Birds, reptiles not spared from illegal wildlife trade

13Mar 2016
Lucas Liganga
Guardian On Sunday
Birds, reptiles not spared from illegal wildlife trade

POACHING of elephant ivory has always captured local and international banner headlines over the years when relevant authorities swing into action to arrest suspects and seize ivory.

Elephants roaming in the Selous Game Reserve

But participants in a recent workshop held in Arusha heard that poaching was not only confined to elephants and rhinos but, on some occasions, also to birds, reptiles, amphibians and tortoises.

The workshop was organized by TRAFFIC, a wildlife trade monitoring network, and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), and supported by GIZ, the German international development agency.

Dr Jasson John, a lecturer with the Department of Zoology and Wildlife Conservation of the University of Dar es Salaam, said birds were not spared from illegal trade.

“International trade in birds is being used as a cover for illegal trade,” said the don, mentioning vulnerable species for the illegal trade as shoebill, parrots, finches, lovebirds, turaco, cranes, vultures, flamingos, saddle billed stark, white pelican and ground hornbill.

For example, said Dr John, a shoebill which is found in Kigoma region and is on the brink of extinction, is being sold in the black market at between $15,000 and $20,000 apiece.

Tim Davenport from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) said Tanzania was home to 360 reptiles of which 85 were endemic and 206 amphibians of which 86 were endemic.

He said Tanzania was home to the highest number of IUCN red listed reptiles and amphibians in mainland Africa, adding that perhaps the single biggest threat to Tanzania’s unique biodiversity was the legal and illegal trade in wild-caught animals for the pet industry.

Theotimus Rwegasira, an intelligence officer with the Lusaka Agreement Task Force (LATF), an inter-governmental organization carrying out investigations on violations of national laws pertaining to illegal trade in wild fauna and flora, said wildlife poaching and trafficking was a fast growing international organized crime.

“Key species are quickly finding their way to extinction as they are severely being threatened by illegal trade amongst other factors,” said Rwegasira.

He said elephants, rhinos, pangolins, great apes and as well as varieties of birds and reptiles were increasingly becoming victims.

Rwegasira said the level of sophistication and globalised nature of wildlife crime was beyond the capacity of many countries and individual organizations.

“To curb wildlife crime requires a multi-faceted response and cooperation between agencies and across borders,” he said, adding that about 10,000 pangolins were trafficked illegally each year from Africa to South-East Asia.

Indeed, Tanzania is among the most important nations for wildlife conservation in Africa with an extraordinary wealth of flora and fauna, including many endemic species and subspecies.

To date Tanzania holds over 340 species of mammals, over 1,100 species of birds, one of the largest avifauna in Africa, with 56 species of global conservation concern, and over 360 species of herpetofauna, of which 99 species are endemic.

According to the IUCN Red List, Tanzania ranks 15th in the world in terms of mammal diversity, and 20th for amphibian diversity (with 178 species). Since independence in 1961, Tanzania has established wildlife protection areas covering nearly 40 per cent of the country’s land surface.

However, over the past several years Tanzania has been experiencing significant challenges to its conservation of wild species with levels of poaching and trafficking now reaching critical levels.

“Poaching of wildlife for bush meat and animal parts, such as tusks, skin, bones and scales, has had and continues to have a major impact on wildlife populations,” said Julie Thomson, head of TRAFFIC office for East Africa.

She said the demand for wildlife products in Asia, notably for elephant tusks and rhinoceros horns, has resulted in a population crisis for these species.

Thomson said results released in June 2015 of a countrywide elephant census conducted in 2014, for example, show that the population has decreased by about 60 per cent from 2009.

“The few remaining black rhinoceroses require 24 hour armed protection and yet incidences of rhino poaching continue to be recorded,” she told the workshop.

She said it was against this background that TRAFFIC and IUCN through its collaboration with the East African Community (EAC) and the Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism, and financial support from GIZ, sought to reduce pressure on key wildlife species threatened by illegal wildlife trade through improved legislation and strengthened capacity to administer and enforce wildlife laws.

The workshop brought together a diverse range of stakeholders to assess current dynamics of wildlife trafficking, including sourcing, transit and consumer hotspots, strengths and weaknesses in enforcement, regional and international coordination efforts, investigations and prosecutions, as well as key drivers of trade and consumer markets.

Heri Lugaye, a criminal intelligence officer with the Interpol, a network of police forces from countries all over the world, said the agency has identified five countries of Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya, Malawi and Mozambique as still notorious for poaching of wildlife.

“We are working closely with these countries on areas of intelligence and operations,” said Lugaye, a Tanzanian attached to Interpol Regional Bureau for Eastern Africa based in the Kenyan capital Nairobi.

He said in the course of investigations, Interpol has established that Entebbe International Airport in Uganda and Kamuzu Banda International Airport in Malawi were now being used as entry points by poachers especial from some Asian countries.

“Upon their arrival in these two major airports the poachers find their way to Dar es Salaam where planning and execution of poaching is done,” Lugaye told The Guardian On Sunday on the sidelines of the workshop.

The Interpol criminal intelligence officer said the global police body has come up with a project called Project Wisdom aimed at combating poaching and trafficking of elephant ivory and rhinoceros horn.

“Interpol has come up with this project after we had recognized that wildlife crime has emerged as a major problem and has been grouped among other crimes like cybercrime, terrorism, drug trafficking and money laundering,” said Lugaye.

He said the initial project plans was to establish in sub-Saharan Africa a comprehensive programme to effectively disrupt and dismantle major transnational crime syndicates engaged in the illegal trade of African elephant ivory and rhino horn.

He said priorities of the project for 2016-2017 will include promoting and supporting of intelligence led enforcement in member countries facing the challenge of addressing wildlife crime endangering biodiversity.

“We have seen, for instance in Tanzania, that they are relying on traditional methods of intelligence like ambushing residences of suspects at night. Intelligence should be done scientifically,” said Lugaye.

He said the project will also involve the identification of trafficking routes used in Tanzania and regionally.

“The identification of trafficking routes used are based on various seizures and arrests of culprits, investigations carried and intelligence collected,” said Lugaye.

He gave examples of trafficking routes currently in use saying by going through these routes it was obvious that Tanzania and some of its neighbouring countries were source and transit routes to Europe, the Middle East and Asian countries, including China.

At midnight on November 26, 2010, a Qatar Airforce plane Number C. 17 left the Kilimanjaro International Airport for Doha with several live animals including four giraffes without an official permit from the government of Tanzania.

On September 23, 2011, police officers at Malindi sea port in Zanzibar seized 1,870 kilogrammes of elephant tusks which were hidden in dried sardines. The consignment was heading to Hong Kong via Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia.

On November 15, 2012, Hong Kong customs officers seized an ivory consignment from Dar es Salaam port. The consignment was declared as sunflower seeds.

On May 23, 2013, Malawi authorities at Mzuzu stopped and impounded a vehicle with registration number KA 4948 which was loaded with 781 elephant tusks from Tanzania via Kasumulo border post.

Further investigations led to the seizure of other 347 elephant tusks in Dar es Salaam. The contraband entered in Tanzania through Msimbati on the Tanzania-Mozambique border.

These seizures opened more syndicates of smuggling of elephant tusks in Tanzania with the seizure of 706 tusks in Dar es Salaam on November 2, 2013.

On November 13, 2013, a Chinese national was arrested with 81 elephant tusks at Dar es Salaam port. The suspect entered into Tanzania through Manyovu in Kigoma region on the Tanzania-Burundi border.

On November 9, 2014, at Hanoi International Airport in Vietnam, Vietnamese customs officers intercepted 72 kilogrammes of ivory which was declared as cashewnuts before it was ferried at the Julius Nyerere International Airport in Dar es Salaam.

On September 17, 2015, at customs check point at Kasumulo on the Tanzania-Malawi border, two Mozambican nationals were arrested in possession of two rhino horns. The horns were hidden in a fake motor vehicle fuel tank.

On November 16, 2015, police seized 11 rhino horns and arrested four Chinese nationals in connection with the contraband. They were arrested at Kasumulo on the Tanzania-Malawi border. Again, the horns were hidden in a fake motor vehicle fuel tank.

Records in their travel documents indicated the arrested Chinese entered Africa through Entebbe International Airport in Uganda on June 1, 2015 as tourists.

In several occasions they visited Tanzania through Mutukula on the Tanzania-Uganda border while records showed that the four Chinese travelled to Mozambique on October 28, 30 and 31, 2015 and exited to Malawi on November 4, 2015.

They were also frequent travelers within the East African region.

The ivory traffickers, according to the Interpol, use Entebbe International Airport in Uganda, Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Kenya, Julius Nyerere International Airport in Tanzania, Moi International Airport in Kenya, Kilimanjaro International Airport in Tanzania and Bujumbura International Airport in Burundi.

Interpol has also identified borders used by the ivory traffickers as Holili on the Tanzania-Kenya border, Busia/Malaba on the Uganda-Kenya border, Manyovu on the Tanzania-Burundi border, Mutukula on the Tanzania-Uganda border, Namanga on the Tanzania-Kenya border, Msimbati on the Tanzania-Mozambique border and Tunduma on the Tanzania-Zambia border.

Hassan Nkussa, Principal Wildlife Officer (Investigation and Prosecution) in the Wildlife Division of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism, said the government continued to arrest culprits on environmental crime with massive seizures of trophies.

However, Nkussa admitted that the poaching crisis has impacted negatively on populations of some key wildlife species.

He quoted a 2014 elephant census report saying the population of the jumbos was 43,330 showing a decline from 109,051 in 2009, a decrease of 60.3 per cent.

John Ngowi, an official with Promoting Tanzania’s Environment, Conservation and Tourism (PROTECT), said the programme was aimed at addressing dynamics in Tanzania that threaten biodiversity conservation and inhibit private sector-led tourism growth.

Ngowi told the workshop that PROTECT funded by the United States International Agency for Development (USAID) and implemented by the International Resources Group (IRG) will be implemented for five years from April 2015 to April 2020.

Activities to be undertaken by PROTECT include ensuring that there is increased use of smart technologies by the government of Tanzania agencies in combating poaching and wildlife trafficking.

Ngowi said PROTECT was also researching and analyzing technology used to combat wildlife trafficking in Tanzania.

“PROTECT is anticipating to build capacity of intelligence and law enforcement at national, regional and local level,” he said, adding that PROTECT will work closely with other partners to train prosecutors, judges and inspectors at exit points, including ports and airports.