Wildlife traffickers continue to profit from vulnerabilities in the global air transportation system, finds report

Wildlife traffickers continue to profit from vulnerabilities in the global air transportation system, finds report | ROUTES,United for Wildlife,CITES

(photo: Emirates)

Tue 13 Jun 2017 – Illegal wildlife trafficking – the fourth largest black market in the world and worth over $20 billion annually to criminal organisations – is now widespread at airports across 114 countries, finds a report published on behalf of ROUTES, a partnership of US government agencies and representatives from transportation and conservation organisations formed to combat the practice. The high profits and low risk associated with trafficking through airports have attracted sophisticated criminal networks able to exploit the security vulnerabilities in the global air transportation system and the corruption at some airports. A ROUTES partner, IATA has become actively involved in the war against trafficking and at last week’s AGM in Cancun, 12 more airlines joined the 27 others that have signed a declaration committing the industry to tackling the illegal trade. IATA also signed an extension agreement with airports body ACI to work more closely together on the issue.


The ROUTES (Reducing Opportunities for Unlawful Transport of Endangered Species) report, ‘Flying Under the Radar: Wildlife Trafficking in the Air Transport Sector’, was produced by C4ADS, a Washington DC-based non-profit that reports on global conflicts and transnational security issues. It analysed airport seizures of ivory, rhino horn, birds and reptiles from January 2009 to August 2016. Collectively, these four categories account for two-thirds of all trafficked wildlife, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.


The report finds wildlife trafficking is now a global problem across all continents that takes advantage of enforcement loopholes, lack of awareness, limited public and private sector coordination, capacity gaps, and lagging technology and procedures to move illicit products through the licit transportation system.


The seizure data indicates traffickers tend to rely on large hub airports and use various strategies to evade detection depending on the category. Tin foil, for example, has been used for years to hide ivory and other illicit products. The analysis also shows that checked luggage, rather than air cargo, appears to be the most common transport method used by traffickers across all four categories.


The country with the most reports of wildlife trafficking in the air transport sector is China, largely due to its role in the ivory trade, followed by Thailand and the United Arab Emirates. The United States is ranked tenth by number of seizures. There is also a potential health risk to animals and even humans posed by trafficking. To combat the risk of imported birds bringing in diseases such as bird flu, the US currently prohibits the importation of birds or eggs from 49 countries, yet 38% of bird seizures recorded by C4ADS originated in at least one of these countries.


The specific roles airports play within the international trafficking system are largely dependent on their geographic location, says the report. Most African airports, for example, are origin points for illicit ivory shipments but airports in the Greater Horn of Africa are generally transit points. Similarly, Middle Eastern airports serve as common transit points for ivory moving from East or Southern Africa to Asia, while European airports are frequently used to move ivory from West Africa to Asia. Southeast and East Asian airports are predominantly destinations.


Since hub airports have a variety of international flight routes available for traffickers to choose from, they are more likely to be exploited than smaller, regional airports and, as a result, international airlines based at major hubs are disproportionately exposed. “Targeting these chokepoints will have a larger impact on traffickers’ operations than focusing on regional airports alone,” suggests C4ADS, which makes a number of recommendations covering awareness, training, enforcement, prevention and seizure reporting.


“As international travel continues to exponentially increase, particularly in the air transport sector, enforcement and the private sector should make immediate changes to better stem the international flow of illicit wildlife,” says the report’s author, Mary Utermohlen. “Without such changes, wildlife traffickers will continue to find the illegal wildlife trade a profitable, comparatively easy and low-risk enterprise, at substantial detriment to ecosystems, economies and global security.”


IATA took up the battle against wildlife trafficking two years ago when it signed a cooperation agreement with the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) to cooperate on reducing the illegal trade, as well as ensuring the safe and secure transport of legally traded wildlife.


In March 2016, IATA, Airports Council International (ACI) and a number of airlines signed a declaration at Buckingham Palace aimed at reducing the illegal trade of wildlife as part of the ‘United for Wildlife’ initiative created by the Royal Foundation of The Duke & Duchess of Cambridge & Prince Harry (see article).


At last week’s IATA AGM in Cancún, IATA and ACI signed an annex to their MoU agreement to extend cooperation on developing and promoting measures to assist in combatting the trade. This includes, for example, raising awareness with both staff and public, engagement with enforcement authorities and conservation organisations, and developing recommended practices that identify practical solutions for prevention. Such measures, they said, will assist employees working with passengers, baggage or cargo to identify and report suspicious behaviour and unusual shipments to the relevant authorities.


However, said Jon Godson, Assistant Director of Environment at IATA, one of the biggest challenges the industry faces is a lack of communication from those same enforcement agencies. “Airlines are rarely informed if there has been a wildlife seizure from a passenger or cargo shipment carried by their aircraft,” he reported. “Data like this can demonstrate not only high risk routes, species and concealment methods but also the truly global nature of this exploitation.”


He said legislation to counter wildlife trafficking had been in place for 40 years yet was still increasing year on year. “The conventional wisdom was that trafficking is an enforcement agency issue and was restricted to air cargo but new data and this ROUTES report shows that this is a global issue and there has been a huge shift towards carriage by passengers.


“As airline staff spend longer with passengers than any border agency does, so we can pick up on unusual movements and suspicious behaviour, oversized baggage and strange routings, and the intelligence can be passed on to the authorities.”


Godson said he was talking to enforcement authorities about forming public/private partnerships, along with the message: “If you want us to provide information on suspicious activity then you must provide us with feedback – where the law allows – if we have been successful and that prosecution has occurred, because at the moment it’s a one-way street.”


The good news, he said, was that a year on from the Buckingham Palace declaration, more and more airlines from across the world were joining the fight against trafficking.


Commenting on the report produced by C4ADS, Michelle Owen, the ROUTES Partnership Lead, said: “This analysis provides a global perspective on what many in the airline industry are already seeing at the regional level: transport infrastructure is being abused to facilitate the trafficking of wildlife. There are a variety of low-cost and high-impact solutions available that airports and airlines can take to help address this issue. ROUTES is developing resources to raise awareness and build capacity within the air transport sector, and to support leaders within the transport industry who have made commitments to assist with tackling wildlife trafficking.”


The ROUTES Partnership is a five-year (2015-2020) collaboration project funded by USAID, a US government agency set up by President John F. Kennedy in 1961 that works to end extreme global poverty and provide assistance to developing countries. ROUTES partners include the Center for Advanced Defense Studies (C4ADS), Freeland, IATA, WWF and other US agencies. It is coordinated by the wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC.


ROUTES is hosting a free webinar on June 21 (10am EDT) with a presentation on the overview of the C4ADS report.




All air trafficking routes for ivory, rhino horn, reptile, and bird seizures in the C4ADS Air Seizure Database (January 2009 to August 2016). The transparency of each line represents the number of times that route was used. The bubbles represent the total number of flights to and from each city.




IATA DG Alexandre de Juniac and ACI World DG Angela Gittens sign the Annex to their existing MoU on the illegal wildlife trade at the IATA 2017 AGM:





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