Much to be done in China’s hunt for illegal wildlife traders

The illegal wildlife trade is still flourishing in China, but express delivery companies there are pulling out all the stops to fulfill their pledge toward wildlife conservation.
China illegal wildlife
15 August 2019

The lucrative black market is awash with “white gold”, as ivory is known, fetching exorbitant prices to the highest bidders.

Despite elephants facing the imminent threat of extinction worldwide, the illegal wildlife trade is still thriving in China, the world’s largest importer and end user of elephant tusks.

Ivory tusks can sell for up to 250,000 yuan (€33,070) apiece, according to an official at the country’s customs administration. Yet there is no lack of underground buyers, possibly driven by China’s crackdown on the legal sale of ivory in 2017.

In recent years, Beijing has adopted a tougher stance with stricter enforcement actions to combat illegal wildlife trafficking.

Within the first quarter of 2019 alone, the China customs thwarted close to 200 smuggling attempts, disrupting multiple criminal syndicates and confiscating up to 500.5 tons of endangered animals and plants in the process.

But the strongest signal of the administration’s commitment, to date, was its record-breaking haul in April 2019, when 7.48 tons of smuggled ivory tusks — the second biggest ivory seizure worldwide since 1989 — were seized from an international criminal gang.

While efforts to take down the illegal ivory trade have yielded positive results, more needs to be done to clamp down on the illicit wildlife trade in China.

Joining the fight

Since the ban on legal ivory sales took effect, purchases of the commodity have declined significantly from 31 percent before the ban in 2017 to the current 14 percent in China, a new report by TRAFFIC and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) revealed.

Rhinoceros horns sold on the black market for use in traditional Chinese medicine
Rhinoceros horns sold on the black market for use in traditional Chinese medicine

More private companies have also since entered the fray to play an active role in curbing this illegal trade with estimated total revenues of €20 billion a year globally.

As illegal activities nowadays sprout from the darkest corners of the World Wide Web, through e-commerce marketplaces and global social media channels, reducing and eliminating wildlife cybercrime ought to be a top priority.

Take for instance, the Global Coalition to End Wildlife Trafficking Online. The alliance, initiated by Chinese Internet giants Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent, to detect, prevent and remove information related to the illegal trade online brings together private companies with wildlife experts at WWF, the wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC, and the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW).

Aside from the deleting and blocking of information and advertisements, more sophisticated technology is being deployed to source for better solutions to root out wildlife consumption.

Baidu, working with IFAW, will tap on its big data and artificial intelligence prowess to track down potential wildlife traders and searchers before mapping their behaviors to understand their motivations, shared Jeff He, IFAW’s China director.

While organizations in the private sector have been consistently supporting the cause, China’s recent hard stance on wildlife protection seems to have wavered.

In an unpopular move that was later rescinded due to public backlash, China had planned to reverse a 25-year-old ban on tiger bone and rhinoceros horn for scientific and medical use — a contradiction that undermines its leadership role in wildlife conservation.

“China’s decision is what many of us have feared for over a decade,” said Leigh Henry, director of wildlife policy at WWF after the news broke.

China’s charm offensive to promote traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) to a broader global audience, as part of its ambitious Belt and Road initiative, could risk undoing the progress it has made in the protection of endangered wildlife.

The use of pangolin scales in traditional Chinese medicine dates back thousands of years.
The use of pangolin scales in traditional Chinese medicine dates back thousands of years.

Despite the lack of scientific evidence to prove its healing properties, the demand for selected TCM treatments that contain animal parts from threatened wildlife species has shown no signs of abating.

A collaborative effort

The vast scale of the illegal wildlife trade in China and around the world means policing efforts for wildlife trafficking should extend across the entire supply chain.

How are illegal wildlife products being delivered? Where is it delivered to and where did it come from? Who are the buyers and the sellers? These questions have to be addressed by logistics providers responsible for shipments that flow through their supply chain.

For a start, the Chinese government and a group of 14 domestic and international express delivery companies recently signed a self-regulatory convention.

Accounting for around 90 percent of China’s massive express delivery market, the collective pledged to block illegal wildlife dealing by refusing to transport protected wildlife and related products.

One of its members is DHL Express China, which complies with a strict deterrence policy on prohibited commodities in accordance with the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

“As part of our efforts to combat wildlife trafficking, we work closely with relevant agencies including local authorities, wildlife groups, and academic institutions regularly to circulate warnings as well as reporting important information for action where necessary,” said Edward Lim, Senior Director, Security of DHL Express Asia Pacific.

For instance, a twice-monthly bulletin from wildlife conservation group United for Wildlife (UfW) discloses crucial information that helps DHL’s trained personnel in identifying and flagging suspicious shipments en route to its destination.

As traffickers exercise greater creativity in their concealment methods to escape detection, the vetting process is of critical importance. “We’ve found live tortoises hidden in a compartment at the bottom of a Lego set, which we successfully detected during our mandatory security inspection process,” Lim shared.

Our frontline staff are trained to profile suspicious shipments from popular wildlife export countries such as Philippines and Malaysia, added Lim.

Although there are precautionary measures in place, illegal wildlife traffickers, emboldened by advanced technologies, continue to pose a real threat to the world’s endangered species.

Nothing short of a collaborative effort on all fronts will be needed to stand a chance at stopping wildlife trafficking in its tracks.

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