/ 10 February 2012

Arrest of wildlife butchers boosts anti-trafficking efforts

Wildlife agencies clamped down this week on the R100-billion black ­market in animals and by-products that is pushing species around the globe to the brink of extinction.

In Southeast Asia a major breakthrough was announced with the arrest of seven suspected traffickers dubbed “the wildlife butchers of Bangkok”.

Elephant, lion, zebra, wildebeest and crocodile remains were discovered in a slaughterhouse on a suburban property after police became suspicious of a man whose hands were covered in blood and followed him. The suspects were found chopping up a large male tiger.

An anti-trafficking group called the Freeland Foundation said the ­suspects were believed to be part of an international criminal network smuggling animal parts to China from private zoos.

Speaking from a meeting of Southeast Asian wildlife law enforcement agents this week, Freeland communications officer Jiab Siwaporn told the Mail & Guardian the origin of the African animals was not yet certain.

“Organised criminal networks operating between Africa and Asia exploit legal loopholes in hunting and export laws, target weak borders and take advantage of corrupt officials,” he said. “These criminals enjoy large profits at very low risk compared to other commonly smuggled commodities such as narcotics or human beings.”

Officials have ramped up surveillance after Malaysian authorities seized a 500kg consignment of elephant tusks shipped from Cape Town in January. Late last year customs officers in Hong Kong seized 33 rhino horns and hundreds of ivory products worth about R20-million on another shipment from Cape Town.

The horns had been hidden in a container under layers of plastic and aluminium foil to look like recycled material and avoid detection by X-ray scanners.

At OR Tambo International Airport this week scanner operators and customs officers were among officials at a training workshop aimed at stepping up enforcement.

The Illegal Wildlife Trade Detection Initiative, a joint project of Airports Company South Africa and the Endangered Wildlife Trust, is being rolled out at all the country’s major airports. “Wildlife smugglers are getting cleverer,” said the airport’s communications manager, Unathi Batyashe-Fillis. “For example, they now chop up rhino horns or make them into powders and take them through cargo. Using sniffer dogs to detect animal products is a big part of our effort to curb trafficking.”

Anti-trafficking efforts were further boosted when Mozambique’s minister of tourism, Fernando Sumbana, announced this week that wildlife poaching could soon become a criminal offence, with heavier sentencing than the current offence of damage to property.

Discussions were also under way to reduce rhino poaching in the Kruger National Park by creating a 220 000ha buffer zone on the Mozambican side of the park’s southern section.

After the deaths of at least three rhinos in the past week, including a black rhino at Madikwe Game Reserve in North West, the toll in 2012 had risen to 39 by Wednesday.