Rain Jordan, Nature World News | March 15, 2021
According to a U.S. nonprofit that studies transnational security issues, the coronavirus pandemic hampered both wildlife smugglers’ ability to transport their products abroad and law enforcement’s ability to track them.
The case could never be more evident than in an estimate by the Center for Advanced Defense Studies for National Geographic, the amount of elephant ivory, rhino horn, and pangolin scales confiscated by authorities in 2020 was much less than in the previous five years (C4ADS).
Decrease in Amount
Both the number and amount of seizures decreased, implying that even though wildlife contrabands were shipped in smaller batches between Africa and Asia, the average amount of trafficking between the continents decreased. However, some wildlife researchers point out that the internet trade has remained strong despite the pandemic and that smuggling has also improved in some areas.
According to Faith Hornor, a C4ADS program manager who led the study, assessing seizures of these three wildlife items isn’t indicative of what’s been going on with the illegal wildlife trade in general. Still, it is a strong predictor of intercontinental wildlife trade patterns between Africa and Asia, where those three resources are significant.
Pangolin scales and rhino horn are used in traditional Chinese and Vietnamese medicine, and both ivory and rhino horn are in high demand for carvings in China and elsewhere. From 2015 to 2019, global seizures of ivory, rhino horn, and pangolin scales averaged about 530 a year, according to C4ADS. Seizures declined to 466 in 2020, from a high of 964 in 2019. All events reported by customs officials or mentioned in media coverage in 15 languages are included in the tally.
Another 57 sacks included numerous other wildlife pieces, such as elephant ivory and lion bones, becoming a more common traditional Chinese medicine replacement for the highly scarce tiger bones. The cargo was headed for Haiphong, Vietnam.
According to Steve Carmody, director of investigations at the Wildlife Justice Commission (WJC), a nonprofit headquartered in The Hague, Netherlands, that aims to investigate crime networks, “it’s a snapshot of what’s to come” as travel resumes. The event also seems to back up what illicit traffickers have told WJC’s undercover agents: that they’ve been stockpiling wildlife goods due to the pandemic’s disturbances.
Smugglers Became Smarter
“We know smugglers are stockpiling contrabands in large amounts not only in Africa, but also in Asia-in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia,” says Carmody, who was not involved in the C4ADS investigation. The concern now, he says, is that with more flights and other transport, they’ll be able to easily market stored contraband, fueling a rise in animal smuggling.
To avoid arrest in 2020, it’s likely that smugglers split up some containers into smaller packets. However, and with a decrease in law enforcement capability, Hornor believes that if total amounts were similar-just parceled out in smaller individual shipments-there would have been an increase in arrests.
In 2020, the cumulative volume of seized pangolin scales was around 20 tons, down from around 100 tons in 2019. Rhino horn seized in 2020 was less than a tenth of what was seized in 2019. Though the total weight of confiscated ivory shipments has declined over the last six years, there was a major 72 percent decline in 2020.