Animal traffic: the road to oblivion

Posted: 28 April 2001

Author: Maya Pastakia

The trade in endangered animals and plants has never been more insatiable and lucrative. Maya Pastakia reports on a ruthless trade which is threatening many rare plants and animals with extinction.

The global trade in live and dead wild animals and plants is huge, with an annual turnover estimated at billions of pounds a year. And despite international efforts to curb it, the trade is growing.A customs officer inspects a reptile shipment at Heathrow Airport© Crawford Allan/TRAFFICAccurate global figures are difficult to estimate as there are few statistics for certain species, little or no detailed information for certain countries or regions and, of course, a large proportion of the trade is undocumented because it is either unrecorded or illegal. Calculations are also sometimes based on declared import values and do not take into account retail trade values and domestic trade.

The scale of the trade can, however, also be illustrated by the wide variety of species that are bought and sold. The wildlife trade involves 25,000 to 30,000 primates, 2 to 5 million wild birds, 10 million reptile skins, 7 to 8 million cacti and over 500 million tropical fish.

The illegal trade in rare and endangered animals is estimated to be worth some $6 billion a year - bigger than the world's arms smuggling rackets and second only in size to the illegal traffic in drugs.

Despite international agreements like the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES), which aims to protect species from being poached and traded to extinction, they carry little weight in developing countries like Cameroon where illicit animal dealing is a fact of life. In the cool of the evening, hunters come out into Cameroon's forests. The catch is small and vulnerable, the harmless creatures of the night, and the pickings are easy - frogs, chameleons - that don't flee or fight back. Trapped inside linen bags, the reptiles are on the first leg of a journey that will end in a glass tank or cardboard box somewhere in the first world.

Huge profits

How lucrative the illegal trade is can be illustrated by some of the prices species fetch on the international black market.

  • Rare orchid - US$10,000
  • Rare cacti - US$7,000
  • Trained falcon - US$5,000 - $20,000 even up to $50,000
  • Rare macaw - US$20,000-$40,000
  • Shahtoosh shawl (from the Tibetan antelope) - US$35,000
  • Musk (from the musk deer) US$50,000 per kilo
Huge profits are a lure for the illegal animal dealer who can expect to make vast sums of money from dealing in rare species. A reptile such as a little turtle or Rainbow snake can be bought from a local village for around $6 by an animal courier, then sold on to an animal trader for around $50 who then sells the creature in the private market for $150-200. With just one animal, a turnover of close to 2,000 per cent profit can be expected. The profit scales are roughly equal to those for in cocaine and heroin.

However, unlike the penalties for dealing in illicit drugs, the penalties for smuggling endangered animals and plants registered under CITES are lenient. Mike Van Nostrand was regarded as America's biggest reptile dealer. He tried to corner the market in the rare Indonesian frilled dragons, a protected reptile, but was caught by FBI agents. Van Nostrand pleaded guilty to several smuggling charges and was sentenced to eight months in prison and ordered to pay $250,000 to a conservation programme - a miniscule amount considering the profits from his business (both illegal and legal) were in the region of $6-10 million a year.

Biggest catch

Only until recently the animal underworld's biggest dealer, Anson Wong, a Malaysian, ran the largest smuggling operation that's ever been broken. Known as 'King Rat' to the FBI, Wong, young, cultured and ruthless, worked his way to the top of the animal underworld and his name carried weight and respect.Anson Wong/© BBCIn Malaysia, Wong owned his own private zoo, a perfect front for illegal dealing in protected wildlife. Behind the scenes, Wong dealt with creatures protected by CITES, which lists in its two appendixes rare and endangered species threatened with extinction. Trade in these creatures is either forbidden or strictly regulated.

According to a BBC Panorama report, Animal Underworld, Wong stole the almost extinct Komodo dragons from their remaining islands in Indonesia. The world's largest lizard, each 'dragon' is valued at $30,000. He dealt in the critically endangered Chinese alligator worth at least $17,000 on the black market. The Madagascar Tree Boa, worth $2,500 and the False Gavial worth $4,500, are now extremely rare. Even zoos can't find them but Wong could. From his base in the Far East, Anson Wong procured and shipped some of the world's rarest reptiles around the globe.

Anson's downfall came after he became involved in the equivalent of the reptilian great train robbery, the biggest ever theft of precious reptiles. Wong gained access to 37 Ploughshare tortoises stolen from a breeding programme in Madagascar. These tortoises are prized for their extraordinarily, beautiful shell which ultimately has led to their downfall. The street value of each is around $52,500. There are now fewer than a thousand of these creatures left in the world and their population is probably insufficient to sustain continuity of the species. Today, Wong sits in a Californian prison, pleading guilty to serious indictments of trafficking in the most endangered species. He now awaits sentencing and can expect up to five years in prison: the first real exemplary sentence.

Losing battle

For many species, trade is on the increase. For example, between 1983 and 1992, trade in live reptiles in the United States alone increased nearly twenty-fold, and jumped from 28 per cent to 82 per cent of the global market. More than 2.5 million live reptiles were imported into the country in 1995, and in 1996 it exported or re-exported 9.5 million reptiles, primarily to Europe and East Asia.turtlesHundreds of freshwater turtles are exported daily from many parts of Southeast Asia.© Chris R. Shepherd/TRAFFIC Southeast AsiaA joint WWF/TRAFFIC report, Traded Towards Extinction, uncovered the flourishing illegal wildlife trade in Britain. It revealed that, on average, UK Customs seized more than 570 illegal wildlife items every day - a staggering figure of over one million items during the five year period studied from 1996 to 2000. However, over the same period the fines levied equate to just 9 pence per item seized.

Although the UK has some of the best trained Custom officers in the world, there are too few to stop the illegal trade. Once criminals get past Customs, selling some of the world's most endangered species is not even an arrestable offence under current UK legislation, Control of Trade in Endangered Species. "Under UK law you can be arrested for poaching a pheasant but not for selling a poached tiger, elephant or rhino," said Stuart Chapman, Head of WWF's Species Programme.

The demand appears to be insatiable. Today a whole new generation wants to collect. Taste and fashion change, people with smaller homes prefer undemanding pets which need little attention. The price tags speak for themselves. A baby python can sell at $300.

For other species, there has been a significant improvement. Increased enforcement of domestic trade bans and co-operation with the traditional medicine community has helped to significantly reduce the retail sale and use of tiger-bone medicines. The trade in some markets is now shifting to skins and other products beside bone. Nevertheless, some of the plant and animal species used in traditional east Asian medicine (TEAM) are still threatened with extinction, including the tiger, rhinoceroses, musk deer, as well as species of bear and some species of orchids. For these species, the main threat comes from poaching and illegal collecting.

Another worrying trend has been the apparent increase in paperwork fraud, with numerous traders importing CITES listed animals and plants, claiming they have been bred in captivity or artificially propagated.

Live mammals

Primates are the most commonly traded live mammals, usually for scientific purposes but also as pets. There are a number of trade restrictions in place for primates, with all apes listed on Appendix I or II of CITES. Approximately 25,000 to 30,000 are legally traded each year around the world, however illegal trade in primates remains an ongoing problem, particularly in chimpanzees and gorillas (CITES Secretariat, 1994; CITES Secretariat, 1997).

orangutanOrangutan. There are less then 30,000 left in the world.© WWF-US/TRAFFICFor example, orang-utans are often picked up by sailors in Indonesia and sold through dealers in Thailand and Bangkok. Their population is estimated at less then 30,000 individuals, representing a decline of 30 to 50 per cent in one decade (WWF, 1997). They have an estimated black market value of up to US$50,000. A stuffed orang-utan was offered for sale in Britain in 1993 for US$25,000.

Live birdsMillions of wild birds are legally traded on the international market, the most common being finches followed by parrots. These high levels of trade have lead to many bird species, including virtually all parrot species, to be placed on the CITES Appendices.

However hundreds of thousands of wild birds continue to be illegally traded each year, with an estimated 250,000 birds smuggled annually into the United States alone. Birds smuggled include many endangered species such as Salmon-crested cockatoos. For many species, this commercial trade has now become a serious threat to their survival in the wild. salmon crested cockatooSalmon-crested cockatoo© C.R. Shepherd/TRAFFIC Southeast AsiaHyacinth macaws, for example, are prized for their brilliant blue colouring, large size, intelligence and rarity, these birds have a black market value of $15,000 to $20,000. Illegal trapping has caused the wild population to decline dramatically to less then 3000 surviving individuals scattered throughout Bolivia, Brazil and Paraguay. In 1996 a well-known bird expert was convicted and sentenced to five years' imprisonment in the US for smuggling hundreds of rare birds. He is believed to be personally responsible for the demise of 5 to 10 per cent of the entire world population of Hyacinth macaws in the wild.

Lizards and butterfliesThere are no estimates available on the size of the live reptile and amphibian trade, however it is thought to be huge (Risk and Policy Analysts, 1995). Unlike the trade in birds and mammals, this trade is largely unregulated, with comparatively few species listed on CITES.

For example, there are cases of overseas collecting groups going to Australia where the commercial export of live reptiles is banned, to collect reptiles such as Shingleback lizards. Shinglebacks are commonly found in illegal trade and can fetch up to $2,500 each. Rare butterflies, beetles and other insects as well as spiders, scorpions, leeches and snails are all found in international trade both legally and illegally. Rarer species in which international trade is restricted, such as Birdwing butterflies from South East Asia can fetch up to $2,500 per pair.

Live fishOver 500 million live tropical fish are traded each year largely for the aquarium trade (Le Duc, 1996), primarily from the Asian and Pacific regions. However, few fish species are listed on CITES and illegal trade in these species is rare.

However the main exception is Asian Arrowana which is listed on CITES Appendix II, and occasionally illegally imported into the UK. Others include the Asian Boneytongue or Golden Arrowana, which can fetch up to $S5,000 in the East Asian markets where it is kept as a good luck fish. They are classified as endangered (IUCN, 1996) and listed on CITES Appendix I. To prevent dealing in the wild fish, farmed fish are now tagged with an electronic microchip attached under the supervision of a government agent. The number of the chip is then recorded on the export licence.

Planet collectors

Unscrupulous collectors remain a major threat to the very existence of some plant species. For while most plants, including most orchids and cacti, available in commerce have been artificially propagated by nurseries, a large number still find their way into trade, taken directly and usually illegally from the orchidPhragmipedium grouville(Orchid)© Vincent Chen/TRAFFIC East Asia-Taipei Rare, new, exotic and naturally uncommon species from the wild are sought out by specialist collectors. These plants are generally the least capable of sustaining heavy harvests, and species such as the giant pitcher plant have been driven to near extinction by rapacious collectors (Jenkins and Oldfield, 1992).

In Europe, wild plants traded in significant numbers include orchids, bulbs, cycads, cacti and other succulent plants, carnivorous plants and airplants. Over-exploitation from the wild has led to many of these plant species being placed on the CITES appendices, and blanket bans on the exports of wild specimens from countries such as Mexico. Nevertheless enforcement of these laws has proved difficult. Dramatic declines in some species due to over-exploitation has lead to the whole genus of tropical orchids such as Paphiopedilum - slipper orchids from South East Asia, and Phragmipedium from South America to be placed on CITES Appendix I .

All species of the cactus family, and a number of other succulents are listed on CITES, with the most vulnerable species being listed on Appendix I. However wild plants of these species continue to be sold, often openly, throughout Europe, with some species capable of fetching hundreds of pounds each.A large number of plants and animals commonly found in trade have been bred in captivity or artificially propagated. For some specialist collectors, there is considerable prestige attached to owning wild, as opposed to captive bred animals or artificially propagated plants. Packaged to death

As the fashion for keeping reptiles and other exotic pets continues to grow, a terrible price is being paid by scores of animals for this latest trend. Many species are transported in unbelievably cruel conditions and most die in transit. Species, like Goliath frogs, the biggest frogs in the world, are packed and concealed so tightly that they absorb their own faeces through their skin and thus poison themselves. With such huge profits for the taking on each animal, dealers can afford big losses during transportation. Badly packed, starved, dehydrated, frozen in holds, the journeys are nightmare for many creatures. In Germany, customs official uncovered numerous baby pythons concealed in single cardboard packages for CD disks. Their mortality when smuggled in this way is around 80-90 per cent. It is estimated that 9 out of 10 smuggled animals go undiscovered.

Perhaps one of the cruellest examples of smuggling is that of tortoises. Masking tape is placed around the opening of their legs and heads. The animals are locked inside their shells for the duration of the journey with virtually no air to breathe. As such, their mortality is extremely high.

Scarcity, gender, age, breed habits or the effect on the delicate ecology of ecosystems are irrelevant to the animal trader. If it moves and has market value, it is taken. As a result, the world's biodiversity is being impoverished by this ruthless and unscrupulous trade.

As Dr Steve Gartland, consultant to WWF in Cameroon, warns: "We have taken the timber, we have taken the ivory, we have taken the ebony, we have taken the oil palm. There is virtually nothing left to take. What is left? The frogs, the toads, the small mammals. We are now cleaning them out, and when we've cleaned them out we will go and turn out the lights."

Maya Pastakia is Assistant Editor of this website

Web links:

TRAFFIC reports on many endangered animals and plant species. Here are some links to species featured on their website:

  • Tigers:
  • Tibetan Antelope:
  • Musk deer:
  • Turtles:
  • Reef fish: and
  • Butterflies and beetles:

    The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES):

    IUCN Red List of Threatened Species: