Jamming Wildlife Trafficking: China steps up efforts to combat wildlife smuggling

By Wang Hairong, Beijing Review
July 18, 2013
Fangchenggang in south China’s Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region is a nexus for the illegal wildlife trade. An important gateway to Southeast Asia, the city borders VietNam and is not far from economically prosperous Guangdong Province.

On June 15, border police seized 160 boxes of reptiles, most of which were still alive. The shipment weighed 6.5 tons, including cobras, a protected species in China.

Police suspected that the reptiles were smuggled into China, as the truck driver could not produce required documents. The driver said that he was hired to transport the animals to Guangzhou, capital of Guangdong, where residents are known to have a voracious appetite for delicacies of a wide range of wildlife.

Smuggling of a similar scale was detected in the city on May 19, when border police seized 89 boxes of snakes and 24 boxes of tortoises.

Police handed the animals over to local forestry authorities, who said that they would release healthy animals into the wild, and transfer others to local animal rescue centers.

Enhanced protection

Wildlife is the world’s fourth most smuggled item, after drugs, counterfeit goods and human beings, said Wan Ziming, Director of Enforcement and Training at the Endangered Species Import and Export Management Office under China’s State Forestry Administration.

He said the global illegal trade of plants and animals, as well as their parts and derivatives, are estimated to be worth $7.8 billion to $10 billion per year.

“Illegal trade in wildlife is a transnational crime that can only be effectively controlled through joint efforts of origin, transit, and destination countries,” said Wan.

China is a major destination country for ivory, rhino horns, pangolin scales, and tiger and leopard products. In China, ivory has traditionally been carved to produce exquisite art pieces. Rhino horns, pangolin scales and tiger bones are prized ingredients in traditional Chinese medicine. Leopard furs are treasured for their beautiful patterns.

On May 22, customs officers in Manzhouli City, north China’s Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, confiscated 213 bear paws smuggled by two Russian men. The bear paws were concealed in the tires of an old van.

Yang Xu, an officer at the Manzhouli Customs, said that during the inspection, officers noticed the vehicle’s driver was nervous and kept glancing at his watch. Customs officers kicked the tires and found they were unusually heavy. They x-rayed the vehicle and discovered the hidden paws.

Bears are listed by the Chinese Government as a protected species. Poaching is strictly prohibited and comes with harsh penalties.

The seized paws were estimated to be worth about 2.8 million yuan ($460,000). In China, bear paws are eaten as a delicacy with medicinal value. Bear paws smuggled into China are actively traded in the underground market, which will be sold 20 times as much as their value in Russia, said customs officers. Two suspects were arrested.

In April, Beijing police uncovered 14 illegal wildlife trafficking cases during a crackdown, seizing 64 animals and thousands of related products, according to the State Forestry Administration.

Close to 1,000 ivory products worth more than 8 million yuan ($1.3 million) were among the seized goods.

“China is boosting efforts against wildlife trafficking, enforcing new laws and regulations, implementing a labeling system for ivory products and setting up a national coordination group,” said Meng Xianlin, Executive Deputy Director of the Endangered Species Import and Export Management Office at a press conference in May.

To regulate trade in wildlife, China joined the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) in 1981. The convention aims to prevent international trade from threatening the survival of wild flora and fauna. Today, it remains one of the world’s most powerful tools for this purpose.

During the more than 30 years since joining the convention, China has actively fulfilled its responsibilities and participated in international cooperation, and played an important role in wildlife protection and trade regulation, said Secretary-General John E. Scanlon at the 16th meeting of the CITES’ Conference of the Parties in Bangkok, Thailand, in March.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the signing of CITES, which now covers approximately 5,000 species of animals and 29,000 species of plants.

After signing the convention, China has made significant progress in wildlife protection. In 1988, China’s Law on the Protection of Wildlife went into effect. That year, the government made it illegal to slaughter or sell 256 species of wild animals.

Border patrol and customs officers actively clamp down on wildlife trafficking. In addition, the government has tackled the problem online.

In April, police officers shut down 628 websites engaged in wildlife trafficking, said the State Forestry Administration.

One case was resolved in Yancheng City in Jiangsu Province. The first clue was found by a customs officer in north China’s Tianjin in January, who suspected the “toy model” in a parcel was animal remains. The parcel, sent from the United States, was addressed to a man surnamed Gu in Yancheng.

Then in March, the Tianjin Customs intercepted another parcel addressed to the same man, which seemed also to contain animal parts. The customs handed the two parcels to the State Forestry Administration for appraisal, which confirmed that the items were indeed animal parts.

Police traced Gu’s online activities and discovered evidence that he sold animal products through the Internet to domestic collectors for a hefty profit. Gu was arrested.

Operation Cobra

China has also participated in international campaigns to combat the illicit wildlife trade. From January 6 to February 5, the country worked with 21 Asian and African countries to crack down on cross-border and intercontinental wildlife smuggling.

The operation, codenamed Cobra, focused on some key species that are subject to illegal wildlife trade such as Asian big cats, elephants, great apes, pangolins and rhinos.

China sent up to 10,000 wildlife, customs and police officers into the operation, cracking 80 cases and resulting in more than 90 arrests, accounting for more than one third of total cracked cases and arrested suspects, said Wan.

Wan added that during the operation, Chinese officers seized more than 200 kg of ivory and products, 10 rhino horns and four rhino horn products, nearly 50 kg of pangolin scales, 76 hornbills, and other CITES-listed species and parts or derivatives.

In addition to detecting and seizing contraband, Operation Cobra aimed at effectively conducting follow-up investigations and using specialized investigation techniques to pursue all possible leads to address the entire criminal chain, said Scanlon.

Operation Cobra provided an excellent opportunity for all authorities involved to exchange the ways and means of combating wildlife crime, and to establish new professional relationships with their counterparts from different agencies, countries and regions of the world, said Wan.

According to the official, Operation Cobra borrowed experiences from previous operations by the International Criminal Police Organization and the World Customs Organization. China chaired an International Coordination Team to coordinate operation teams at all regional and national levels.

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