‘Is that a cobra in your suitcase, Madam?’
Hundreds of at-risk species could be lost to human greed as wildlife traffickers thrive on indifference
Airline passengers come across some unusual fellow travellers – but you may be astonished to learn just how many strange prisoners (or bits of them) are sitting next to you, or hidden in the overhead storage compartments and luggage holds beneath your feet.
An international wildlife smuggling report published this week, “In Plane Sight”, casts a spotlight on some very unusual air passengers at a time when traffickers are taking advantage of an increasingly interconnected world to shift illegal cargoes quickly.
One example was the discovery of three highly venomous king cobra snakes, all squirming inside potato chip canisters in a suitcase, en route from Hong Kong to Los Angeles in March 2017.
A few days earlier Australian airport officials inspected a box labelled “two pairs of shoes” that arrived in Melbourne on a flight from Europe. Instead they found 11 snakes, nine tarantulas and four scorpions.
During the same month a Czech national was arrested trying to smuggle a black mamba and 80 other reptiles from SA to Austria via Madrid. While most of the snakes were still alive; many other creatures were not so lucky.In January 2017 customs officers searched four suitcases checked in for a flight from Senegal to Spain and discovered nearly 500 small birds. Almost 60% died before leaving the airport in Dakar.
In the US officials bust Kurtis Law, a dual Vietnamese/US citizen, with 93 birds stuffed in his suitcases, all with their wings trussed up to stop them flapping. Only eight birds survived the trip, with casualties including two extremely rare Bali mynahs.
But perhaps the most unusual discovery mentioned in the report was the discovery of 108 creatures in a variety of mini-cages, plastic boxes and bags at Domodedovo International Airport in Moscow.
The flying menagerie included 55 snakes, 35 lizards, seven turtles, six lemurs, two apes, two baby crocodiles and a leopard cub that had flown from Indonesia via Qatar.
The “In Plane Sight” report is published by Routes (Reducing Opportunities for Unlawful Transport of Endangered Species), a partnership involving US government agencies, member airlines of the International Air Transport Association and the conservation groups WWF and Traffic.
Authors Mary Utermohlen and Patrick Baine say wildlife crime, once largely dismissed as comparatively irrelevant, has grown in recent years to become one of the most prevalent and valuable types of international organised crime – ranking fourth behind drug, human and arms trafficking in estimated annual value.“As marketplaces have become progressively more international, wildlife trafficking networks have been able to exploit the advance of technology, profiting off the development of the international financial system and increasingly intertwined transportation networks,” according to the Routes report.
“But while wildlife criminal networks were learning to take advantage of finance and transportation networks, they made a mistake: they became dependent on them.”
Wildlife criminal groups now rely on international systems of trade, finance, and transport to make a profit, “forcing them to emerge from behind their carefully constructed disguises to engage with the lawful, regulated world, thus exposing themselves to discovery”, read the report.
Utermohlen and Baine said wildlife seizures at airports were the clearest outward sign of this weakness, and if seizure data is carefully collected, stored, and analysed, it can reveal a great deal about wildlife trafficking trends, routes and methods.
And while passengers might assume that most illegal cargoes are hidden in air freight containers in the luggage hold, recent data seizure indicated that as much as 65% was concealed inside check-in suitcases and about 11% hidden in carry-on luggage or on the bodies of passengers.To reduce the risk of bags being intercepted by inspectors, some passengers were now wearing tailormade vests which contain special compartments to conceal small pieces of ivory and other illicit wildlife products.
Late last year, customs officers in Hong Kong nabbed at least two passengers, each carrying over 20kg of ivory stuffed in their vests, or hidden in their carry-on luggage.
The method was first discovered in October 2016 when two men travelling from Harare to Hong Kong via Dubai were arrested with 40kg of worked ivory hidden in two vests. Ten days later Hong Kong customs officers arrested three men travelling the same route with three vests containing 60 kg of ivory.
Other smuggling methods include hiding illicit wildlife products inside items of food, or wrapping them in tin and aluminium foil to get past airport scanning checks.
In other cases, chopped-up elephant ivory and rhino horns were hidden in false compartments in computer towers and other electric products.
While there had been an increase in wildlife product seizures at OR Tambo International Airport, the lack of large-scale seizures of rhino horns at this airport indicated that smugglers could be shipping out rhino horns from other airports in the region and consolidating them into larger volumes before they were moved to Vietnam and China.Criminal syndicates were also highly dynamic, switching routes frequently as security checks were tightened up. Beijing airport was now being avoided, for example, while Istanbul airport was emerging as an important transit route.
There was also evidence that criminals were using circuitous routes or choosing 2am “red eye” flights when they were less likely to be caught.
The authors also suggest that the movement of illegal wildlife cargoes on private charter flights is under-reported. They note, for example, that two Dutch Armenian brothers, Artyom and Edward Vartanyan, were arrested at Kilimanjaro Airport in Tanzania in March 2016.They were trying to export 450 monkeys and other animals to an exotic animal park in Armenia.
“The Vartanyan seizure is particularly unusual, not just because it occurred on a private plane, but also because it occurred at all – most private flights and their passengers undergo less rigorous customs screening than normal passenger or cargo flights, and often are protected by diplomatic immunity.”The report says that to combat creative and evolving criminal networks, law enforcement agencies will need to identify new trafficking methods as they arise and then try to overtake them by preparing accordingly.
“Without a concerted, international effort to prevent and dismantle wildlife trafficking networks at every step of the supply chain, hundreds of at-risk species could be lost to human greed and shortsightedness as wildlife traffickers thrive on indifference.”