Soviet Fall, Asian Boom Fuel Illicit Animal Trade


A walk into the dusty customs warehouse, back behind the piles of contraband Oriental rugs and stacks of smuggled Yugoslav vodka, brought a sight to break an animal-lover's heart.

There were heaps of confiscated skins from snow leopards and tigers, orangutan skulls, stuffed tropical birds, the remains of dozens of other creatures--grisly evidence of the lucrative world trade in endangered wildlife.

"It was an extraordinary collection," said Tom de Meulenaer, European director of TRAFFIC, an international group that monitors the illicit trade. "It reads like a list of the world's rarest animals."

Twenty years after TRAFFIC was set up by the World Wildlife Fund to help nations enforce a global convention banning trade in 2,000 endangered species, the smuggling of live and dead animals continues unabated.

World events have opened up new markets and previously untapped sources to the illegal traders.

De Meulenaer said the collapse of the Soviet Union and rapid economic growth in China and Southeast Asia have sparked a boom in poaching and smuggling.

"Russia is facing a major economic crisis and it's clear that the natural resources are the first to be plundered," he said. "We have seen a surge in poaching which is unparalleled. . . . Much of the trade is linked to China and Asia, where demand is increasing."

De Meulenaer cites Siberian tiger, saiga antelope and musk deer as Russian species threatened by poachers freed from communist-era controls. In the Caspian Sea, sturgeon are at risk of extinction because of overfishing by Russian gangs that traffic in caviar.

"All the controls that were in place are now not there. The local mafia has taken over," he said.

TRAFFIC's major concern is for the survival of Russia's bears. Increasingly they are hunted for their gallbladders, a traditional Chinese remedy for liver diseases and headaches.

The high prices that Asian dealers pay to supply a thriving traditional-medicine market threatens other species. TRAFFIC says a Russian poacher exchanged a single dead tiger for three new trucks in 1992. In Taiwan, tiger bone sells for as much as $550 a pound.

In Western Europe and North America, private collectors, circuses and furriers pay big money for smuggled animals. Traffickers have been found with pythons under their shirts, rare frogs in shampoo bottles and turtles stuffed into teddy bears.

Last year, British police broke up a parrot-trafficking ring that used female couriers wearing special bras to smuggle cockatoo eggs from Australia.

TRAFFIC says another blow to the fight against animal trafficking was the lifting of frontier controls within the 15-nation European Union. Lifting controls was designed to make legitimate trade easier, but it has made it harder for customs officers to catch smugglers.

"There is very little coordination," De Meulenaer said. "Traders are clever enough to abuse it."

William Wijnstekers, an EU official in charge of monitoring wildlife trade, said new rules will be introduced this year "to fill some of the gaps caused by the abolition of internal border controls."

The new measures will tighten frontier and point-of-sale controls and boost cooperation among customs agencies of EU members. The measures also are expected to go at least some way toward meeting conservationists' demands for more severe punishment.

TRAFFIC is not seeking the measures used in China, which has executed people attempting to smuggle skins of giant pandas. But it would like to see heavier fines, confiscation of goods, revocation of trading licenses and jail sentences.

"In the West, the smugglers risk very little," De Meulenaer said.

Light fines deter few when potential profits are so high. Recently, a German was caught at the Brussels airport with more than 1,000 tiny Central American poison arrow frogs hidden in hand luggage. They can sell for $70 each in Europe, De Meulenaer said.

Smuggled animals often suffer cruel treatment during transport. And confiscation does not end their ordeal. Overcrowded zoos are unwilling to take them and government agencies have no facilities, so often the animals are killed.

Jim Cronin, an American, cares for 45 chimpanzees at the private Monkey World Ape Rescue Center in Wareham, England. "These are the refugees of the conservation war," he said. "It's a scandal that no one actually sets aside a budget for confiscated wildlife."

Returning animals to the wild is usually not an option, because they can introduce new diseases. Released animals seen as outsiders also can fall victim to attacks by their own species.

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