Fighting the illegal wildlife trade

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An industry approach that supports the work of enforcement agencies is the best way to combat the illegal trade in wildlife

Aviation is committed to playing its part in stopping the trade in illegal wildlife, estimated to be worth up to $10 billion annually. Transnational criminal gangs are exploiting the increasingly interconnected air transport system to traffic these types of products. Although the duty for capturing and prosecuting these criminals rests with national enforcement authorities, airline staff can provide an important source of additional intelligence.

Individual airlines like Cathay Pacific and Etihad Airways have teamed with specialist conservation organizations to train frontline airline staff in identifying and reporting suspicious passengers, baggage, and cargo. Kenya Airways is taking part in the “Wildlife Friendly Skies” program, together with Freeland, a counter-trafficking organization.

Others have developed awareness programs through the videos shown on the inflight entertainment systems, magazine articles, and posters warning passengers of the dangers of buying and carrying illegal wildlife.
But, as the traffickers know, individual airline actions can be by-passed by seeking alternative airlines, routes or transport modes. A multi-stakeholder approach is needed to combat this illegal trade on a global scale.

Industry initiatives

There are several programs ongoing at an industry level that demonstrate airlines’ willingness to support enforcement agencies in this important work. In June 2015, IATA signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) to cooperate on reducing illegal trade in wildlife and their products, as well as on ensuring the safe and secure transport of legally traded wildlife.

“We live in an interconnected world where the great benefits of global air transport are also being abused by criminals to transport illegally traded wildlife,” noted John E Scanlon, the Secretary General of CITES, at the signing. “IATA and its member airlines can play a critical role in assisting customs and other enforcement agencies by gathering valuable intelligence of suspicious activities and raising awareness among customers, passengers, and staff of the devastating impacts of this illegal trade.”

IATA is also partnering with the US Agency for International Development (USAID) in its Reducing Opportunities for Unlawful Transport of Endangered Species (ROUTES) initiative. The Association is working with the other ROUTES Core Group members to develop recommendations to improve awareness training, information sharing, and standards and recommended practices.

Then there is the United for Wildlife (UFW) Foundation, comprising seven conservation organizations, which was formed in 2013 under the auspices of the Duke of Cambridge. There are three airline representatives on the UFW Transport Task Force; Sir Tim Clark, CEO of Emirates, Mbuvi Ngunze, CEO of Kenya Airways, and IATA’s Director General and CEO, Tony Tyler.

The aim of the Task Force is to promote practical action that the transport sector can take to help stop the trafficking of illegal wildlife. The airline representatives are providing expertise on how industry processes can best be adapted to identify and report illegal wildlife trafficking, supporting enforcement agencies in their work.

Supporting enforcement

IATA has also formed its own task force to identify and review wildlife conservation issues with industry relevance. Work began in January 2015 and has already resulted in draft guidance on the carriage of prohibited wildlife by passengers for adoption by airlines.
And in August, Kenya Airways hosted a training workshop in Nairobi, supported by the International Airline Training Fund (IATF). The training was provided by the Freeland Foundation and focused on providing airline and airport staff with the skills and knowledge to identify and report illegal trafficking in wildlife and associated products. It included an overview of the impact of trafficking on Kenyan wildlife and tourism, and a demonstration of how to use animals to find animals (sniffer dogs trained to detect ivory and rhino horn).

A total of 202 participants attended the workshops, including over 100 Kenya Airways staff (aircrew, check-in, customer services, cargo and security agents, and safety managers). Airport security staff were also involved as were representatives from the Kenyan Wildlife Service, local conservation organizations, the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), the US Embassy, INTERPOL, ground handlers, police, and customs and immigration. Follow-up workshops are planned to focus on job-specific awareness training.
“Airline staff spend more time with passengers, their baggage, and cargo shipments than customs officers,” says Jon Godson, IATA’s Assistant Director, Aviation Environment. “They can provide a key source of intelligence for the enforcement agencies.”

A positive start

There are already many practical examples of airline support in this regard. In late October 2014, two passengers embarked on a journey from Mozambique to Vietnam via South Africa and the Gulf. An airline employee became suspicious and the passengers’ bags were checked at a transit stop at Johannesburg’s O. R. Tambo International Airport. The result was the seizure of 18 rhino horns weighing 41kg, the largest such seizure in South Africa.

Similarly, a convoluted trip from Angola to Cambodia by a group of 16 people was interrupted at Hong Kong due to aircraft technical problems. The bags were offloaded for a customs inspection and an extraordinary 790kg of ivory was found across 32 suitcases. The illegal ivory trade is worth up to $188 million per year according to UNEP.

Perhaps the strongest example, however, is the 2010 arrest of Anson Wong, a notorious trafficker of illegal wildlife products, after an airline employee reported suspicious behavior.

Extraordinary attempts to smuggle wildlife illegally will doubtless continue. They will probably be more sophisticated than the man caught trying to smuggle a marmoset in his hair or the woman apprehended with 75 baby pythons on her person. Airlines have to stand ready.