Wildlife seizures are down—and an illicit trade boom may be coming

By March 18, 2021Wildlife Trade

Law enforcement seized about 20 tons of pangolin scales last year, according to an analysis for National Geographic. That’s a fifth of what was intercepted in 2019. Image: Adam Tusk / Flickr

Dina Fine Maron, National Geographic | March 15, 2021

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The amount of elephant ivory, rhino horn, and pangolin scales intercepted by authorities in 2020 was far less than compared with the previous five years, according to analysis for National Geographic by the Center for Advanced Defense Studies (C4ADS). The coronavirus pandemic likely dampened both the ability of wildlife traffickers to move their products internationally and of law enforcement to detect them, according to the group, a U.S. nonprofit that analyzes transnational security issues.

Both the number of seizures and weight of seizures plummeted, which suggests that even if the wildlife parts were transported between Africa and Asia in smaller batches, the overall level of their trafficking between the continents dropped. Nonetheless, some wildlife experts note that the online trade has remained robust throughout the pandemic and that poaching in some locations has actually increased.

Assessing seizures of these three wildlife products isn’t representative of what’s been happening with illicit trade in all wildlife, says Faith Hornor a C4ADS program manager, who led the analysis, but it’s a good indicator of intercontinental wildlife trade trends between Africa and Asia, where those three commodities are particularly valued.

Pangolin scales and rhino horn are used in traditional medicine, primarily in China and Vietnam, and both ivory and rhino horn is in demand in China and elsewhere for carvings. According to C4ADS, global seizures of ivory, rhino horn, and pangolin scales averaged almost 530 a year from 2015 through 2019. In 2020, there were 466 seizures, down from a high of 964 in 2019. The tallies represent all incidents recorded by customs officials or described in media reports in any of 15 languages. 

Yet a recent surprising incident in Nigeria, a wildlife trafficking hub known for being the source of many Africa-linked pangolin seizures, may be a sign of what’s ahead as pandemic-related restrictions lift. In January, Nigerian customs officials in Lagos were inspecting a 20-foot shipping container marked as “furniture supplies.” Hidden behind a load of timber, they found 162 sacks of pangolin scales, weighing more than 19,000 pounds and representing thousands of killed pangolins.

Another 57 sacks contained various other wildlife parts, including elephant ivory and lion bones, an increasingly popular substitute in traditional Chinese medicine for now hard-to-find tiger bones. The shipment was bound for Haiphong, Vietnam.

“It’s a snapshot of what’s to come” as travel resumes, says Steve Carmody, chief of investigations at the Wildlife Justice Commission (WJC), a nonprofit based in The Hague, Netherlands, that works to expose criminal networks. The incident also seems to confirm what illegal traders have been telling WJC’s undercover agents—that they’ve been stockpiling wildlife products because of disruptions caused by the pandemic.

“We know traffickers are stockpiling products not just in Africa, but also in Asia—in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia—in huge quantities,” says Carmody, who was not involved in the C4ADS analysis. The worry now, he adds, is that with increased flights and other travel, they’ll quickly sell stored contraband, and pent-up demand will fuel an explosion of animal poaching.