Wildlife traffickers highly dependent on a vulnerable air transport sector, finds report
Wed 15 Aug 2018 - Wildlife traffickers are highly dependent on commercial air transport to move their contraband quickly, where they continue to exploit vulnerabilities in the system, and instances of trafficking have been recorded in 136 countries around the world. A new analysis by ROUTES Partnership finds wildlife seizures in air transport more than quadrupled between 2009 and 2017, with seizure numbers in 2017 increasing by 40% over the previous year. Traffickers have become adept at exploiting lagging technology, corruption, capacity problems and other issues within airports, and often target specific airports or flight routes. The 200-page ‘In Plane Sight’ report is considered the most comprehensive assessment of its kind to date and reveals the current movement, trends and methods of wildlife traffickers in the global air transport sector. It also comes up with more than a dozen recommendations based on seizure data for preventing wildlife trafficking through the sector.
Impacting more than 7,000 species of animals and plants, the illegal wildlife trade is worth in the region of $20 billion annually and is the fourth largest black market in the world behind drugs, human and arms trafficking.
Whilst rhino horn seizures nearly tripled in 2017 compared to the previous year, it was the lowest year for large-scale ivory seizures since 2014, due in part to an agreement between the United States and China for a near-total ban on the commercial trade of ivory. China was by far the most common destination for all seized wildlife products between 2009 and 2017.
According to the report, routes of wildlife products such as ivory, rhino horn and pangolin tend to flow from Africa to Asia, often transiting first through the Middle East and Europe (see graphic below). Traffickers carrying live animals, such as birds and reptiles, generally rely on direct flights worldwide with different hotspots in every region.
The seizure data indicates wildlife traffickers moving ivory, rhino horn, reptiles, birds, pangolins, marine products and mammals by air tend to rely on large hub airports all over the world, and collectively account for 81% of all trafficked wildlife, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.
Traffickers choose certain airports for their location, size, connecting flight routes, customs screening procedures and perceived ability to identify contraband. Large international hubs with lax screening but many connecting flights are at the highest risk, with those in the process of expansion being the most vulnerable.
Traffickers also benefit from current customs and enforcement screening procedures and priorities. For example, explain the report’s authors, screening on departure and in transit is primarily done for security purposes, and is not focused on identifying trafficking. Screening on arrival is designed to uncover trafficking but is conducted by customs agencies primarily focused on revenue and agricultural disease protection, and seizing wildlife is not a top priority.
As a first step, they suggest, airport authorities should be aware of wildlife trafficking and take steps to prioritise the identification of such instances within their airports. These authorities should look at past instances of seizures for guidance as these tend to reveal that traffickers try to avoid airports with good enforcement records and high seizure numbers or with a well-known history of wildlife trafficking activity. Instead, they may try to fly through airports rarely affected by wildlife trafficking, or with a history of corruption, or a reputation for paying little attention to passengers and shipments in transit. With this knowledge in hand, customs and enforcement officials can anticipate and prepare for shifts in trafficking activity, as well as coordinate with other officials along high-risk flight routes.
The report recommends the air transport industry should continue to build awareness among personnel and passengers, train staff, strengthen corporate policies and seizure protocols, and share seizure information.
Mapping, measuring and understanding trafficking activity is inherently challenging, point out the authors, and information pulled from seizure data only reflects the least successful trafficking attempts. In addition, wildlife trafficking analyses are further plagued by a system-wide lack of consistent, accurate, adequately detailed and publicly available seizure information. For example, the European Union holds a database called the EU Trade in Wildlife Information Exchange (EU-TWIX), but is only available to enforcement officials working on wildlife crime within the EU. A similar database (AFRICA-TWIX) contains seizures reported by Central African countries but again it is only available to enforcement officials in those countries.
On a positive note, C4ADS – the compilers of the ‘In Plane Sight’ report – have managed to access to a number of databases of detailed seizure information from a US agency and the World Customs Organization since its last report, ‘Flying Under the Radar’, in 2017.
“Wildlife seizure data is vital for identifying, understanding and combatting wildlife trafficking in airports around the world,” said author Mary Utermohlen from C4ADS. “Still, it’s important to recognise that seizure data of any kind 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.”
Commenting on the report, Jon Godson, Assistant Director of Environment at IATA, said: “Many airlines recognise the need to combat wildlife trafficking and are stepping up as leaders in this global effort. Airline staff spend more time with passengers and baggage than customs authorities and can provide a key source of intelligence for enforcement agencies.”
Added Juliana Scavuzzi, Senior Manager of Environment at Airports Council International (ACI) World: “Traffickers are increasingly abusing transport systems to move their products quickly and securely. During the journey from source to market, airports may be used in the transit. This provides airports with an important opportunity to play their role in preventing wildlife trafficking. ACI is committed to developing a framework to fight wildlife trafficking and support our members with their efforts.”
The ‘In Plane Sight’ report was produced by C4ADS (Center for Advanced Defense Studies) as part of the USAID Reducing Opportunities for Unlawful Transport of Endangered Species (ROUTES) Partnership, a collaboration of US government agencies, IATA and NGOs WWF, Freeland and the wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC.
“Wildlife trafficking has global implications for the environment, people and communities, and national security. Seizure data like this is vital to helping regulators, enforcement and industry take action,” said TRAFFIC’s Michelle Owen, the ROUTES Partnership Lead. “Criminals involved in wildlife trafficking are often directly connected to other illegal networks, including narcotics and human trafficking. By addressing wildlife trafficking, airports and airlines not only help protect endangered species, they also strengthen their operations and supply chains.”
Wildlife trafficking air routes by category (source: ROUTES):