Getting away with murder

Chinese basketballer Yao Ming has tried to raise awareness of the damage the trade in ivory does to elephants.
Credit: Kristian Schmidt (WildAid)

THE QUEEN ALEXANDRA, the biggest butterfly in the world, was almost within touching distance, the early morning sun caught the iridescence of its enormous blue-green and black wings: a wingspan of 30cm across.

I had been travelling for days with a small group of scientists through Papua New Guinea (PNG) to see this rare, precious butterfly, these days found in just a small part of the forest in Popondetta in Oro province in the eastern part of the country.

“This is the butterfly shot down by a naturalist in 1906,” said my guide. “Not much has changed since then. The butterfly is still prized more dead than alive.”

These days, butterfly hunters come here to poach these insects, which are worth more than $8,000 each on the international black market.

CITES failing

The butterfly, along with 30,000 other species are – in theory – protected by the 1973 Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

However, environmental groups claim the agreement is failing our endangered plants and animals. The black market is thought to turn over $10 billion a year; some estimates go as high as $20 billion. Tom Milliken, from wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC, says the illicit trade in ivory has been escalating since 2002.

Campaigners argue the illegal wildlife trade is global, so governments need to improve collaboration around the world. One hindrance is that many governments do not have one a single law to prosecute offenders importing illegal wildlife and products. Offenders may be prosecuted under laws relating to animal welfare, or they may be fined under illegal trading laws. A variety of laws also means there are inconsistent penalties. Furthermore, the penalties under such laws are insignificant in comparison to the money that can be made through smuggling.

“Legislation really needs to be tighter for all countries and WSPA is asking for one piece of legislation to fight people around the world who do not have a CITES licence,” says Katharine Mansell, global spokesperson for the World Society for the Protection of Animals.

Drugs and crime

Organised crime has made merry with this hotchpotch of laws, says Tom Milliken. “The level of serious organised crime involved in wildlife trafficking takes the issue beyond the CITES arena into the realm where only serious high level political will and concerted international enforcement co-operation can hope to break the criminal smuggling networks.”

“Customs and law enforcement efforts must be expanded to combat the growing criminal syndicates that smuggle contraband across borders by land, sea and air, and that make illicit profits available to finance other illegal activities,” agrees Ginette Hemle, Senior Vice President of Conservation Strategy and Science for World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) in the USA.

An indication of just how little Western governments have committed to fighting wildlife crime is the fact that WSPA’s office in London is currently funding two full-time wildlife crime officers’ positions in the UK, as well as part of the salary of one other staff member in the Metropolitan Police’s Wildlife Crime Unit.

“It is extremely unusual for an NGO [non-government organisation] like us to be paying Government salaries, but we did not want to lose the expertise of the wildlife crime unit,” says Mansell. She says if WSPA had not financially backed the unit, it would have shut down.

In Australia, the federal Customs and Border Protection Service is the main authority that detects and monitors wildlife trade and enforces the law at our borders. It mostly dishes out fines that don’t come close to the black-market value of the goods, according to a 2008 report; jail time is rare.

Figures from 2010-2011 show that a little over four per cent of shipping containers and around 10 per cent of air cargo is inspected for prohibited items, including wildlife and wildlife products.

Legal loopholes

Meanwhile, the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) says it is concerned about the legal trade of animal products.

Surprising as it may seem, in many countries the legal importation of ivory and rhino horn as trophies is still allowed by simply applying for a CITES licence. There are restrictions on reselling the ivory, but you can shoot a rhino or elephant and bring horns or ivory back into many countries with a licence.

“In some cases, the legal trade can act as a cover for illegal trade if customs, police and other enforcement authorities are not adequately implementing the treaty of CITES or enforcing domestic wildlife trade laws and regulations,” says Josey Sharrad, IFAW campaigner Sydney.

A recent IFAW investigation into ivory in China found that the legal trade – such as ivory that was purchased legally from African nations in 2008 in a ‘one-off’ stockpile sale sanctioned by CITES – was providing cover for the laundering of illegally obtained ivory into the marketplace.

This sanctioned sale gave the message to ordinary Chinese consumers that it was acceptable to buy ivory again. This, in turn, increased the demand for ivory while the supply of the product remained small.

“As a result, nobody should be surprised that the price of ivory skyrocketed – it’s basic economics,” says Sharrad. According to IFAW, since 2006, the ongoing demand for illegal ivory in China has seen the price triple.

Conservationists and the police agree the most effective means to tackle wildlife crime is to end people’s desire for these rare species in the first place.

“While we want people to understand that ivory and rhino horn products aren’t ‘cool’, it is extremely challenging to change long-held beliefs as people do not like being told what to do and they become very stubborn if you try to lecture them,” explains Colman O’Criodain, WWF Policy Officer in Switzerland.

It is a challenge that conservation group WildAid is making some headway with by working with famous Asian celebrities including the former Chinese basketballer, Yao Ming, to try to convince wealthy people in Asia that ivory is unfashionable and cruel.

But, as O’Criodain knows all too well: “Encouraging people to be satisfied with alternative products than these status symbols is a very long process.”

In the meantime, some campaigners are pushing for relaxing CITES and allowing more trade, arguing that it will boost species numbers through controlled intensive breeding. Some NGOs in Papua New Guinea say the Queen Alexandra butterfly should be traded legally, calling for CITES to change the total ban on any trade of the butterfly.

But it’s a proposal that deeply worries others, such as IFAW’s Josey Sharrad: “Some view trade as a precursor to conservation of species, but one of the quickest ways to drive an animal to extinction is to put a price on its head.

“When species face a poaching and illegal trade crisis, all trade should be suspended, either at the country or international level, until the crisis is brought under control and trade in the species is no longer a threat to its survival.”

Hope for the future

NGOs are taking some encouragement from the September United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York. It was the first time the illicit trafficking of wildlife products was discussed on the floor of the General Assembly. Campaigners hope this signals a new impetus by governments around the world to combat the illegal and legal trade, and to take the challenge seriously.

“Governments have made a significant step forward by introducing the issue into this important forum on the rule of law. We now call on them to increase their law enforcement responses to wildlife crime on a commensurate basis,” says Wendy Elliott, WWF Global Species Program Manager.

I looked up at the male Queen Alexandra, suddenly unfurling its tongue and throwing it with javelin-like precision into a red hibiscus flower. It moved with grace, treading delicately around the flower, before fluttering away into the morning sun.

I wondered how this species could possibly be more precious to human beings dead, rather than alive.

Author: Georgina Kenyon
Source: ABC Environment



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