The USAID Reducing Opportunities for Unlawful Transport of Endangered Species (ROUTES) Partnership brings together government agencies, transportation and logistics industry companies and representatives, international conservation, development and law enforcement organizations and donors in order to disrupt wildlife trafficking activities, and forms a key element of the concerted international response to addressing wildlife poaching and associated criminal activities worldwide.
At the heart of ROUTES is a core group of partners collaborating with the U.S. Government and the transport sector that includes the Center for Advanced Defense Studies (C4ADS), Freeland, the International Air Transport Association (IATA), TRAFFIC, and WWF. The Partnership is funded by USAID and coordinated by TRAFFIC.
For more information on the ROUTES Partnership visit www.routespartnership.org.
C4ADS (www.c4ads.org) is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization dedicated to data-driven analysis and evidence-based reporting of conflict and security issues worldwide. We seek to alleviate the analytical burden carried by public sector institutions by applying manpower, depth, and rigor to questions of conflict and security.
Our approach leverages nontraditional investigative techniques and emerging analytical technologies. We recognize the value of working on the ground in the field, capturing local knowledge, and collecting original data to inform our analysis. At the same time, we employ cutting edge technology to manage and analyze that data. The result is an innovative analytical approach to conflict prevention and mitigation.
ABOUT ROUTES AND Flying Under the Radar
Under the ROUTES Partnership, C4ADS aims to identify and track wildlife trafficking trends and modus operandi, as well as assess the effects of ROUTES’ efforts. In Year 1, the Partners have focused on trafficking through the air transit sector, and thus this report examines the trends, transit routes, and modus operandi used by wildlife smugglers exploiting the aviation industry. To ensure the relevance of our analysis to the current state of wildlife trafficking and guarantee a timely delivery of our results prior to Year 2, C4ADS has focused initially on trafficking of ivory, rhino horn, reptiles, and birds by air from 2009 to August 2016. Future ROUTES reports will examine a broader scope of wildlife trafficking activity. This report will establish a baseline for continued analyses in Years 2 through 5 of the ROUTES project.
The mention of any individual, company, organization, or other entity in this report does not imply the violation of any law or international agreement, and should not be construed as such.
This report is made possible by the generous support of the American People through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The contents are the responsibility of C4ADS and do not necessarily reflect the views of the ROUTES Partners, USAID or the United States Government.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Mary Utermohlen received degrees in International Relations and Accounting from the College of William & Mary, with concentrations in Hispanic Studies and Economics. Mary has studied in Spain and in the UK, speaks Spanish and is learning Portuguese. She writes for the Diplomatic Courier, and has written for the US Army’s Training Brain Operations Center. Mary manages the C4ADS Environmental Crimes Fusion Cell’s timber and IUU fishing portfolios.
Patrick Baine received his undergraduate degree in Political Science and Chinese Language from Appalachian State University. He then lived, worked, and studied in China for five years, which included a one-year Master’s Certificate program at the Hopkins-Nanjing Center. Patrick received his Master’s in International Relations and International Economics from The Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies with a specialization in Quantitative Methods and Economic Theory. His research at C4ADS concentrates on international wildlife trafficking with a focus on Asia.
The authors would like to thank the team of people who assisted with the data collection, analysis, and editing expertise needed for this report: Spike Nowak, for his help with R; Ethan Krauss, for his substantial help in the earliest phase of data collection; Allie Van Vliet and Elina Saxena for their data collection and structuring efforts; and finally Evangeline Hines, for her technological, formatting, and editing prowess. This report could not have been written without them.
The authors would also like to thank the World Customs Organization (WCO), International Air Transport Association (IATA), the US Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS), US Department of Homeland Security Immigration and Customs Enforcement, TRAFFIC, Nitin Sekar, and Fiona Underwood for their help in reviewing the report.
Environmental crime is estimated to be worth between $91 and 258 billion, with wildlife crime making up $7 to 23 billion of the total, and is currently estimated to be growing at two to three times the speed of the global economy. Over the past few years, myriad studies and reports have examined the economic and environmental devastation wreaked by wildlife crime, as well as its intertwining links to transnational criminal networks. Few studies, however, have focused on the transport systems used by wildlife traffickers, despite the large benefits that traffickers have gained from the increasing interconnectedness of global infrastructure and transport systems. Flying Under the Radar examines wildlife trafficking through the air transport sector, and is designed to support law enforcement and the private sector’s efforts to stem the hidden flow of illegal wildlife through their jurisdictions and supply chains.
Given the covert nature of illegal activity, wildlife traffickers’ past, current, and potential future moves must be assessed by obtaining and analyzing detailed wildlife seizure data. Where this data exists, however, it exists largely in partial and incomplete form, or held disparately and privately by various intergovernmental organizations and enforcement agencies. To mitigate this challenge, C4ADS’ analysts spent three months building a baseline of information by collecting and structuring open source seizure data for four categories of wildlife and wildlife products (ivory, rhino horn, live reptiles, and live birds). These categories were specifically chosen based on data availability and trafficking frequency, and collectively account for about 66% of trafficked wildlife products, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). C4ADS’ analysts collected the majority of this data from country reporting and news media, as most seizure databases do not provide the requisite detail for inclusion in an assessment of air trafficking.
The use of seizure data, while currently the best method available to investigate trafficking activity of all types, can lead to a variety of mistaken conclusions. For instance, better public seizure reporting may create the appearance of a trafficking problem where none exists. Still, seizure data, taken together with the appropriate caveats, provides a good picture of overall trafficking activity, and can be used to direct future anti-trafficking efforts.
The use of seizure data, while currently the best method available for investigating trafficking activity of all types, can lead to a variety of mistaken conclusions. For instance, better public seizure reporting may create the appearance of a trafficking problem where none exists. Still, seizure data, taken together with the appropriate caveats, provides a good picture of overall trafficking activity, and can be used to direct future anti-trafficking efforts.
Wildlife trafficking is a global problem that takes advantage of enforcement loopholes, lack of awareness, limited public and private sector coordination, capacity gaps, and lagging technology and procedures to move illicit products through the licit transportation system. As international travel continues to exponentially increase, particularly in the air transport sector, enforcement and the private sector should make immediate changes to better stem the international flow of illicit wildlife. Without such changes, wildlife traffickers will continue to find the illegal wildlife trade a profitable, comparatively easy and low-risk enterprise, at substantial detriment to ecosystems, economies, and global security.
Flying Under the Radar is divided into three main sections:
- Trends and Totals examines the overall conclusions that can be drawn from the seizure data contained within the C4ADS Air Seizure Database, such as the changes in seizure sizes over time, a Country Enforcement Index for countries involved in twenty or more trafficking instances, and an analysis of the number of trafficking instances per country.
- Airports and Routes maps out the international and domestic transit routes that appear in our data, evaluates countries’ roles in different illicit wildlife supply chains, and assesses airport seizure numbers.
- Modus Operandi details the common methods used by traffickers, as well as methods that seem to be specific to one category of wildlife and wildlife products.
Wildlife trafficking is one of the most prominent forms of international organized crime in the world, ranking just behind drugs, human, and arms trafficking in estimated annual value . The illegal wildlife trade is driven by both legal and illegal demand for wildlife products. A 2016 UNODC report found that traffickers that launder their illicit goods through legal commercial systems have access to substantially larger demand markets than those relying on the black market alone. The size of the legal wildlife trade can therefore give some indication of the growth of illegal wildlife trafficking; according to one estimate, the legal trade in wildlife products grew from around $60 billion in the 1990s to over $323 billion in 2009 , a 438% increase.
Demand for a number of protected species and illicit wildlife products have experienced a similar upswing; ivory trafficking in particular has undergone a well-documented rise. A 2013 study by Fiona Underwood, Robert Burn, and Tom Milliken found that ivory trafficking was “rapidly increasing and at its highest level for 16 years, more than doubling from 2007 to 2011 and tripling from 1998 to 2011 .” Another Underwood, Burn, and Milliken report from September 2016 found that ivory trafficking activity, as measured by seizure weights, continued to increase through 2015, appearing to almost triple between 2007 and 2015. The recently completed Great Elephant Census , a series of country surveys on the number and distribution of remaining African elephant populations, found that overall, “Savanna elephant populations declined by 30 percent (equal to 144,000 elephants) between 2007 and 2014.” The Census stated that “devastatingly low numbers of elephants were found in northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo, northern Cameroon and southwbia,” so low, in fact, that researchers believe those populations currently face extinction. Other countries, such as Tanzania and Mozambique, lost substantial numbers of elephants – Tanzania alone lost as much as 60% of its elephant population , down from 109,051 in 2009 to 43,330 in 2014.
Less well-documented, but just as urgent, trafficking of other wildlife species seems to have mirrored the surge in ivory trafficking. Rhino horns, for instance, frequently move along the same routes as ivory due to the animals’ overlapping habitats and their associated demand countries (primarily China, Vietnam, and Thailand). As a result, rhinos are frequently targeted by the same or connected trafficking networks, and have experienced catastrophic declines of their own within a similar timeframe. According to Save the Rhino , “By the end of 2015, the number of African rhinos killed by poachers had increased for the sixth year in a row with at least 1,338 rhinos killed by poachers across Africa…” The number of rhinos poached within South Africa alone exploded from 13 in 2007 to 1,215 in 2014 .
In addition to the current plight of elephants and rhinos, many other species are suffering, and, in some cases, have been pushed to the brink of extinction due to pressure from the illegal trade in wildlife and wildlife products. For example, the helmeted hornbill was up-listed from Near Threatened to Critically Endangered in 2015 , in large part due to “intense hunting pressure” by traffickers interested in profiting off the hornbill’s casque. The population of the ploughshare tortoise, a critically endangered and highly coveted species for the pet trade, has fallen 25% over one generation to a current estimate of 200 mature individuals.
Air Transport Sector
Enforcement and customs agencies at airports around the world are struggling to keep up with growing security and illicit goods concerns associated with rapidly increasing passenger and cargo traffic. For example, covert testing of United States’ airports enforcement success rates in 2015 found that screeners failed to identify banned material in 95% of instances. The resulting investigation by the US Transportation Security Administration (TSA) found that “Pressures driven by increasing passenger volume, an increase in checkpoint screening of baggage due to fees charged for checked bags as well as inconsistent or limited enforcement of size requirements for [bags]…create a stressed environment at airport checkpoints.” With yearly passenger traffic expected to double to 14 billion by 2029, these problems will only intensify without a substantial effort to upgrade and modernize airport security procedures.
Traffickers can exploit capacity problems, corruption, and other issues within the air transport sector to move products, from something as small as an ivory bangle, to rhino horns wrapped in foil in a suitcase, to a two-ton cargo shipment. Different enforcement strategies are needed depending on which specific transport method (passenger, luggage, air freight) is chosen. Air freight shipments, for example, must be accompanied by documentation like an air waybill. Ivory shipped as cargo will therefore leave a trail of paperwork behind, likely complete with falsified information and other red flags that can be identified with the proper training or technology. By contrast, passengers carrying live animals may be identified by suspicious behavior, full- body scanners, or physical searches. Knowing how contraband is likely to be moving is therefore instrumental to preventing trafficking through airports.
An airport’s exposure to trafficking of illicit goods can generally be determined by assessing the airport’s size, flight routes, screening procedures, and infrastructure. Large international ports with lax screening procedures for trafficked goods, but many connecting flights, are at the highest risk; these airports present traffickers with both plentiful flight options and a low risk of interdiction. Of these high-risk airports, the ones that are in the process of expansion are the most vulnerable. Traffickers seem to pay particular attention to opening flight routes, perhaps believing that enforcement and staff along new routes will be less aware of the wildlife trafficking risk than those on well-established ones.
Traffickers’ need for a diverse assortment of international flights leads them to frequently use large, international hub airports. Dubai Airport in the United Arab Emirates, for instance, is the busiest airport by passenger traffic in the world, seeing 77.5 million passengers in 2015. The UAE is also the only country that appears as a prominent country for each category covered in this report, likely due at least in part to Dubai’s advanced airport screening technologies.
For wildlife trafficking specifically, an airport’s location will also determine the type and number of illegal wildlife and wildlife products that move through it. For example, Jomo Kenyatta Airport in Kenya is the ninth busiest airport in Africa, and has the most seizures of any of the airports within C4ADS’ Air Seizure Database. It is the busiest airport in a strategic location on the East Coast of Africa, with a large number of international flights that enable traffickers to move ivory and rhino horn from West, Central, or Southern Africa through Jomo Kenyatta to Asian hubs like Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok.
Convergence with Criminal Networks
The high profits and low risk associated with trafficking through airports have attracted the attention of sophisticated criminal networks. These criminal organizations are able to exploit high corruption levels in some airports to move large quantities of illicit goods frequently. In one instance, a Chinese national was arrested in Guangzhou Baiyun Airport on his way back from Nigeria with 39.5 kilograms of ivory and 30.95 kilograms of rhino horn. The suspect told police, “Nigeria probably has the world’s most relaxed custom regulations. You don’t even need to be present to check your luggage.” He was later linked to a Lagos-based trafficking syndicate that had allegedly completed 18 successful shipments to Guangzhou buyers in one year.
In other instances, wildlife trafficking networks utilize the same individuals, routes, and modus operandi as other illicit networks. A number of seizures have highlighted the overlap between narcotics and wildlife trafficking supply chains in particular. In June of 2010, officials at Kuala Lumpur Airport discovered 285 radiated tortoises, 14 spider tortoises, and one ploughshare tortoise packed in two suitcases with drugs. All three species are listed under CITES Appendix I.
The involvement of organized criminal syndicates in wildlife trafficking subverts developing economies, and presents a substantial security risk to airports.
Beyond the environmental, economic, and security implications of wildlife trafficking, the illicit trade in live animals presents a potential health risk to other animals and even humans. International and national health agencies and organizations have instituted policies intended to mitigate the danger of imported live animals carrying infectious diseases from their countries of origin. For example, birds can reportedly carry over 60 diseases that are transferrable to humans, including Salmonellosis, E. coli, avian tuberculosis, and multiple bird flu virus strains. One strain, H5N1, has a mortality rate of about 60% according to the World Health Organization. To combat this risk, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) currently prohibits the importation of birds or bird eggs from 49 different countries “due to the presence of highly pathogenic avian influenza.” Wildlife traffickers, however, do not burden themselves with the paperwork and procedures necessary to ensure the health of their cargo: 38% of seizures contained within the bird category of C4ADS’ Air Seizure Database originated in one of these 49 prohibited countries.
Wildlife Trafficking & Seizure Data
The trends, transit routes, and modus operandi associated with wildlife trafficking are intrinsically difficult to track – traffickers do not publicize their best practices. Seizure data, however, provides a window into the otherwise opaque world of trafficking activity. Compiling detailed seizure data over time allows for analysis of traffickers’ techniques and the flight routes they most frequently exploit, along with their evolution over time.
C4ADS acknowledges, however, a system-wide lack of consistent, accurate, adequately detailed, and publicly available seizure information for wildlife trafficking and similar crimes. A report released in September 2016 , A review of global trends in CITES live wildlife confiscations, notes the utility of seizure data for enforcement efforts and describes one of the largest inhibitors preventing comprehensive and detailed seizure analysis:
In order to effectively detect, monitor and address [the illegal wildlife trade (IWT)], national authorities require detailed centralized information (such as the source, date, location, species, quantity, intended destination and purpose) regarding seized shipments (UNODC 2012). Currently, a small number of countries are reported to maintain national databases that record such information (UNODC 2012)…However, of the existing IWT databases, only seizure information from the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna (CITES) trade database is currently made fully available to the public for subsequent interpretation and analysis.
Although several wildlife seizure databases exist, those that are publicly available lack the detail necessary for incorporation into the C4ADS Air Seizure Database. In particular, the databases that C4ADS examined lacked transit method information, preventing C4ADS analysts from identifying seizures made in the air transport sector. For example, the following databases, while useful for certain purposes, could not be used for this report:
- CITES Trade Database: While the publicly available CITES Trade Database contains hundreds of thousands of seizures, it does not specify seizures made by air, land, or sea, nor does it provide sufficient detail to cross-reference seizures to avoid duplication. Furthermore, not all CITES signatories report to the Management Authority as requested, and even for those countries that do report, CITES notes that seizure information is “often absent or provided in insufficient detail.”
- US Fish and Wildlife Service’s (FWS) LEMIS Database: C4ADS received extensive data from the LEMIS database, which tracks all wildlife seizures within the United States, through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. Although the seizures could be sorted by location (e.g. New York), the seizures were not separated by air, land, or sea transit (e.g. John F. Kennedy Airport versus the Port of New York), and therefore could not be incorporated in our analysis. C4ADS will be submitting a second FOIA request for a more detailed version of the data.
- The Elephant Trade Information System (ETIS) Database: The ETIS Database records all seizures of elephant specimens reported to CITES beginning in 1989, and is managed by TRAFFIC on behalf of CITES . Although the Database is likely the most comprehensive database on ivory seizures in the world, it is not publicly available.
- The European Union (EU) Trade in Wildlife Information Exchange (TWIX): The EU-TWIX database holds all seizures reported by the 28 EU Member States . The database is only available to wildlife law representatives from within the EU.
Even when detailed seizure data is available, the data itself is vulnerable to a number of inherent biases. For example, wildlife seizures are more likely to occur in jurisdictions where enforcement officials are aware of and trained to look for wildlife trafficking, which may lead to the perception that trafficking is worse in areas with better enforcement. In prominent transit jurisdictions, where enforcement has limited ability to screen passengers and shipments between flights, officials are less likely to make seizures, leading either to a lack of emphasis on those areas in the data, or creating the appearance of ineffective enforcement. A more detailed discussion of the various drawbacks of seizure data can be found in the Methodology and Appendix I: Seizure Data Biases & Vulnerabilities.
In Flying Under the Radar, we analyze the seizure data in C4ADS’ Air Seizure Database to identify evident wildlife trafficking trends, while taking into account biases in the data. In some places, we rank countries, airports, and transit routes by ‘prominence’ – in other words, prominence within the Database – with the understanding that a more complete dataset could provide different results. The majority of our analysis should be interpreted similarly; our findings showcase the patterns visible within our Database, and should not necessarily be construed to be more broadly applicable.
Still, seizures provide enforcement and the public with a rare window into the day-to-day operations of traffickers. Compiling and analyzing seizures by type or category can begin to ‘pull back the veil’ shrouding illicit supply chains in secrecy, illuminating previously unknown aspects of trafficking and providing enforcement agencies with valuable information. Crafting anti-trafficking strategies based on this information may improve the likelihood that the illicit wildlife trade through airports can be stopped.