Category Archives: Smuggling

2011 – A Bad Year for Elephants

Photo courtesy of elephant-facts.com

Back in July I posted about the elephant poaching crisis and some of the positive things that were happening to combat it: https://animalcsi.com/2011/07/19/some-small-successes-for-a-jumbo-problem/ . Unfortunately the year is not ending on such a high note.

Recently there have been a large number of articles and news stories about the rapid decline of elephant populations due to poaching. In fact, according to an article in the UK Daily Mail, 2011 has been the worst year for elephants since ivory sales were banned in 1989, with 2500 estimated to have been slaughtered.

The same article goes on to say that a record number of illegal ivory shipments were seized as well: “A record 13 large hauls were seized this year – consisting of an estimated 23,676 kilograms of the desirable product; it is a dramatic rise from 2010, when just six major seizures took place, of tusks weighing just under 10,000kg, and the worryingly high number does not even include the ivory that is being smuggled over borders secretly” (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2079791/Worst-year-elephants-ivory-trade-banned-large-scale-tusk-smuggling-hits-record-high.html?ITO=1490).

Just this month saw the largest ivory seizure ever recorded: 15 tonnes in a port near Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. From Wildlife Extra News: “Prior to this the largest seizure was of around 6.5 tonnes in Singapore in 2002. If we estimate the tusks of an African elephant weigh 30 kilos each, this haul represents the death of 250 elephants! The shipment originated in Mombasa, Kenya, and was hidden inside containers marked as ‘sandstone-made handicraft’. Authorities in Malaysia have valued the shipment at approximately £15 million” (http://www.wildlifeextra.com/go/news/ivory-smuggling011.html#cr).

Is this worth their lives? (Photo courtesy of dailymail.co.uk)

TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network, has said that the gangs responsible are increasingly sophisticated and well-funded, and are changing their preferred method of shipment to sea rather than air. Their routes are changing as well, to avoid detection. The majority of shipments are bound for Asia, but “once inside Asia, the documentation accompanying an onward shipment is changed to make it appear as a local re-export, helping to conceal its origin from Africa” (http://www.traffic.org/home/2011/12/29/2011-annus-horribilis-for-african-elephants-says-traffic.html).

An article on the website allAfrica.com states that in Uganda elephants are being poached even inside national parks: “The Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) [showed] that the numbers of elephants killed in parks since the year began have more than tripled. According to UWA, 33 elephants have been killed at Murchison Falls National Game Park in the last seven years, of which 25 have been killed this year”. The entire article can be read here: http://allafrica.com/stories/201112050626.html. And this is only ONE PARK!!

Malaysia ivory seizure (photo courtesy of dailymail.co.uk)

As lucrative as the drug trade, poaching for ivory brings in big bucks. The allAfrica.com article states that a “kilogramme of ivory on international market goes for between $1,500 (about Shs3.8 million) $4,000 (about Shs10.2 million) and a pair of tusks from a mature elephant can weigh about 40 kliogrammes” (http://allafrica.com/stories/201112050626.html).

The Wildlife Conservation Society (an organization I am proud to support) has posted a short, interesting and informative video about the issue with suggestions on what you can do to help:

http://www.wcs.org/multimedia/videos/blood-ivory.aspx

  • DON’T BUY IVORY OR ANYTHING YOU EVEN THINK MIGHT BE IVORY!
  • Donate to the Wildlife Conservation Society or other organizations like them who are working within the countries hardest hit to establish stronger patrols.
  • Educate yourself and others! Talk about this! Spread the word! The more people who know about this massive issue the better.

Tom Milliken, TRAFFIC’s Elephant expert, states, “As most large-scale ivory seizures fail to result in any arrests, I fear the criminals are winning.”

I so desperately want him to be wrong. I can’t imagine a world without elephants. Someday I hope to be out there studying them. Like Dr. Liz Bennett states in the video, even if you never see an elephant in the wild, the fact that they are out there makes the world a better place. Please join me in this fight. I want to see 2012 be a positive year for the elephants, and for all of us.

 

 

An Iconic Species at Risk, Part II

Tiger photo via camera trap (courtesty of National Geographic)

On December 2 I posted about tiger poaching and Wildlife Conservation Society’s efforts to combat this alarming trade. National Geographic Magazine’s December issue has an amazing article about tigers and their fragile status on this planet.

You can read the article here: http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2011/12/tigers/alexander-text

Some of the highlights of the article:

  • The tiger population is estimated at around 4,000 animals, scattered throughout Asia’s 13 “tiger countries”, although many experts believe that their numbers are actually far lower.
  • Some reserves, established to protect tigers, have seen a complete loss of all of their tigers; one 300 mile preserve in India lost every single one of its tigers to professional gangs.
  • Relocation efforts have proven somewhat unsuccessful, as tigers typically range over a hundred miles, and nearly a third of India’s tigers live outside tiger reserves.
  • Conservation efforts have largely failed the species, with millions of donated dollars and “vociferously expressed concern for tigers” achieving only “the demise of half the already imperiled population” since the 1980’s.
  • There have been successful attempts to bring back the population: take Huai Kha Khaeng, a 1,073-square-mile wildlife sanctuary (wrote about this place in my December 2nd article) where 2 decades ago there were only 20 tigers and now there are “an estimated 60 in the sanctuary alone and roughly 100 in the rest of the Western Forest Complex, which has six times the area”; the success is due to improved forest health and rise in prey, dedicated monitoring by well-equipped and well-trained patrols, and extreme pride and desire to protect a national treasure.
  •  Tigers are resilient by nature: they “are not finicky about diet or habitat, or dependent on a particular ecosystem; they have been found in Bhutan above 13,000 feet, an altitude overlapping the domain of the snow leopard, and in the saltwater mangrove swamps of Bangladesh where they have learned to swim and supplement their diets with marine life; they reproduce well if given the chance; an average female can rear some six to eight cubs over her 10-12 year lifespan”.

I hope that you will read the entire article – it’s worth your time and the photos are beautiful.

Courtesy of National Geographic

Another hopeful conservation effort is being started by INTERPOL, the international and intergovernmental criminal investigative organization, which has an environmental crimes division. Called Project Predator, it “unites the efforts of police, customs and wildlife officials in the 13 countries in Asia where wild tigers can still be found” and involves “the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), the World Bank, the Smithsonian Institution and INTERPOL”.

There is an article on the project here: http://www.interpol.int/en/News-and-media/News-media-releases/2011/PR092, although it is somewhat vague about how the project will work.

Efforts to save tigers are underway. Are we too late? That remains to be seen. As field biologist George B. Schaller puts it, “The great cats represent the ultimate test of our willingness to share this planet with other species; we must act now to offer them a bright and secure future, if for no other reason than they are among the most wonderful expressions of life on Earth”.

 

An Iconic Species at Risk, Part I

(Photo courtesy of detlaphiltdic.blogspot.com)

Did you know that there are fewer than 3500 tigers remaining in the world? In 1900 there were 100,000 tigers across Asia. Many factors have contributed to their decimation, like increasing human/animal conflict and habitat loss, but most recently poaching is the main reason for their frighteningly scarce numbers. Can you imagine a world without them? Or without some of the other amazing creatures that share their home in Asia, like elephants? I would suggest you try to wrap your mind around that possibility, because it is a very real one. But there are efforts underway to stop the loss of tigers and other species, some that involve forensic science at its best.

A fantastic video about tiger poaching can be watched here: Hunt for the Tiger Slayers

If you don’t want to watch it (although I strongly suggest you do; it’s relatively short and very informative) I’ve summarized it below.

In 2010, researchers from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) found themselves face to face with tiger poachers while they were setting up camera traps in Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary in Thailand. The poachers fled, but left behind them horrible destruction in the form of a tigress and her cubs, poisoned.   According to WCS, tigers are “poached for their skin, bone, teeth, and claws, and the slaughter of even one or two breeding females could have a terrible impact on the population; the poaching gangs can be so ruthless that they often kill elephants for their tusks, and then poison and leave behind the carcass for tigers to feed on”. Two very lucrative birds with one stone.

In this case, a composite sketch was developed by the Thai police. Anti-poaching efforts were increased in the form of 40 new rangers trained to combat the illegal wildlife trade. That summer there were several armed conflicts between the rangers and the poachers, eventually leading to the capture of the same poachers believed responsible for the deaths of the tigress and her cubs. Evidence in the form of photos found on the poachers’ confiscated cell phones shows them proudly displaying the tigers they had killed.

One of the cell phone images that convicted the poachers (photo courtesy of here-we-roar.org)

The poachers argued that the tigers in the photos were from unprotected areas, and thus could not be used to prosecute them. But when one of their cell phone pictures was compared to a photo of a tiger captured by WCS’s camera traps that had later been found dead, a match was confirmed.

“Tiger stripes are like fingerprints, and researchers used them to confirm a positive ID; charged with the deaths of four tigers, the two poachers face a lengthy time away, but unfortunately the demand remains,” (WCS, 2011).

While doing research for this post I also came across a great article on this issue; you can read it here:  http://missinterpreting.com/2011/10/17/smooth-criminals-the-sophisticated-tiger-trade/

In the article the writer lists several disheartening facts put forth by Mark Carwardine – a BBC Presenter, Zoologist, Conservationist, Wildlife Photographer and Writer:

  • Two tiger subspecies, the Bali and Javan tiger, are already extinct with a third subspecies – the Caspian tiger – yet to be confirmed. It has been claimed that the South China tiger may become extinct within the next decade.
  • The tiger population is dwindling because of hunting by poachers, being killed for clashing with human dwellers and forest workers and by having their habitats destroyed. 93% of the tiger’s habitat has disappeared in the last century.
  • Four tigers are killed every week and China is responsible for the most tiger poaching activity. Their trust in the medicinal effects of tiger teeth, skin and bones is based on ancient beliefs which are not backed up by scientific evidence. The Chinese also cash in on the billions of blood money yielded by the tiger trade to sell tiger body parts as food, clothes or souvenirs.
  • Tiger conservation is extremely complex because of the intricacies of the tiger trade and the lack of effective support from politicians and police forces. (Monica Sarkar, 2011)

If these facts don’t upset you, if the video above doesn’t bring tears to your eyes, if the thought of such iconic creatures as tigers disappearing forever doesn’t motivate you to some sort of action, then you are lucky. These issues keep me up at night. They keep me from blissful ignorance and a good night’s sleep. They make my head spin with thoughts on how to stop the destruction. I suggest you watch the video again (I’m even posting the link here so that you don’t have to scroll up: Hunt for the Tiger Slayers ) and let it sink in.

The tiger whose stripes matched those of the tiger in the poachers' cell phone pics (courtesy of http://www.wcs.org)

This is what I’m passionate about and what I hope to inspire others to be interested in as well. We can stop this, if we act now.

More on tigers and poaching to come…

 

Uphill Battle to Combat Poaching

Photo by Elizabeth Bennett

The article below was published on the Wildlife Conservation Society’s website. You can see it here: http://www.wcs.org/news-and-features-main/wanted-tougher-enforcement-of-wildlife-crime.aspx

I quoted it directly because I felt that trying to summarize it would be pointless.

“Poachers killed almost 230 rhinoceroses in South Africa between January and October of last year. Over the past decade, they’ve killed countless tigers, too, for trading rings that deal in wildlife skins and body parts. Today, fewer than 3,500 of these big cats remain in the wild.

These are just two of many examples WCS  (Wildlife Conservation Society) conservationist Elizabeth Bennett highlights in a recent paper. In the journal Oryx, Bennett addresses how organized crime has become more sophisticated in smuggling wildlife and wildlife products and adept at eluding authorities.

Previously secure wildlife populations are now under threat as poachers and smugglers step up their game. Some new tactics include using hidden compartments in shipping containers, rapidly changing trading routes, and switching to e-commerce, which makes their operating locations difficult to detect.

As advanced smuggling strategies hasten local extinctions of wildlife species, better law enforcement is needed immediately. Bennett suggests various strategies to counter organized wildlife crime activities. These include increasing numbers of highly trained and well-equipped enforcement staff at all points along the trade chain, using more sniffer dogs, conducting DNA tests to search for wildlife products, and employing smart-phone apps with species identification programs.” (Wildlife Conservation Society)

To read about some of the global programs that exist to combat poaching, follow this link:

http://www.wcs.org/conservation-challenges/natural-resource-use/hunting-and-wildlife-trade.aspx

There are also current news stories on the same page. Happy reading, and lets keep up the fight.

Philadelphia’s Ivory Bust

All of this is ivory. (Photo from The New York Times)

I know I’m running the risk of turning this into a ‘Save the Elephants’ blog (see my last post, and the one from April), but I felt I would be totally remiss if I didn’t mention the ENORMOUS confiscation of ivory merchandise, or actually  “one of the largest U.S. seizures of illegally imported African elephant ivory,” (Wall Street Journal) that occurred in Philadelphia yesterday.

A store owner was arrested for selling ivory that he obtained by paying someone to travel to Africa, procure the ivory, and have local artisans there carve it. “Trade in elephant ivory is forbidden by U.S. law and international convention, so most of the nearly 500 carvings seized from Gordon and his customers were treated to resemble century-old antiques, which are legal for sale,” (Philly.com) Unfortunately, however, this ivory was not old – it was taken from elephants recently killed, namely forest elephants. “Smuggling is considered a significant factor in the decline of the forest elephants, whose ivory is denser and more valued than the tusks from the more numerous savanna elephants in East Africa,” (Philly.com).

Here is an excerpt in one article about this incident that I found particularly important:

“A Fish and Wildlife Service expert on elephant conservation, just back from Africa, said the rows of illegally imported ivory carvings left him traumatized. The number of forest elephants killed for their tusks has jumped in recent years, much of it driven by demand from a newly affluent Asian market, said the expert, Richard Ruggerio, who runs the agency’s conservation programs in Africa. ‘We’re seeing the last battle for the survival of the forest elephant,’ he said. Ruggerio said the herds have been broken up not just by the killing of individual elephants, but also by the damage done to the group structure when a lead elephant has been eliminated. ‘They act like displaced persons from a war,’ he said. James Deutsch, who runs the African conservation program at the Wildlife Conservation Society, said forest elephants in Central Africa ‘could go extinct in 10 to 20 years. This is why this seizure is important,’ he said. Deutsch estimated there were about 100,000 forest elephants left in central Africa. Herds are already gone from a large part of their original range. Forest elephants can live to more than 50 years. Recent genetic studies show that the smaller forest elephants are distant cousins of the savanna elephant. The split is estimated to have occurred from two million to seven million years ago,” (Philly.com)

It sickens me to think of how many times I stood outside that store, admiring the African wares inside. I used to live right around the corner. I would walk my dog past there every day and stare in at the African masks on the walls and the clothing and other goods in the window, thinking about my own travels to that continent and how much I loved it. I don’t know if some of the trinkets I ogled in the store were ivory or not. I hope for my conscience’s sake they were not. But at least this counts as one more victory in the war on wildlife. Let’s keep fighting.

Intricately carved tusks that were seized (Photo from http://www.metro.us)

A Fragile and Declining Beauty

Phalaenopsis Moth Orchid

Few people think of orchids when they hear of wildlife poaching, but it is a real and all-too-common aspect of a frightening crime. I first stumbled upon this phenomenon years ago, when the movie Adaptation, starring Meryl Streep and Nicholas Cage, was released. It was loosely based on the fantastic book by Susan Orlean called The Orchid Thief, which depicts the real-life investigation and subsequent arrest of orchid smuggler John Laroche and a group of Seminole Indians from the Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve area of Florida. Orlean’s book went into a lot of detail about the orchid trade. Endangered species of orchids are protected under the 1973 established Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES), as well as the Endangered Species Act in the US. As usual, when there are restrictions but still demands, a black market will flourish. People venture to the areas of earth where the endangered orchids struggle to maintain their populations, most often Asia, South America, Africa, and regions of the tropical US (Florida & Hawaii), rip them from their natural homes, and ship or transport them to buyers often willing to pay thousands of dollars. Not unlike the purveyors of ivory.

The endangered Ghost Orchid, subject of Orlean's book

An interesting article on orchid smuggling from 2010 can be found here: http://www.msmbb.org.my/apjmbb/html181/181ap.pdf

Commercial trade in orchids not considered in danger of disappearing is legal. So is the sale of nursery-propogated species. But as anyone who has fallen under the spell of these magical plants can tell you, sometimes you can’t help but want what you can’t have – the plants sold in Home Depot don’t have the same appeal as a rare, exotic species to an avid collector. Plus, nursery orchids can be expensive and take long periods of time to grow; smugglers often undercut the prices of legitimate growers.

No plant genus or species could hope to illustrate Charles Darwin’s theories of natural selection better than orchids. Defying simple description, these fascinating flowers are beautiful, hideous, freakish, arresting, and mysterious. The Orchidaceae is an enormous family of approximately 730 genera and 25,000 species scattered throughout the globe. It is unknown how many species may have existed at one time but are now extinct, and there currently may well be close to 100,000 more hybrid varieties created by cross-breeding different species (Leroy-Terquem, et al, 9). They range in size from microscopic to enormous plants with flowers stretching to over one foot in diameter. There are some that resemble faces: old men with fu Manchu moustaches, shriveled elderly women, and young children with expressions caught in a permanent state of surprise. Others look like dark, cloaked vampires, fangs curled and poised to bite; there is even a genus aptly named Dracula, which looks remarkably like the frightening mythological persona, complete with that familiar sinister expression.  

Dracula gigas (photo by Mauro Rosim)

Animal-like creatures come to life in orchids, like lions with an orange mane of petals, or monkeys with arms outstretched, or bright swallowtail butterflies. There are orchids that resemble high-heeled shoes and fluffy hats. Some seem to be monsters frozen forever in a silent scream; others look like tiny spiders or creeping ladybugs. A few species are parasitic in nature but most are epiphytic, anchoring themselves to trees or rocks but obtaining their nutrients from other sources. There are orchids that possess smells reminiscent of lemonade, angel-food cake, and expensive French perfume, while there are others whose smells resemble a garbage heap or in the worst cases, rotting flesh. Did you know that vanilla comes from an orchid?

Vanilla orchid (photo by orchidsflowers.net)

I’ve had a love affair with orchids for many years, and have had sporadic success with different varieties. But although I admire the rare and exotic, I do so from the pages of books or online. Or purchase from legitimate growers. I’ve often bought the sad-looking Home Depot orchids because I feel sorry for them and want to give them a better home, and guess what? They grew just fine. Please don’t support the exotic pet or plant trade. Leave them where they are supposed to be so that they don’t disappear forever.

Paphiopedilum from my own collection 🙂