under appalling conditions in hopes they could somehow be sold before they died. My biologist companions had tears in their eyes as we left town.

Canada’s task seems clearer in Jordan’s top three issues: the export trophy trade in vulnerable species, the import of high-value prohibited material such as ivory and rhino horn, and the emerging threat of invasive species, which can wreak havoc on ecosystems and also carry parasites and pathogens that can harm Canadian wildlife. The good news? Technology is aiding enforcement — drones and remote-triggered cameras have made it easier to identify and locate wildlife poachers both abroad and in Canada. The bad news is that environmental criminals are using the same technology — as well as the Internet, where you can purchase anything and, perhaps in the near future, have it dropped at your house via drone.

Says Jordan: “These are the challenges we’re up against as a world community.”


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This story is from the September/October 2017 Issue

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