How poachers, smugglers and lax law enforcement combine to threaten rare species with extinction
Apr 16th 2016 Economist
THE Jim Corbett National Park in the foothills of the Himalayas has perhaps the world’s highest concentration of wild tigers. Not even there are they safe. Last month Indian police arrested one of a gang of poachers operating from nearby Kotkhadar. They also seized 125kg of tiger bones and claws, and five skins.
A tiger’s stripes are as unique as a human’s fingerprints. Authorities in India keep a database of more than 1,500 stripe patterns taken from camera-trap images. It showed that at least four of the skins were from animals in the park. The discovery would “embarrass us in front of the entire world”, a forest department official feared.
The trade in wild-tiger parts starts with poachers, usually poor locals, and ends with customers, mostly Chinese. In between are Tibetan, Indian and Nepalese traffickers. Because several have been arrested in recent years, some poachers are now dealing directly with Chinese retailers. But, says Debbie Banks of the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), an NGO based in Britain, “Lhasa is still a trade hub for tiger and leopard parts. The bones are used for medical purposes, the teeth as amulets.” Chinese officers in Tibet are particularly keen buyers. Indian and Nepalese police are getting better at working together, but they are still getting limited co-operation from China, says Ms Banks.
In 2010, with tiger bones retailing at up to $1,200 per kilo, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) put the annual turnover of the traffic in tiger parts at around $5m. Wild-tiger parts became more valuable as the wild population declined (encouragingly, the latest tally by the World Wildlife Fund shows a rebound, from 3,200 in 2010 to 3,890 today, though that could just reflect improved counting). Less welcome is a rise in the number of farmed animals: Laos’s biggest breeding facility, near Thakhek, reportedly holds around 400 tigers. Many are bred solely for their parts. The skins are prized as decorations.
Farmed-tiger parts mostly move to China through the unruly Golden Triangle where Myanmar, Thailand and Laos converge. The region is a hotspot for trade in protected species: an EIA team that visited the Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone in Laos, popular with Chinese tourists, found tiger-bone wine, bear-bile pills, pangolin scales and carvings from the beaks of helmeted hornbills openly on sale. Outside the God of Fortune restaurant was a caged bear-cub that could be killed and cooked to order.
Laos also offers a link to the most lucrative of all illegal wildlife enterprises: the trade in rhinoceros horn, which UNODC estimated six years ago was worth $8m a year. Since then the number of rhinos slaughtered annually by poachers in Africa has more than tripled (the poaching of Asia’s depleted stock of rhinos is modest). Poachers are sometimes caught; those higher up the chain rarely are. The only high-level trafficker in jail is a Thai, Chumlong Lemtongthai, who is serving a 13-year sentence in South Africa. He was charged in 2011 with bringing Thai prostitutes to South Africa so they could claim they had shot rhinos on legal hunts and were thus entitled under South African law to export horns as trophies. It was the most bizarre of several methods used to get hold of a substance that can fetch up to $70,000 a kilo—almost twice the price of gold.
Mr Chumlong has been linked to a man who has been described as the Pablo Escobar of wildlife-trafficking, Vixay Keosavang, a former soldier in the Lao People’s Army who operates from a walled compound far off the beaten track in the central province of Bolikhamxay. In 2013 the American government offered $1m for information that would help dismantle the network it believes that Mr Vixay heads, which it suspects of trading wild-animal parts across several countries. Mr Vixay has denied wrongdoing.
Some experts believe that the surge in rhino-poaching, which has cut the world’s population by a fifth since 2008, has been driven by a surge in demand in Vietnam. There, rhino-horn shavings are a supposed cure for hangovers; entire horns are given as gifts and displayed as ornaments. Others believe that much of the rhino-horn taken to Vietnam ends up in China.
As their country opened up in recent decades, “some enterprising Vietnamese citizens got residential status in South Africa and very quietly began trading,” says Tom Milliken of Traffic, an NGO. In at least two cases, professional South African hunters have been caught shooting rhino for Vietnamese clients and, in two others, Vietnamese nationals have been arrested trying to smuggle rhino-horns out of South Africa by air. Hunts have been arranged for citizens of the Czech Republic, which has had a large Vietnamese community since the cold war. Since that ruse was discovered, Slovaks, Poles, Ukrainians and Russians have been enlisted as bogus trophy-hunters. “Some Vietnamese residents have bought their own game ranches, so they are now able to buy rhinos at auction and organise sports hunts,” says Mr Milliken.
The international nature of the trade poses big problems for law-enforcement. Documents that would prove decisive in a prosecution for rhino-horn trafficking can sit in a South African office for months awaiting translation, says Mr Milliken; the situation is no better for other animal parts. “None of what we do for drugs do we do for wildlife trafficking,” an international official involved in the fight against organised crime laments. “Extraditions are rare. There are no controlled deliveries. Sophisticated investigative techniques are seldom deployed. We’re not doing any of the things we could be doing to stop it.”
Prescription for extinction
Tuan Bendixsen needs a new barber. The man who has cut his hair for years in Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital, knows what Mr Bendixsen’s job is: he runs the local operation of Animals Asia, a charity campaigning against the trade in products from endangered animals. Yet the hairdresser, as he was snipping, confided that he had used rhino-horn powder just recently.
A downside of the East Asian economic miracle is that millions more people can afford to buy products made from endangered species. Not just rhinos, but some types of tiger, bear, alligator, sea turtle, water buffalo, scaly anteater, manta ray, musk deer and others are at risk. Many are in theory protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). But on occasion the governments and medical bodies of some signatory countries—including China’s—portray it as a conspiracy against them.
In March, 14 members of a high-profile committee that advises China’s parliament, the National People’s Congress, argued that China’s wildlife-protection law should be relaxed. Competition from Western medicine meant traditional Chinese medicine had “suffered vilification and attack”, they claimed. “We mustn’t ignore our cultural background and blindly adopt Western values.”
The 14 were not calling for unfettered poaching: they want to be allowed to use products from farmed animals. Bears have long been caged with tubes attached to their gall bladders to “milk” their bile. Rhinos and tigers are now also farmed: some 6,000 tigers, 50% more than survive in the wild, are on Chinese farms. China is said to have stocks of 100 tonnes of tiger bones against annual medical-industry demand of around 22 tonnes (about 1,000 tigers).
Why not allow the sale of farmed products, rendering poaching redundant? There is also pressure to allow the sale of poached material seized by governments. South Africa is to ask CITES, at its conference this September in Johannesburg, to permit the sale of some of its stocks of seized rhino horn. The snag: nothing suggests that legal trade cuts poaching at all. On the contrary, it makes it easier to launder illegal goods. It also destigmatises the consumption of endangered body parts, thus raising demand for them. And it can raise the value of the wild product, which is believed by many fans of Chinese medicine to be more potent.
Western activists therefore argue that the way to save wild animals is not to increase the supply of farmed ones but to cut demand. Much of the industry supports them. In 2007 the World Federation of Chinese Medicine Societies, a trade group, arranged a tour of China for some Chinese doctors to preach against the use of tiger products. Many involved in Chinese medicine, such as Richard Eu, the boss of Eu Yan Sang (EYS), a Singapore-listed company, regard the link with ecological crime as an embarrassment.
EYS makes traditional treatments, runs clinics and has 272 retail outlets in China, Hong Kong, Macau, Malaysia and Australia as well as Singapore. Among its bestsellers are cordyceps, or caterpillar fungus, and birds’ nests for soup. The fungus, harvested wild in Tibet, is highly prized in China as a “Himalayan Viagra”. EYS, which sells both wild and (cheaper) cultivated strains, advertises instead the boost it supposedly gives to the respiratory system. The birds’ nests are made from the solidified saliva of swifts and swallows. Some of the priciest come from deep in the Indonesian rainforest, where birds are provided with lavish new towers with protruding chutes for their nests.
As birds’ nest soup shows, Chinese medicine is not far removed from Chinese cuisine. Many of EYS’s products are supplements and tonics, rather than cures. So it should be possible, with public-education campaigns and the respectable parts of the industry, to cut demand for products that threaten endangered species. Just as shark’s fin soup has stopped being a fixture on Chinese-wedding menus since the danger to sharks’ survival caused by the harvesting of the fins became widely known, so consumers could be convinced that they do not need those “medicines”.
Some traditional Chinese medicines contain real active ingredients—in the case of bear bile, ursodeoxycholic acid—that can be synthesised cheaply. Many others are useless, so any alternative would be as good. Rhino horn is supposedly good for fevers and rheumatism. Though Mr Bendixsen’s barber says he uses it as a hangover cure, he might as well use the hair he sweeps up from his floor. A Vietnamese superstition that it cures cancer does not even have roots in traditional belief, but is a modern invention.
Tiger-bone wine, rhino horn and the like are the platinum-label whiskies of the Asian wellness industry: pricey, prestigious and useful for lubricating business deals. Demand is driven not by medical professionals who nurture millennia-old traditions, but by the networks that feed supply—poachers, holders of stocks of banned items, farmers and their allies in some governments.
It may be too late for some species. On rhinos, Mr Bendixsen laments, “we are losing the battle.” If there is hope, says Judith Mills, the author of “Blood of the Tiger”, it may lie with Xi Jinping, China’s powerful president. Many activists attribute a recent sharp drop in the price of ivory to an agreement last year between China and America to end legal sales. Other endangered species, too, might be saved by a pledge that the trade ban will stay and be enforced—not as an anti-China or anti-Asia conspiracy, but as a duty to the planet.