Flying Under the Radar Wildlife Trafficking in the Air Transport Sector


Flying Under the Radar

Wildlife Trafficking in the Air Transport Sector

April 2016




Executive Summary

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.

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.

  • 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.


The report examines multiple different categories

Ivory: 185, or 65%, of the 283 seizures recorded in the database contained sufficient information for inclusion in our ivory routes analysis. There are 54 countries linked to ivory trafficking in the Database. While ivory trafficking routes generally move from Africa to East Asia, our data suggest that traffickers tend to utilize large hub airports along the way. This is likely in large part due to the fact that hub airports are more likely to have a variety of large international flights moving out of Africa to Asia, usually via the Greater Horn of Africa, Middle East, or Europe. East Africa is the largest African exit region for ivory; shipments originating in Central or West Africa tend to fly through Nairobi, Addis Ababa, or occasionally Entebbe prior to arrival in Asia. Other common transit points include Dubai and Doha in the Middle East, as well as Paris, Amsterdam, and Istanbul in Europe.

Rhino Horn. 54, or 64%, of the 85 seizures recorded in the Database contained sufficient information for inclusion in the rhino horn trafficking routes map. There are 33 countries linked to rhino horn trafficking in the Database. The rhino horn routes map shows a clear trend of movement from Southern Africa to East and Southeast Asia. Southern Africa emerges as the most significant origin location, as criminal networks source rhino horn from the largest remaining white rhino populations in South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, and Zimbabwe, but regularly choose to move their contraband through less challenging, and often closer, airports in Mozambique. Rhino horn leaving Southern Africa may transit through East Africa or the Middle East, or may travel directly from Maputo or Johannesburg to Asian hubs in Bangkok, Hanoi, Hong Kong, and Beijing.

Reptiles. 195, or 75%, of the 259 seizures recorded in the Database contained sufficient information for inclusion. With 73 total countries involved in at least one reptile trafficking instance, the reptile category is the most geographically diverse category of the four used in this report. Despite the diffuse geography of the C4ADS Air Seizure Database, a majority of reptile trafficking appears to be concentrated in a few Southern Asian countries, almost entirely due to the illegal trade of two endangered turtle species. Europe appears as a prominent destination for reptiles originating in the Americas, Africa, and Asia. 17% of reptile seizures within the Database were either destined for or transited through at least one European country, compared to 9.9% in the other three categories of the C4ADS Air Seizure Database.

Birds. 118, or 81%, of the 146 bird seizures recorded in the Database contained sufficient information for inclusion in our analysis. There are 68 total countries linked to at least one bird trafficking instance, making the bird routes data second only to the reptile routes data in terms of geographical diversity. Unlike the ivory, rhino horn, and even reptile routes maps, there is no clear geographical flow associated with international bird trafficking transit routes.