Corruption and the illegal wildlife trade

A new report published by The Guardian yesterday has exposed key wildlife trafficking crime groups and the corrupt government officials enabling them.

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The investigation was carried out by Freeland over 14 years and identifies through Thai government surveillance the main crime networks and individual traffickers who have profited around $23bn through illegally trading in animals, including endangered species, such as elephants, tigers and rhinos.

‘The Bach brothers’, two Vietnamese siblings, allegedly control one of the main trade routes in endangered species and are some of the key suspects in the report.

Why and how is this criminal trade so lucrative? It is the fourth most profitable illegal trade, after drugs, people and arms trafficking. A pair of rhino horns, for example, can sell for 200 times the original price in Vietnam and 400 times in China. Around 5% of rhinos are alive today compared with four decades ago, and around 1,000 are killed by poachers each year. Just to be clear – the rhinos are ‘detusked’ and left to bleed to death.

Rhino horns have been used for centuries in traditional Chinese medicine, and used to treat rheumatism, fever, gout, headaches, and all sort of other ailments, despite having no scientific basis in fact. Rhino horn is mainly made of keratin and has no proven ability to cure anything.

The Guardian report reveals that the known wildlife trafficking kingpin, Vixay Keosavang, has apparently brought his operations to a close, since the US put a $1m reward on his capture. This is the only monetary reward historically offered for a wildlife trafficker, and seems to have been almost instantly effective in halting his business. Since then, however, new players have taken over – the Bach brothers, who are:

well-known locally for their criminal activities, which also include vehicle smuggling; the Bachs run legitimate businesses in wholesale agriculture and forest products, construction materials, electrical equipment, hotels, and food services.

Today, the Guardian has also revealed  that senior officials in Laos have profited through a 2% tax on trade involving tigers, rhinos and elephants. For over a decade, the office of the Laos prime minister has cut deals with three leading traffickers to move wildlife through borders. The statistics are truly shocking:

In 2014 alone, these deals covered $45m (£35m) worth of animal body parts and included agreed quotas requiring the disabling or killing of 165 tigers, more than 650 rhinos and more than 16,000 elephants.

This trade is illegal and prohibited by the International Trade in Endangered Species.

Laos continues to be a full member of Cites, despite having been suspended in 2015 for failure to produce a plan to tackle the ivory trade, and again this year for failure to implement a plan to tackle the ivory trade. This new evidence proves that not only has Laos shown little interest in confronting the illegal trade in wildlife, it has actually profited substantially from taxing the trade.

You can read about the WWF’s efforts to stop the illegal wildlife trade here.

If we are to end this horrific trade in wild animals, we need an international approach that must involve robustly tackling the demand, enforcing the laws, and investing in the areas that are targeted by poachers, to promote education about the ecological need for diverse habitats and species, and to enable local communities to protect wildlife on their doorstep.

Most importantly, we need to kill the demand in Asia and China.

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