Wildlife crime has long been a problem in international trade, but a summit in Bangkok this week revealed that front-line transport workers have very little knowledge of the methods criminals use to illegally ship wildlife products around the world. The summit was the first of its kind, bringing together transport operators and customs officials with experts in conservation and the illegal wildlife trade.

Despite international efforts such as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) to stop wildlife trafficking, the criminals involved have developed new tactics to go un-noticed in the trade of illegal goods such as ivory. The latest figures from the United Nations Environment Programme still value the industry at $23 billion annually.

It is estimated that around 35,000 elephants are killed for their tusks every year, mostly in Africa. In addition to this, there are now only around 3,000 wild tigers across the globe, a fraction of the 60,000 tigers a century ago. Meanwhile in South Africa, the government has seen poaching of rhinos reach an all-time high of 1,215 individuals in 2014, up from just 13 individuals in 2007. South Africa’s stance on wildlife trafficking is currently unknown as the government recently announced plans to examine the viability of a legal rhino horn trade.

Traffickers are utilising the lack of awareness of freight handlers to distinguish between animal products and artificial materials. One example is rhino horn, which can be ground down into powder which is then virtually identical to grey chalk by visual checks. Facts such as these came as a shock to many attendees, who did not realise the extent to which the criminals work and the extensive methods of disguise. On the black market rhino horn can sell for as much as £85 per gram, double the price of gold and exceeding the price of cocaine.
Experts suggest that providing information to the people working in the transport industry (especially handlers of air, ship and land cargoes) is the way forward. Customs and security officers are already overwhelmed by security, drugs and human trafficking issues so do not have the time to investigate wildlife crime.

Furthermore, very few customs authorities have the knowledge about which species of wildlife are prohibited from international trade. It is hoped that the people handling the goods can become the eyes and ears to stop this illegal trade.