Smuggling wildlife: from eggs in a bra to geckos in underwear

28th January 2010, Comments 0 comments

Worldwide, organised crime appears to be tightening its grip on the illegal trade of wildlife.

Geneva -- John Sellar is no comic book super hero, but judging by the criminals he deals with as the only policeman at the UN agency against illegal wildlife trade, he could well be one.

Russian mafia, Latin American drug lords, suspected rebel or terror groups and crooked Asian diplomats count among poachers of rhinoceros, tigers and leopards whom Sellar aims to collar.

"My title is chief, but I have no Indians," he told AFP.

A former policeman in Scotland, he is the "enforcement assistance chief" at the UN agency against illegal wildlife trade, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

With a budget of 5.1 million dollars in 2009, its resources are so strapped that the organisation does not even have a database of known criminal activities in illegal trafficking of animal parts.

Sellar's space is confined to a small office that fits in only an L-shaped desk, three chairs and a row of bookshelves, where he coordinates enforcement activities undertaken by local customs authorities or police.

However, in many of the poorer countries where poaching occurs, enforcement teams "don't even have access to forensic science for murder, so they're not going to have resources for rhinos," he said.

Behind the scenes, meanwhile, organised crime appears to be tightening its grip on the illegal trade, attracted by its high returns, according to evidence collected by CITES and non-governmental organisations.

The Russian mafia has been found to be involved in illicit caviar trade, while some Asian gangs have been caught trafficking rhino horns, which are promoted for medical uses, and elephant ivory, so prized in Asian art.

Sellar is reluctant to estimate the value of the illicit commerce, but said the high value could be driving more people to try their luck in the trade.

Major conservation groups including the Worldwide Fund for Nature said in a report this past summer that demand for rhinoceros horns in Asia has driven rhinoceros poaching to a 15-year-high.

A rhino horn is easily worth "several tens of thousands of dollars per kilo," he noted. "In weight, rhino horn is much more profitable than gold or diamonds or heroin or cocaine. You're getting much more returns."

Some criminals are also attracted by the prospect of laundering other ill-gotten gains, added Sellar.

"The money associated with narcotics, human trafficking is huge. They have so much money they don't know what to do with it. They can't wash it fast enough," said Sellar. "They've obviously been looking into areas where they can get into -- ivory is one, caviar trade is another."

In addition, gangs having trouble carrying wads of cash or stashes of diamonds around the world are simply converting them into rhino horns or other exotic animal parts.

"Financial crime units have tended historically to focus on particular forms of avoidance. They're not looking for a rhino horn or caviar. It's an evasion on the part of organised crime," he said.

Bit wildlife crime is "not regarded as mainstream crime" and as a result, little priority is given to cracking down on the trade, said Sellar, who sees this as a wasted opportunity.

He cited the example of Al Capone, the notorious Chicago gangster who was arrested not for his heinous crimes but for not declaring his taxes.

"I think sometimes by failing to address wildlife crime, some agencies are missing the opportunity to deal with these organised criminals," Sellar said. "A lot of these criminal networks are probably not covering their tracks as carefully when they're dealing with illegal wildlife trade as they might do when dealing with human trafficking or narcotics. There are lots of opportunities for us to arrest these people.”

Even rebel or terror groups have turned to poaching to fund activities, particularly in Africa, Sellar said: "If you look in parts of Africa, then poaching there has funded rebel activities for decades."

Beyond the shady gangs, suit-wearing diplomats have also been caught red-handed.

Sellar would not name specific countries, but said "it is probably true to say that it's more often than not Asian diplomats. Not exclusively, but that appears to be the trend."

In November, Vietnam said it would recall one of its diplomats from South Africa after she was filmed conducting an illegal deal for protected rhinoceros horn.

This "by no means whatsoever" is the only instance of diplomatic involvement in the trafficking, according to Sellar who said growing affluence in Asian countries such as Vietnam and China seems to be fuelling the demand.

He cited another example in an east African country he would not name where an Asian diplomat sought to use his legal immunity to smuggle elephant tusks through customs in metal boxes marked as diplomatic bags.

"The diplomat was arrested but subsequently bailed by his country and fled," said Sellar. "Diplomatic immunity is regrettably abused, not regularly, but it is not uncommon for us to see people abusing immunity. They use cars with CD plates, they use diplomatic baggage, parcels ... to smuggle ivory, rhino horns, basically you name it."

To slip their illegal cargo through customs, wildlife smugglers still use traditional methods like bribery and threats but can also go creative -- like hiding live geckos in their underpants.

John Sellar, chief enforcement officer at CITES, the UN agency against illegal wildlife trade, gave several examples.


Caviar might add a touch of class to the average dinner table, but it might have gotten there thanks to prostitution, bribery and death threats orchestrated by the Russian mafia.

Sellar said the "crime" starts with the poaching of sturgeon from the Caspian Sea and the processing of caviar.

In one instance, the delicacy was then smuggled into a Middle Eastern country where officials were offered cash bribes or prostitutes or, if they did not comply, given death threats to issue genuine CITES documents for the illegal caviar.

"With the documents, the caviar then enters national markets as genuine certified caviar," said Sellar.

Once the caviar is certified as legal, the trade helps the mafia to launder their money.


Criminals have been caught smuggling animals such as beetles or snakes with proper CITES documentation, but using them as drug mules.

Sellar pointed to a case where a crate of beetles were found dead at customs.

"Officials thought initially that they must have been smuggled for collectors, but they were all stuffed with amphetamines," he explained.

In another case, a shipment of snakes from South America arrived in the United States with the right permits, but US customs officers found that most of them had died.

It turned out that the snakes were full of condoms stuffed with cocaine, Sellar said.

If that shipment had passed through, the criminals would have made money in several ways -- not only the drugs, but also the snakes would have earned a tidy sum, dead or alive, said Sellar.

Alive, they could have been sold to collectors; dead, they could have been offloaded for their skins, he explained.


Some individuals who want to bring rare birds across a border sometimes smuggle in eggs before they have hatched, said Sellar.

"You will get men and women with special constructed vests with eggs," he said. "There are women smuggling eggs in their bras or men smuggling live lizards and geckos in their underpants."

Hui Min Neo/AFP/Expatica

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