The Mafia’s taste for the wildlife business

I read today an excellent description of the realities of trying to enforce wildlife trade bans by John Sellar, ex CITES enforcement officer. He gives a highly detailed picture of the realities on the ground, including how the Mafia get involved. In case there is any doubt about who the poorly resourced African authorities are up against, this is what it means for wildlife officials:

Another technique used by wildlife smugglers is to pay traditional organized-crime groups for the use of smuggling routes or methods already established. For example, criminals engaged in illicit trade in tiger and bear products between the Russian Federation and China are known to have paid the Russian Mafia to have items smuggled across the border. A surveillance operation at an Italian Mafia party noted that inordinate amounts of caviar were being served. Leaders of South American drug cartels have been known to collect exotic species; for instance, the now-deceased Colombian drug cartel leader Pablo Escobar is known to have had a collection of zoo-like proportions, including several animal species from Africa and Asia that must have been smuggled into Colombia.

Smuggling is also associated with revenge violence, which is typical of organized crime. For example, the murder of a trader in North America is thought to have been motivated by the fact that he allegedly supplied pig bladders to a group in Asia and claimed they were bear gallbladders. Several senior law enforcement officers responsible for directing operations against wildlife criminals have been murdered in execution style to discourage others from enforcing the law. Law enforcement organizations have noted that suspects involved in serious wildlife crime and illicit trade often have previous convictions for other forms of crime, many times involving violence.

Particularly in parts of Asia and Africa, rebel groups sometimes impose a tax on illicit cross-border wildlife trade. Whether such taxes flow to political causes, fund terrorism, or simply provide criminals with revenue is unclear. Illegal trafficking of wildlife from Pakistan has apparently increased in recent years, and such trade has involved the use of fraudulent documents allegedly issued by government authorities in Afghanistan.

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