In 1973 the United Nations drafted an agreement – the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES) – to protect all non-human living things from cross-border exploitation. If it’s judged by that which it seeks to prevent, the agreement is a failure.
After drugs and human trafficking, illicit wildlife trade has become the third most lucrative crime in the world. Yet in the past 20 years not a single ‘kingpin’ trafficker has been arrested and prosecuted – either at the production or consumer end of the supply chain.
This year CITES delegates from 180 countries will be meeting on African soil for the first time. The question they urgently need to ask as they gather in Johannesburg is whether failure to curb this trade is because such crime is beyond the reach of any agreement, or because of failings within the CITES regulatory process. If previous such meetings are a gauge, this is a question unlikely to be asked.
CITES spends millions of dollars to ensure that the future of endangered species is being taken care of. The backbone of this process is its permitting system which regulates international trade. Investigator Karl Ammann has found disturbing gaps in this process, causing him to question the value of the CITES mechanisms and the honesty of many of its officials.
“They’re not really conservationists,” he says. “It’s all about not rocking the boat and pretending everything is hunky dory and that they’re fulfilling their role. Any information that doesn’t fit their picture, they try to cover up.
“I’ve publically accused them of covering up a wide range of criminal activities. I have the evidence. I’ve asked them to take me to court so I can present information they ignore. They won’t. Even with solid evidence, they’re actively covering up for China. So where do you go?”
An accusation like that needs strong proof to back it, I tell him. Can he supply that? For the next two days my inbox pings constantly with documents, reports and photographs that make for startling reading.
According to the CITES website, permits for the trans-shipment of animals, reptiles, fish or plants are issued in terms of three Appendices, depending on the degree of protection a species needs. If a creature is listed in Appendix 1, an import and export permit should only be issued if it is not going to be a commercial transaction, has been legally obtained and the animal’s removal is not detrimental to the survival of the species.
For the last point – survival – an exporting country has to provide a ‘non-detriment finding’ done by the CITES scientific authority, which is meant to be a check on that country’s management authority. Wild-caught, Appendix-1-listed creatures cannot be exported for commercial or zoo purposes.
For Appendices 2 and 3 – species not endangered – export permits, but not import permits, are required and conditions are generally less stringent.
In this process, the devil is in the detail. If a creature is bred in captivity, whatever the status of its wild cousins, it’s ‘source code’ on the permit is listed as ‘C’ (captive bred) and it can be traded.
This has led to what Ammann calls the ‘C-scam’ and has been used, for example, to illegally export hundreds of wild-caught chimps and gorillas to China from African countries that have no captive breeding facilities. CITES officials in the exporting and importing countries, he says, must know this but supply the permits anyway and turn a blind eye.
The UN Office of Drugs and Crime acknowledges the complicity of CITES officials in permit scams. “Corruption,” it says “involves a variety of actors, including the CITES competent authorities, public officials, villagers, forest rangers, police, customs, traders and brokers, professional/international hunters, logistics companies (shipping lines, airlines), veterinarians, and game farmers, among others.”
There’s another problem. Originally all permits had to go through the CITES head office in Geneva for inspection. But in 2002, claiming budgetary restraints, the CITES secretariat unilaterally decided that permits need only be cleared by its officials in the countries concerned and only reported in summary to Geneva.
It also discontinued ‘infraction reporting’, done when member states were suspected of not acting in compliance with Convention rules and where corrupt and criminal acts might have been committed. For poachers the leaky process was heaven-sent.
At the 2002 CITES meeting that year, the host country, Chile, called for a mechanism to urgently limit the circulation of CITES permits to avoid their fraudulent use, but the Secretariat shot down the proposal on technicalities.
According to Ammann, the point was made at the time that countries with poor governance records had resisted exposure to a ‘name and shame’ regime administered from Geneva. So CITES policy makers decided the easiest way to solve infractions was to stop looking for them.
“The philosophy of the Secretariat seemed to be that it wasn’t a good idea for people all sitting in a glass house to throw stones,” says Ammann, staring sadly over the Cape docks as seagulls scream at us for tidbits. “It was the end of effective regulation of trade in many endangered species.”
Officials, syndicates and poachers in certain CITES countries with valuable wild species quickly realized that less control meant more opportunities to advance personal interests. Some dealers assembled special wild population capture teams. A CITES official in Guinea told Ammann: “CITES is the dirtiest of the conventions when it comes to the falsification of permits and fraud.”
By infiltrating networks, Ammann obtained a sheaf of permits from traders involved in a wide range of such transactions. They were using the Middle East and North Africa as transit points, mostly falsely declaring these countries as the points of origin based on permits stating that the primates were captive-born. When Ammann presented the head of a CITES delegation in Geneva with documentary evidence of this, the official claimed it was fake and threw the report into the street outside the conference centre.
“There are worldwide mafia networks of interlinked dealers conducting their business openly,” says Ammann. “They all claim to have good relations with the relevant CITES management authorities and are able to get pretty much any CITES export or import permit they want. The standard fee asked for an illegal permit across Central Africa is US$5,000.”
The buyer is then free to stipulate whether the source code is wild or captive born and the management authority will fill in whatever the buyer requires. They don’t need a detailed address of a shipment’s destination.
“Anybody can fill in pretty much anything with regard to the final destination or the facility sending or receiving them. I analyzed over 100 such permits and not a single one had the required exit stamps, or information from the relevant customs authorities about the specific animal or numbers actually inside the crate.”
One permit for two tortoises was used to sanction supply of two elephants. A permit issued for African grey parrots was used to export four African manatees to China. Some animals were shipped from Guinea with a falsified DRC permit.
On at least two occasions, traffickers told Ammann that if the buyer insisted on a proper but falsified permit for apes, they’d make sure their own CITES official would not file the duplicate copies of the permits when they did their annual reports to Geneva.
In Japan, the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) found that after CITES approved ‘experimental’ lifting of the ban on ivory trade in 1999 and 2008, the sale of illegal ivory skyrocketed, as did poaching in Africa. Even after the ban was reinstated, the EIA found that more than 1000 tusks of dubious origin were being traded in Japan each year, many probably sold on to China.
Between 2010 and 2012, a Chinese husband-and-wife team was caught smuggling almost 3.26 tons of ivory from Japan into mainland China using Chinese nationals in Japan as intermediaries.
The EIA described the trade as loopholes within loopholes: ‘Japan is awash with ivory and not a shred of real evidence is required by law to ensure that ivory is of legal origin and acquisition.
“There’s no doubt that hundreds of fake and falsified permits are being issued annually,” says Ammann. “In terms of bribes collected, hundreds of thousands of dollars are ending up with dealers who use the money to pay corrupt CITES officials.”
Member governments are obliged to prosecute offending traders and officials based on illegal activity. They must then confiscate the animals in question and discuss with the countries of origin a possible return of the animals. That’s the theory. In practice there appears resistance at every level, starting with the CITES Secretariat which will not push members to have this enforced.
“The question that needs to be asked,” says Ammann, “is whether this lack of will by the Secretariat to enforce the Convention is a major contributing factor to these illegal transactions? Is illegal trade being actively encouraged by this lack of control?”
Ammann recently had a conversation with a top UN official who knew what was on his mind when requesting the meeting. The first question came from the official: “Are we better off with CITES or without it?” It was clearly what critical observers had asked many times before.
“There’s little doubt,” said Ammann, “that in most cases he gets the answer he’s looking for: Whatever the flaws, we’re better off with some kind of regulatory framework than without one. My response at the time was the same. Today I am no longer sure.”
With many recent permit infractions, China seems to be the main beneficiary and appears to have been granted a special ‘hands off’ status to do as it pleases. As long as Chinese demand exists and circumventing international conventions has no consequences, the killing and trading will go on.
China’s Wildlife Protection Law is presently undergoing its first major revision in 26 years since it came into force. There was hope that this would signal a crackdown on poaching and wildlife trade. However, the draft, currently under public consultation, states that wildlife can be used in the manufacture of Chinese traditional medicine, healthcare products and food for profit. According to the EIA, if this draft becomes law it would open, rather than close the loopholes in wildlife trafficking.
When COP17 (not to be confused with the climate change COP17) meets in Johannesburg in June this year, will delegates debate the CITES’s permitting problems? If Ammann is to believed, don’t hold your breath. DM
This is Part 2 of the three-part series.
Read Part 1:
"If you took the most ardent revolutionary vested him in absolute power within a year he would be worse than the Tsar himself." ~ Mikhail Bakunin