New report highlights the growing impact and health risks associated with wildlife trafficking through the air transport system
Thu 30 Apr 2020 – A new report on wildlife trafficking in the air transport sector shows that last year more than one million illegal wildlife products and live animal were seized at airports, with around one seizure recorded every day. The report, ‘Runway to Extinction’, examines the trends, transit routes and trafficking methods used by wildlife smugglers exploiting the aviation industry in six world regions. Produced by C4ADS as part of the USAID Reducing Opportunities for Unlawful Transport of Endangered Species (ROUTES) Partnership, this is the third report highlighting the world’s fourth most valuable type of international organised crime. As Covid-19 ravages countries across the globe, the illegal wildlife trade is also an important factor in the spread of zoonotic – animal to human – diseases, with trafficked live birds, reptiles and mammals at risk of ending up in illegal or unregulated markets.
“This report highlights the widespread, pervasive nature of wildlife trafficking by air, with each major world region impacted,” commented its author, Mary Utermohlen, Program Director at C4ADS. “Our analysis shows that traffickers of all types exploit the same vulnerabilities within airports, often using the same trafficking methods to circumvent law enforcement and airport authorities.
“Furthermore, seizure data shows that many wildlife trafficking networks rely on the same smuggling methods over time, suggesting that a thorough understanding of airport-specific or country-specific trafficking patterns could be instrumental in reducing the air transport system’s vulnerability to trafficking.”
Once largely confined to Africa and Asia, wildlife trafficking is now prevalent and rising in all continents with the exception of Antarctica, being supported by the world’s increasingly interconnected systems of finance, communications and transport. The negative side effects of economic progress are evident in the substantial population decline of vulnerable species over the past few decades alone, says the report. If wildlife poaching and trafficking continues unabated at this scale, regional ecosystems face not just species extinction but complete collapse, it warns.
“In the face of such catastrophic overexploitation, steps must be taken to reverse the damage caused by the creation of a global marketplace,” says the author in the report.
Asia is by far the world’s largest demand region for trafficked wildlife and wildlife products, with trafficking routes extended to every region. China dominated every seizure and trafficking instance count in the latest C4ADS analysis, likely due, says the report, to extremely high demand for trafficked wildlife driven by a large population, but also effective enforcement and good reporting.
Trafficking of Asian species has declined as their population numbers have fallen, and Asian trafficking networks appear to increasingly rely on species found mostly in Africa to satiate demand. Sufficient numbers of Asian species remain to support significant intra-Asian trade in reptiles, birds, pangolins and marine species. Driven by an increasing demand, Asian countries seized more pangolin scales by weight than any other wildlife product, including ivory. Although so far unsubstantiated, an infected pangolin sold at a Wuhan wet market has been reported as a possible source of the Covid-19 outbreak.
All animals can potentially carry infectious diseases that when not managed appropriately, can create a health risk to related species, says the report. Birds, for example, can carry over 60 diseases that are transferable to humans and other species. National and international health organisations have instituted regulations to try to reduce the potential spread of avian diseases by prohibiting the importation of birds from certain countries and requiring that exported and imported birds receive certificates of health before travel. But wildlife traffickers, adds the report, intentionally operate outside of the legal transportation system and pay no attention to these precautions, and so seizures sometimes include birds sick with infectious diseases.
In one seizure, two Vietnamese attempting to fly from Singapore’s Changi Airport back to their country were found to have 12 Chinese hwamei birds in their suitcases and in a follow-up investigation, one bird tested positive for influenza A strain H3N8, a virus that was the apparent cause of the 1889 to 1890 flu pandemic, although it does not generally appear to be transmissible to humans.
“Faced with the current health crisis caused by the novel Covid-19 virus, the world is unfortunately grappling with the danger and economic turmoil that zoonotic diseases can pose. Trafficked wildlife present particular risks in this context,” said Michelle Owen, ROUTES lead. “By training staff to detect and report wildlife trafficking and working with enforcement agencies to intercept traffickers, airports and airlines can help strengthen their operations and can play a role in reducing the risk of future outbreaks.”
Jon Godson, Assistant Director of Environment at IATA, said many airlines recognise the need to combat wildlife trafficking and are stepping up global efforts.
“Airline staff spend more time with passengers and baggage than custom authorities, and can provide a key source of intelligence for enforcement agencies,” he said. “Also, the rapid introduction of new technology in the sector presents an opportunity for public-private partnerships based on the smarter use of digital intelligence to apprehend wildlife traffickers.”
Trade body Airports Council International, which has set up the ACI Wildlife Trafficking Task Force and is helping members with various tools to help increase awareness of the issue, has just released two new training videos for airports to include in their onboarding programmes.
“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 transit,” said Juliana Scavuzzi, Senior Manager of Environment at ACI World. “This provides airports with an important opportunity in preventing wildlife trafficking. ACI is committed to developing a framework to fight wildlife trafficking and support our members with their efforts.”
The report does come up with a silver lining: “As wildlife traffickers have increasingly come to rely on income derived from wildlife native to other world regions, they have made themselves dependent on the international systems of transportation that made their illegal trade possible in the first place. As a result, implementing preventative measures against wildlife traffickers using these systems could increase the cost associated with trafficking to such an extent that they may abandon the attempt.”
In addition to the full report, region-specific versions are available that show trends and data from hotspots around the world. There is also the ROUTES dashboard where seizure data going back to 2009 can be filtered.