By Maryrose Fison
Animal smuggling has grown to a £6bn-a-year criminal industry, and is exceeded only by the drugs and arms trades. Its illicit profits are a major source of funding for terrorist and militia groups, including al-Qa'ida, and the snaring and slaughtering of animals is driving dozens of species to the brink of extinction.
These are the main findings from a month-long Independent on Sunday investigation into the growing scale and impact of wildlife trafficking – an illicit business which, thanks to huge profits and the violence to which it so readily resorts, is overwhelming the law and order resources ranged against it.
For all the international treaties, police units, campaign groups and NGOs battling it, the trade continues to grow. The world's tiger population has plummeted from 100,000 at the start of the 20th century to below 4,000 today; 20,000 elephants are killed each year for their ivory; the number of rhino poached in South Africa doubled last year; sea turtles are being harvested at an astonishing rate, their shells turned into jewellery; and, over the past 40 years, 12 species of large animal have vanished completely in Vietnam. The trade takes its toll in human lives, too. Each year, according to the International Fund for Animal Welfare, more than 100 African rangers are killed, the men unequipped to cope with armed poachers.
Many people associate animal smuggling with small-time crooks trying to bring a few lizards in a suitcase to be sold by the under-the-counter pet trade. It is, in fact, a multifaceted business catering to huge demand among collectors for exotic species, ornaments and clothing, plus traditional Chinese medicine's industrial-scale appetite for animal parts. Linda Arroyo, team leader at Sweden's National Police for Environmental Crime, says widely held superstitions surrounding certain animal parts drive the illegal industry within Asia. "There are beliefs that rhino horns cure cancer, that if you drink out of a rhino horn cup you get eternal happiness, and that some of these wild animals raise men's potency. The fact that the Asian economy is growing makes it possible for more people to buy these products."
Bones, paws and penises of tigers and leopards are used as aphrodisiacs in Mong La, a northern state of Burma with a large sex industry, according to an extensive study of the big cat trade conducted by the wildlife NGO Traffic last year. Large vats of tiger-bone wine – which sell for between $40 and $100 a bottle – were being promoted as a health tonic in outlets catering to Chinese customers. Around the world, including in US Chinese medicine stores, bear bile is widely used to "treat" a multitude of symptoms from swollen eyes and haemorrhoids to skin lesions and fever. More....