Wildlife smuggling nets big bucks for organized crime


Illegally traded animals can end up anywhere from a cooking pot in Asia to a pet shop in Europe

Humming birds bound and stuffed in cigarette packets, snakes and tortoises inside a hollowed out teddy bear, exotic birds’ eggs made into necklaces—these are just some of the myriad ways used to smuggle wildlife in a lucrative worldwide trade.

Run by organized crime, the illegal trade in wildlife and animal parts is estimated to be worth tens of billions of dollars per year, making it the biggest money-maker for organized crime after drugs, according to Interpol, the international police body.

Stingrays and piranhas from South America; star tortoises from India; pygmy slow lorises, a primate, from South Asia; rare albino carpet pythons from Australia; Hawaiian chameleons; endangered sea turtles; West African songbirds—the list of smuggled species is endless.

The animals are stolen from their natural habitat by poachers and spirited out, mostly to developed countries where collectors or those who simply want an unusual gift for their kid’s birthday can afford the exorbitant prices charged.

“Some of these rare parrots or deer falcons can fetch up to $100,000,” says Michael O’Sullivan, chairman and CEO of The Humane Society of Canada (HSC).

And although many creatures do not survive the trip because they are smuggled in cruel conditions, the trade still proves profitable to organized crime.

“The figure that is often quoted is that only one out of about every 10 animals that start out the journey actually survive it,” says O’Sullivan, a veteran of undercover work in Africa, Latin America, and elsewhere.

The illegal wildlife trade, coupled with the destruction of habitat and the hunting of wild animals for food, has put the world’s wildlife “under assault,” he says.

In addition, many of the animals traded are already endangered. “The more rare they are, the higher the price they command. The endangered species are actually more valuable.”

Wildlife smuggled out of Canada includes falcons, especially deer falcons, which are highly prized in Middle Eastern countries. Eagle parts, bear paws, and bear gall bladders—which sell for up to $10,000 each in Asia—are also in demand.

Once a successful pipeline has been established for smuggling wildlife, crime networks will use it to smuggle drugs, illegal weapons, people, and other contraband. Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Vietnam, and the United States are among the top 10 smuggling hubs for wildlife.

HSC partners with Interpol to fight the illegal wildlife trade. In a five-country sweep in Africa last November, Interpol, HSC, and other groups seized one ton of illegal elephant ivory. Fifty seven people were arrested. The African elephant was declared endangered in 1978.

In cooperation with Interpol, HSC has set up a fund to help provide support for the families of park rangers who are killed by poachers.

“It’s a very dangerous job. At least 100 [rangers] are killed every year throughout the world. The poachers are armed with automatic weapons, high tech gear, the latest and fastest boats and aircraft, and four wheel drives,” O’Sullivan says.

Drug gangs in Mexico and Colombia are known to be partial to exotic pets themselves, the most common being venomous snakes, lions, tigers, and hippos. Rumour has it that some cartel leaders throw the bodies of their rivals to the big cats as food.

Drug gang leaders like to own rare animals as a status symbol and often build private zoos at their mansions. A raid on a drug mansion last year in Mexico City uncovered two black jaguars, two lions, two Bengal tigers, and a monkey.

China and the U.S. are the largest markets for illegally traded wildlife. The demand in China for exotic meats for consumption, and for animal parts to make medicine has virtually wiped out the country’s small wildlife. Now, in a multi-million dollar smuggling business, poachers are branching out into surrounding countries in order to supply this market.

Conservationists fear that Bokor National Park, one of Asia’s last surviving wildernesses, is becoming rapidly depleted of its wildlife. According to a Sky News report, 50 rangers armed with AK 47s patrol the park, but they are losing the battle with the poachers.

While poor villagers do the poaching, the operation is actually run by organized crime. The stolen animals include chameleon lizards, poisonous cobras, and the protected leopard cat. Tigers are taken from the forests of Burma, brush-tailed porcupines from Indonesia, and makak monkeys from Cambodia.

The majority of the bear gall bladders smuggled out of Canada end up in China and Korea. With the Asiatic bear in danger of extinction, the illegal trade in bear parts is creating growing pressure on the black bear populations in other countries.

Canada’s black bears are protected by the Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). CITES, to which 175 countries are signatories, sets controls on the international trade and movement of animal and plant species that are threatened due to excessive commercial exploitation.

However, while countries can be sanctioned and have trade prohibited under CITES, it doesn’t impose penalties; seizures, fines, and imprisonment are up to the laws of individual countries.

Wildlife organizations complain that, if caught, smugglers often face little more than an inadequate fine or a short jail term in most countries.

O’Sullivan says a “useful tool” in existence in many countries for fighting the illegal wildlife trade is conspiracy laws and organized crime laws that can be used to seize assets.

“The only way to attack these organized crime networks is to go after their money, throw them in jail, confiscate their homes and the aircraft they use, and smash these networks. Because they are in fact organized crime, I think it’s in everyone’s interest to shut these people down.”

In the meantime, he says, being domesticated “is a terrible life for a wild animal. We ought to leave them alone with their families in the wilderness where they belong. They don’t belong as pets.”



Learn more about big cats and Big Cat Rescue at http://bigcatrescue.org

Tiger tug-o-war following B.C. ban on exotics

Suzy the tiger tug-o-war

By Charla Huber – Goldstream News Gazette

Published: March 19, 2009 1:00 PM

Suzy the tiger could find herself living in Highlands permanently, ironically after the province passed regulations banning the ownership of exotic animals.

The province announced an amendment to the Wildlife Act banning a long list of alien animals, including tigers, March 17.

Highlands has a bylaw in place banning exotic animals and made a previous agreement with tiger owner Dave Bennett to have Suzy removed from his Millstream Road property by June 16, 2009.

The District is uncertain how the new provincial regulations will alter the situation with Bennett and Suzy.

“We are investigating with (District) staff to see how it will affect us,” said Coun. Karel Roessingh. “We have an agreement with Dave (Bennett) to which he agreed to in December.”

Bennett, who has fought to keep the three-year-old Bengal-Siberian mix in the large pen on his land, said the new provincial rules make moving Suzy extremely onerous.

The province will accept permit applications from Nov. 1, 2009 through to March 31, 2010 that would allow current owners to move or keep their exotic pets.

“Legally I can’t move her out anymore until I get a permit,” Bennett said. “No one can do anything until then.”

Bennett said he had found another location for Suzy on the Island, but now he is uncertain if she can be moved.

“To move her to a new home the new owner has to apply for a permit,” Bennett said. “Basically the province has grandfathered all the (big) cats to stay where they are.”

Under the regulation, B.C. residents are not permitted to possess any dangerous exotic animals spanning from hippos to cobra snakes.

If exotic animal owners such as Bennett apply and receive a permit, they could keep and care for the animals until they die. Permits will only be granted to people who owned the animals prior to March 16, 2009.

“She has to be where she was on March 16 which is at my house,” Bennett said. “Highlands hasn’t contacted me and provincial law overrides municipal law.”

Penalties for not obtaining permits could lead to fines, jail time, and seizure and removal of the animal from the province at the owner’s expense. If removing an animal is not viable, it could be euthanized under provincial regulations.


Learn more about big cats and Big Cat Rescue at http://bigcatrescue.org

In zoo cuts, it’s man vs. beast

March 19, 2009


AS in other cities, the shocks of the economic collapse have reverberated throughout Chicago, from the commodities exchanges in the Loop, past the fancy storefronts on Michigan Avenue and into the residential and commercial neighborhoods across the city’s inland expanses.

But the gloom has also spread north along Lake Michigan, through the gates of the Lincoln Park Zoo on the lakefront and right into the Regenstein Center for African Apes. There, the gorillas are no longer getting their blueberries.

Facing a budget shortfall of more than $1 million because of endowment losses, the 140-year-old zoo has had to cut back where possible. “Blueberries are pretty expensive,” said Steven D. Thompson, senior vice president for conservation and science programs. “And there are lots of other things we can use as treats.”

Taking pricey fruit off the table may seem like a trivial way to save money, but it illustrates the problem that zoos and aquariums confront when the economy turns sour. A gorilla — or a sea lion, marmoset, skink or chinstrap penguin, for that matter — can’t be put in storage, like a painting, to reduce costs. Yet savings must come from somewhere.

“We’re a living museum,” said John F. Calvelli, executive vice president for public affairs of the Wildlife Conservation Society, which operates the Bronx Zoo, three smaller zoos and the New York Aquarium and is facing a 10 to 15 percent budget cut, in part because of the threatened elimination of state aid. “We just can’t close a wing of our museum as other institutions can.”

So officials at zoos and aquariums around the country are freezing or cutting jobs, reducing hours of operation or eliminating programs, or are planning such cuts as the next fiscal year approaches. As at Lincoln Park, they are looking at the smallest details of their operations, “the kinds of things you hope could be done every day but often take a little ‘stimulus’ to go after,” Dr. Thompson said.

At the Staten Island Zoo, officials are eliminating overtime and cutting back on supplies to cope with a 5 percent reduction in the operating budget, said John Caltabiano, executive director. But they are also receiving blemished and otherwise unsalable fruits and vegetables three times a week from a local supermarket to help reduce feeding costs.

Only in the most dire circumstances are institutions considering reducing the number of animals in their collections. At the Wildlife Conservation Society no plans are final yet, and it and other New York zoos and aquariums are pressing the state’s political leaders not to eliminate aid. But given the likely need to make large cuts in the society’s operating budget, Mr. Calvelli said, “I’d be hard pressed to think how we do it without closing down some exhibits.”

Yet that solution brings with it its own set of problems and expenses.

At the Dickerson Park Zoo in Springfield, Mo., where an underfinanced police and fire workers’ pension plan has led to sharp reductions in the city budget, including money for the zoo, officials have decided to get rid of several animals to save money on food and keepers.

Among the animals due to leave are two hyenas that were brought in several years ago as eventual replacements for the zoo’s aging cheetahs. The cheetahs are still around, so rather than keep the hyenas waiting in the wings, the zoo has found a new home for them at a zoo in Boise, Idaho.

“It’s a significant challenge,” said Melinda Arnold, a spokeswoman. As a member of an industry group, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, the zoo has to find another accredited zoo or sanctuary to take the hyenas. “We have to adhere to standards,” Ms. Arnold said. “It doesn’t mean we can close down an exhibit tomorrow and move these animals out.”

Removing animals creates other problems as well. At the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore, a budget crisis earlier this decade led to the removal of about 10 percent of the animals, including snow leopards, gibbons and red pandas, and an entire section of the zoo was closed. But the moves were counterproductive, said Donald P. Hutchinson, the zoo’s interim president and chief executive.

“What happened was that there was a significant drop-off in our attendance,” said Mr. Hutchinson, who arrived after the cuts were made. “When people come to a zoo, they want to see a variety of animals, not just farm animals or big cats or whatever.” By cutting back on that variety, the zoo became less appealing.

The zoo also lost some of its staff. “When you make the decision that you are going to make animal reductions, your professional keepers are going to leave quickly,” Mr. Hutchinson said. “Your vets are going to look elsewhere.” And the slow process of finding homes for the animals means that expenses won’t drop immediately. “We got rid of a lot of snakes,” he said. “But it took two years to distribute them.”

This time, with cuts in government money, the museum has opted to close for three months instead of the usual two during the winter. “It allows us to not have our temporary employees for the month,” Mr. Hutchinson said, “although it doesn’t save you as much as you’d think because you’re still caring for and feeding the animals.”

It’s the people, not the animals, that bear the brunt of the cutbacks everywhere. For visitors, cuts in maintenance or seasonal staff might mean that the bathrooms are cleaned less often or the lines at the food concessions are longer. “The visitor experience begins to be affected negatively, as opposed to the animal experience,” Mr. Hutchinson said.

For the workers themselves, though, cutbacks are potentially devastating. Dr. Thompson said the Lincoln Park Zoo was trying to reduce the number of layoffs by leaving some recently vacated positions unfilled. For example, he said, the zoo’s “green” coordinator has left, and the job will not be filled. As a result, he said, other employees are going to have to resume certain duties they had given up long ago.

Employees are also working harder at the North Carolina Zoo, a state-supported zoo in Asheboro. Zoo administrators have postponed major equipment purchases and have laid off a few employees to cut the operating budget by 7 percent, said Rod Hackney, a spokesman. “It’s had no impact on animal care,” he said. “We wouldn’t shortchange them; they’re our top priority.”

“Some people have to work longer,” Mr. Hackney acknowledged. “But they are certainly more than willing to do that. You don’t get into this business if you don’t love animals.”



Learn more about big cats and Big Cat Rescue at http://bigcatrescue.org

The Born Free Foundation: Still saving the lions

From The Times
March 14, 2009
Valerie Grove

As the Born Free Foundation celebrates its 25th anniversary, its founder, Virginia McKenna, talks about life in the wild

From Virginia McKenna’s cottage window you look out over 22 acres of forested Surrey hills. On the far horizon are the North Downs. It is quiet, peaceful and isolated, yet we are only a ten-minute drive from the centre of Dorking. “It is my haven,” she says, “a corner of paradise. I never feel lonely here.” Fifty-three years ago she and her husband, Bill Travers, bought the land and planted most of the trees. They were performing in The Barretts of Wimpole Street at the time.

Who would have imagined then that McKenna might become a leading animal campaigner, travelling the globe to release trapped and wretched creatures to the wild? The slender frame, fine bones and luminous eyes once captivated audiences in classic Shakespearean roles, and as Violette Szabo in Carve Her Name with Pride, Anna in The King and I, Jean in A Town Like Alice, Julie the Wren in The Cruel Sea. At 23 she was in I Capture the Castle, as Dodie Smith’s schoolgirl heroine Cassandra. Smith made her crop her hair into an elfin cap, and with this gamine coiffure she became the bride of Denholm Elliott. Months later they parted and in due course she married her true love, Travers, whom she’d met in I Capture the Castle.

She really wanted only to be a wife and mother: they had four children and often took them on location. But what changed her and Travers’s lives completely in 1962 was playing Joy and George Adamson in Born Free, the story of Elsa the lioness. They said yes without hesitation. But the only way to replicate the Adamsons’ life was to play it for real, with wild lions. Nobody could have predicted how instinctively the couple would create a rapport with the lions. It was a question of mutual trust, over time. “I think that’s why the film has lasted. Because what you saw wasn’t manufactured. It really happened, it was true.

“But we had an amazing person to teach us, George Adamson – a remarkably wise, intuitive man. He had the key to real contentment: he lived the life he believed in.” So does McKenna. In 1968 they filmed Ring of Bright Water and befriended Gavin Maxwell’s otters in the same way; they established their charity Zoo Check, which begat the Born Free Foundation. “I never met Elsa, but her spirit led me to where I stand today,” McKenna writes in her new book of memoirs, The Life in My Years. The world is full of deranged animals in “little hells”, swaying, head-waving, over-grooming, pleading with desperate eyes: clear evidence of distress. “The only thing that changes is the language on the cage signs.” Even in Surrey McKenna has her wildlife: badger setts, roe deer, owls and a cock pheasant that arrives for breakfast every day with a harem of eight hens. Daring grey squirrels that come indoors to steal fruit and wreak havoc have to be kept at bay.

Still “almost unbearably beautiful”, as Joanna Lumley says in a preface to McKenna’s book, she is wearing the perfect outfit for a woman of 78: a pale blue cotton smock by the Scandinavian designer Gudrun Sjöden (bought on the internet) over a plain black sweater and full black skirt. She hates tight, tailored clothes. The safari shirt and trousers in Born Free seemed her natural garb.

Though she still acts – plans are afoot for a television drama series – on her passport it now says “Conservationist”. One of the poems in her book reflects the dichotomy of her life. It starts: “Are you an actress, she said/ Oh, yes,/ part time,/ sometime,/ hardly ever.”

Last week she was in Malawi, rescuing a blind old lioness named Bella. The supply of distressed animals is unending. “The crazy, somersaulting mangabey in the Jardin des Plantes; the withdrawn panda in Beijing zoo; the caged polar bear in Shirotori zoo in Japan.” She will go on being a thorn in the side of ensnarers and exploiters. She is gratified that millions have watched the remarkable YouTube video clip of Christian the lion, which after being released into the wild, bounds joyously towards John and Ace, his erstwhile human friends. It’s a fragment of Travers’s film A Lion called Christian, now on DVD. Christian was bought as a cub from Harrods pet department; the Traverses found him 40 years ago at Sophisticat in King’s Road and built a compound in their garden before taking him to Kenya and freedom.

McKenna will soon have ten grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. An only child herself, whose parents separated when she was 4, she lived with her father in Hampstead (with George the grass snake and two bushbabies), then in South Africa with her mother, stepfather and step-siblings. Then her mother, a cocktail-hour pianist, whisked her home and became the star attraction at Quaglino’s.

McKenna’s book is punctuated by her often wistful poems. The most poignant are about missing the strong arms of Travers, who died suddenly 12 years ago. That day they had flown up to Liverpool to appear on Richard and Judy. Travers felt some chest pain and went home to rest, but she had promised to take a wheelchair-bound friend to the theatre. When she got home the cottage gate was open, a police car outside. It was hardest of all to think that Travers had died alone. “I knew he wanted to be buried in our little churchyard, but they ask you things like, ‘What would you like him to wear?’ Can we be prepared, ever?” Despite this blow she carried on their work – “I’ve never stopped loving travel and adventure” – helped by her son Will, who shares her drive to persuade people that “conservation in the wild and of the wild is the only reasonable solution to maintaining a balanced world”.

She is perfectly happy in a tent. “Wherever I am I try to make the space my own. I always made my theatre dressing room into my home. I’m not comfortable with luxury.” In Hollywood once, she and Travers abandoned the Beverly Wilshire Hotel and rented a flat. Who needs a five-star palace? “It’s not real life, is it? I prefer simple things.” Many ghastly zoos remain. “Thousands in the Far East, and grotty places in America and Europe. Not just zoos but travelling menageries, roadside circuses.”

Don’t be duped, she says, by a tree or climbing frame in an animal’s cage. Some accuse animal campaigners of not giving a damn about people. But she has adopted two African children through the charity Plan, keeping a box-file of their letters and photographs. She is a patron of Children of the Andes. She campaigns with Amanda Waring to improve the lot of old people in care homes, and (“my mind and heart completely torn apart by the tragedy in Burma”) protests on behalf of Aung San Suu Kyi, the pro-democracy leader. She joined Lumley in demonstrating for Gurkhas to have the right to settle in the UK. Travers was a major in the Gurkha Regiment.

The Born Free Foundation has 100,000 supporters, including adopters, the most popular aspect of their work, among them my son, a proud guardian of the elephant Emily Kate. Rescues can be fraught with problems, and expensive. So McKenna is grateful to her fellow actors – Martin Clunes, Jenny Seagrove, Nigel Havers, Lumley, et al – who accompany her on tough rescue missions. “Because actors find that they can convey messages; their voices are listened to.”

The Born Free Foundation celebrates its 25th anniversary with a special event at the Royal Geographical Society on March 18. Proceeds from Virginia McKenna’s The Life in My Years (available from www.bornfree.org.uk at £25 plus p&p) go to Born Free



Learn more about big cats and Big Cat Rescue at http://bigcatrescue.org