Illegal economies exist on everything from drugs to tobacco, but among the most disturbing is the illegal trade in parts of the wildlife that is causing untold environmental damage and pushing many species to the point of extinction.
Wildlife Justice Commission (WJC) findings Report Thursday’s post shows a dire situation for rhinos, one of the world’s last megafauna.
“Trafficking in rhino horn remains a serious problem that needs to be addressed with a new sense of urgency as a transnational organized crime,” the Commission on Wildlife Justice said. “Over the past 10 years, the illegal killing of rhinos and the trafficking of their horns has grown as a global criminal enterprise, comprising multiple criminal components dominated by greed and the pursuit of large profits.”
The WJC found that more than 7.5 tons of rhino horn have been seized by police and customs authorities around the world over the past decade. Three countries have emerged as major players in the global illicit trade.
South Africa, where the majority of the world’s rhino population lives and is poached, Malaysia, where illegal goods pass through, and Vietnam, where wild animal dealers and traders sell parts to buyers from other parts of Asia, such as China.
The WJC found that half of all seized pods over the past 10 years originated in South Africa and a quarter are associated with Vietnam. In Vietnam, there have been prominent physical markets for horns, such as the village of Nhi Khe near Hanoi which operated between 2012 and 2016.
“The Commission for Wildlife Justice’s investigations found that the market supplied almost entirely Chinese customers with carved rhino horn products, priced in renminbi. Interpreters play a pivotal role in connecting Chinese buyers with Vietnamese merchants and facilitating negotiations, and payments made to Chinese bank accounts,” the report said.
Of particular concern is how rude the trade is. Despite the rhino being a CITES-protected species, poachers are rarely prosecuted and the antlers are often smuggled on commercial airlines.
Analysis of the cloaking methods described in the seizure reports showed that rhino horn is most often smuggled without being hidden at all. This is a notable point of difference from other wildlife products with a similar supply chain between Africa and Asia, such as elephant ivory and anteater scales, which are often hidden inside a payload of legal goods,” the WJC said.
“It is also a departure from the broader norm, as organized crime groups of any kind usually put a lot of effort into concealing their illegal activities in order to maximize their operational potential. This may indicate that traffickers are more dependent on corrupt elements to move shipments of rhino horn across the supply chain, making product masking unnecessary.”
Poaching isn’t the only source of horns either. About a third of the pods that ended up on the international market were diverted or stolen from legal stocks, both those of rhino breeders and government agencies, suggesting a significant involvement of corruption in the illegal trade.
Shipments are also getting bigger. The WJC found that the average cargo weight had doubled by 2021, rising to more than 44 kg.
“The ongoing and dynamic nature of the rhino threat is evident and this situation continues to be complicated by uncoordinated and fragmented law enforcement actions along the supply chain,” said the WJC.
The Commission urged all judicial authorities to intensify and redirect their efforts to ensure that crime is addressed in an effective, coordinated and permanent manner.
“Law enforcement alone will not stop rhino poaching or antler trafficking, but the full burden of law enforcement has not been applied to this issue,” she added. “With 9,561 rhinos poached across Africa and 7.5 tons of rhino horn confiscated from the illegal trade globally over the past 10 years, it is likely that the scale of the rhino crisis has now exceeded anything envisaged in 2012.”