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Cruel harvest

The chances of this tiger surviving in the wild are slim. It is prey to a profitable and illegal trade which is pushing some of the world's most magnificent animals to the brink of extinction. Jerome Monahan reports

Visit one of the UK's stately homes and alongside the paintings and tapestries it's a fair bet your glance will be met by the glassy stares of mounted animal heads. Such trophies were symbolic of aristocratic families' travels, their leisure and superiority over the brute beasts of the earth. No trip abroad, it seems, was complete for our wealthy ancestors without the organised slaughter of animals. Large mammals and predators were the most sought after. It is hard to encounter the dead eyes of creatures on display without feeling a mixture of regret at their loss and relief that nowadays such tastes, both sporting and decorative, are generally regarded with disgust - particularly when the creatures concerned face extinction.

Surely as a nation of animal lovers, we now look upon such practices as grotesque and inhumane? Such superiority may be premature. The evidence is that, far from withering away, the demand for endangered species is even more widespread and varied today, and feeding the demand is a roaring illegal trade. No one knows the full extent of this criminal business, but it could rank a close second in value to the drugs trade. One estimate puts it at $5 billion a year, but customs officials and police forces admit they are detecting only a fraction of smuggled items.

In the UK the potential markets for rare animals (or parts of them) are widespread. They include people wanting exotic species as pets, the users of traditional Asian medicines, the fashionable (after the softest of wool shawls) or the gourmet (satisfied with only the best caviar). These sectors vary in scale but all share a disastrous effect - the killing or removal of wild animals already struggling for survival in the wild. A number of important factors assist the illegal trade. First, there is the poverty prevailing in many developing countries where killing a tiger, for example, can bring a poacher the equivalent of two years' average earnings. However, that is only a small percentage of the sums to be earned further up the smuggling chain.

Often the authorities responsible for the protection of endangered species are poorly paid and under-resourced. This makes them vulnerable to bribery and pits them against criminals with far better equipment and greater firepower. The gangs targeting sturgeon in the Caspian Sea often have more powerful boats than the police; they have even been known to call up helicopter gun ships to defend their illegal activities.

War also feeds the trade. Currently, some of the worst examples of poaching and illegal wildlife trade are associated with the civil war in the Congo - evidence is emerging that rival armies have taken advantage of the chaos to strip the tropical rain forests of animals and birds.

The world community is alert to the scale of the problem. Concern for the survival of creatures such as the elephant and the rhino first began to grow during the Fifties and Sixties and led to the establishment of important international conservation charities such as the World Wide Fund for Nature (now the WWF). The pressure to stem the trade in endangered species also built up until in 1973 it culminated in the setting up of the Convention on International Trade In Endangered Species (CITES, pronounced "sightease"). Currently 158 nations are fully-fledged member organisations with the Convention enshrined in their domestic law.

CITES offers three degrees of protection to species of animals and plants. Those listed in Appendix I of the convention are deemed at risk of extinction within five years and are subject to a complete worldwide trading ban. In this category are such creatures as panda, tiger and rhino. Appendix II animals are those that are judged to be in danger of extinction if the trade in them continues unabated. Strict limits are set on their exploitation and people wishing to sell or export them are required to seek and receive CITES permits. Appendix III listings help countries protect wildlife being threatened by criminals or poachers operating across national boundaries. Appendix III creatures may not be facing global extinction, but individual populations may be unless restrictions on their trade are given international scope.

More than 30,000 species are listed. Among the creatures that are being considered for listing this year are basking sharks and the Patagonian toothfish, which can grow to two metres and live for 50 years, but due to overfishing are thought to have suffered a population drop of 67 per cent over the past four years.

Unfortunately, a side-effect of a CITES listing is that it suddenly alerts criminals to the rarity of a species. In some instances the CITES protection can be counter-productive. In other cases an across-the-board CITES listing is granted to a range of species because they are hard to distinguish - the blanket ban on the trade in orchids for example. The Black Bear, though widespread in North America, has CITES protection because it resembles other, rarer bears.

The strength of CITES rests on the powers of national police agencies and customs forces. In some countries, including the US and Germany, the penalties for trading in endangered species are high. In the UK the opposite is true, and in May a report from the WWF and the organisation Traffic (see page 18), called for a complete overhaul of the law. However, the Government recently pumped more than pound;400,000 into the creation of a National Wildlife Crime Intelligence Unit to signal how seriously it regards wildlife crime. In the UK, selling an indigenous species such as a common frog will land someone in greater trouble than if they are found in possession of a fresh tiger skin. This is because the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981) carries stiffer penalties than the Control of Trade In Endangered Species (COTES) rules. The maximum sentence for someone prosecuted under COTES (if tried in a crown court) is two years.

Far more powerful is the Customs and Excise Management Act (1979). Under its provisions, those found guilty face up to seven years in gaol and an unlimited fine. But despite UK customs officers seizing more than one million illegal wildlife items between 1996 and 2000 (the equivalent of 570 a day), this is likely to be only a proportion of what is actually entering the country illegally. Many seizures include items such as tortoise shells or coral confiscated from unwary tourists.

No UK magistrates' court has yet imposed a custodial sentence on someone brought before it for breaking COTES regulations. This, say WWF and Traffic, is because court officials don't understand the ecological damage the trade causes.

This month a report by academics at Wolverhampton University and sponsored by WWF and Traffic points out the lengths that criminals will go to in order to procure some of the most rare animal products. With such luxuries as Shartoosh wool (derived from Tibetan antelope) commanding thousands of dollars, the lives of those attempting to protect the creatures is cheap. A recent explosion in the Russian Federation that destroyed an army barracks and killed a number of border guards is thought to have been the work of local gangsters intent on stopping any interference in their illegal trapping of sturgeon.

Often those involved in the trade in endangered species are found to be carrying on other criminal activities. Frequently, the animals are used as a way of disguising drug trafficking with pythons and even live snails being used as a means of hiding cocaine or heroin. Exotic, dangerous and rare animals may be used by criminals as gifts to sweeten drug deals or are kept as symbols of power.

A lasting solution to the problems of poaching and illegal trading in endangered species has been pioneered by charities such as the WWF. Whereas once it was the policy to keep rare animals away from local populations - often pushing people off their land to create game reserves - now the emphasis is on gaining people's participation. For example, local people in Namibia have been given a stake in the tourist trade associated with their neighbouring elephant populations. Rather than preying off the animals, attitudes to the elephants have dramatically altered and the animal population has grown.

Without demand, the incentive to supply endangered species would dwindle. If people did not want to own ivory goods then poachers would have fewer reasons to kill elephants.

In the UK the desire to keep exotic animals as pets, or make-over our gardens with intriguing plants and ferns may well be having a devastating effect. Animal charities in the UK, while not condemning this outright, point out the need for people to ensure they are buying captive-bred animals, from reputable, informed dealers. Charities such as the Reptile Trust or the sanctuary Proteus spend their time rescuing poorly nourished and badly cared for animals.

More than 20 million live animals and plants were legally imported into the European Union in 1999 alone. Of the 230,000 primates traded worldwide more than 30 per cent were absorbed by European buyers and of the 1.13 million plants traded globally, more than 75 per cent of the business was conducted in Europe. While most of this activity is entirely legitimate, there is no way of knowing what impact this level of exploitation could be having on the environments or the wild populations from which these species are taken. It may be that the thousands of wild-caught African Grey Parrots that enter the UK and other parts of the EU each year are being taken at sustainable levels. But they might not be. And by the time we discover our error, it may be too late. It wouldn't be the first time. What about the Dodo or American Carrier Pigeon?


According to traditional Chinese medicine, almost every part of a tiger, from its eyes to its whiskers, has health-giving properties. Tiger bones are the most valued part. Once traditional Chinese medicine was limited to the Chinatowns in the larger UK cities. But in recent years there has been an explosion of practices thanks to the interest in alternative medicine in the general population. It is rare for tiger products to come in packets declaring their contents, so customs officials have had to become very experienced and need sometimes to call on dna testing. Tiger skins are sought after for decoration and mounted skulls are desired by trophy hunters.

There are five sub-species of tiger: the Amur (also known as the Siberian), the South China, the Indo-Chinese, the Sumatran and the Bengal (also known as the Indian). Three other sub-species, the Bali, Javan and Caspian, are already extinct. All species are threatened with extinction with the South China tiger likely to become extinct within 15 years if present trends continue - its population has plummeted from 4,000 in the Fifties to only 30 in the wild today. In total there are probably no more than 5,000 tigers left and their numbers continue to fall.

Some 3,189 tiger products were seized by HM Customs in the UK between 1996 and 2000, most of which were Chinese medicines.


Gorillas are used to manufacture traditional medicine compounds. A small number of gorillas, especially infants, are captured for sale abroad. In May, two mother gorillas were shot and killed in the National des Volcans park in Rwanda. One infant was found huddled next to her dead mother. A second one appeared to have been taken and may well be destined for trade. Gorillas are also sometimes traded as "bush meat".

Gorillas are the world's largest primate - an adult can weigh more than 250kg - with a potential lifespan of 50 years. There are three sub-species of gorilla: the mountain, the eastern lowland and the western lowland. Around 300 mountain gorillas live in the Virunga range of volcanoes between Rwanda, Uganda and Zaire with a further 350 to be found in the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. There are an estimated 2,500 eastern lowland gorillas living solely in eastern Zaire. About 50,000 western lowland gorillas can be found in tropical west and eastern Central Africa in addition to Zaire.

Between 1996 and 2000 there were 88 UK customs siezures involving primate items of which 42 per cent were alive.


Rhino horn has been used in traditional Chinese medicine for at least 4,600 years, being used to treat fevers, rheumatism, arthritis and strokes throughout the Far East. The horn has also been used to produce dagger handles in the Middle East. Each of the five species of rhinoceros - Javan, Sumatran, Indian, Black and White - are threatened although, thanks to conservation efforts, some are now increasing in numbers. The Javan rhino is the rarest large mammal in the world. There are fewer than 75 surviving Javan rhino in the Ujung Kulon National Park in West Java and in Vietnam. The Sumatran rhino numbers around 300 and the Indian rhino population has risen from 600 in 1975 to around 2,400 today.

UK customs seized 16 rhino horn products between 1996 and 2000. South Africa was the major source of rhino horn medicine, although a single consignment came from Korea.

Snow leopard

Snow leopards end up as fur coats while their full skins are sometimes used for decoration or as rugs. More recently snow leopards have been killed for their bones to be used in traditional Chinese medicine as substitutes for tiger bones. In south-east Asian communities, small pieces of skin are used as magic amulets or charms to ward off evil and sickness.

The animals occur in very low densities among the high mountains of Central Asia. They are found in in 12 countries: Afghanistan, Bhutan, China, India, Kazakstan, Kyrgystan, Mongolia, Nepal, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Their overall numbers maybe as little as 7,000. Between 1996 to 2000 there were 1,477 seizures of wild cat products (excluding tigers) in the UK; a "grey leopard skin" seized on January 13 2000 is believed to be that of the exceptionally rare snow leopard.

Tibetan antelope or chiru

Found only in the high mountains of Tibet and the remote Ladakh area of India, chiru are on the verge of being wiped out in the name of fashion and profit. Shawls made from their wool, known as shahtoosh, are very popular in the West and as each dead antelope yields only around 150 grams of shahtoosh, three to five have to die to produce just one shawl. A single shawl can sell in a London shop for several thousand pounds. In a recent case, 138 shawls were seized from the Renaissance Corporation in Mayfair in London. An estimated 1,000 animals went into making these items. The retail value was pound;353,000. The seizure was estimated to represent around 2 per cent of the world population of this species yet the company was fined only pound;15,000.

Some traders claim that shahtoosh is painstakingly collected from bushes when animals moult. In fact the only way to get shahtoosh is by killing the chiru. It is an offence in Britain to import shahtoosh, to sell or buy it and to even attempt to sell or buy it.


Elephant tusks are used to create ivory carvings and jewellery. Elephant skin products are also popular, including stools made from the animal's foot. There are three species: African Savannah, African Forest and Asian. At up to four metres high and usually weighing more than six tonnes, the African species hold the title of world's largest land mammal. The Asian male is smaller by comparison at around three metres high and weighing in at around five tonnes.

The international demand for ivory coupled with illegal trade spiralled out of control in the Seventies and Eighties causing a catastrophic decline in African elephant populations - falling from an estimated 1.3 million animals in 1970 to as low as 300,000 by 1998. After being placed on Appendix I of CITES in 1990 populations have started to stabilise although not all African countries support the listing. As little as 35,000-50,000 Asian elephants can be found in the wild today with a further 16,000 domesticated elephants, mainly used in the logging industry throughout Asia. As Asian elephants are tuskless, they are threatened more by habitat loss.

Five pieces of ivory or elephant skin products are seized every two days in the UK.


Sturgeon are thought to be one of the oldest living vertebrates. They can live for 150 years. Unfortunately, the female's unfertilised eggs - caviar - are an exclusive delicacy, much beloved by the ostentatiously rich. Caviar is more valuable, per gram, than gold. Three of the most traded caviar producing sturgeon occur in the Caspian Sea bordered by Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Russia and Turkmenistan.

Illegal fishing, combined with environmental damage to spawning grounds in the Volga River, has had a devastating effect on the Caspian's sturgeon population, particularly the stellate sturgeon which is thought to have suffered an 80-90 per cent decline. A survey from the organisation Traffic in 2001 estimated that between 6,700 and 10,640 tonnes of sturgeon are illegally fished each year. As well as the caviar destined for international smuggling, criminals also have a thriving domestic market for caviar in Russia. Europe is a major market for legal imports of caviar with quantities worth pound;23.7 million entering the UK alone between 1998-2000. Between March 1998 and December 2000 HM customs and excise seized between pound;1.1 and 2.5 million-worth of illegal caviar. In 2001, the CITES standing committee that meets in the periods between COPs decided that a complete blanket ban on all Caspian sturgeon products might have to be recommended in 2002.

Tree ferns

Tree ferns are known by a number of names including "soft tree ferns" and "man ferns" and have been popularised as a "must have" addition to British gardens through a number of television make-over programmes. The plants can grow taller than seven metres but can take more than 150 years to do so. Only a small proportion of tree ferns are grown in nurseries. World demand is mainly met with ferns dug straight out of the Australian temperate forests of Tasmania and Victoria. Of the 13,886 tree ferns that came into Europe in 1999, 90 per cent were sold in Britain. Ferns that are described as "propagated" may well have been taken from the wild. Tree ferns play a crucial role in their natural environment. A number of species of orchids, mosses and liverworts survive by growing on the tree ferns themselves and an entire genus of native Australian bee nests exclusively in tree ferns. Tree ferns take 40 years to regenerate. Currently the tree fern trade is not subject to CITES control.


Conference of Parties to CITES. 12th meeting, Santiago, Chile. November 2002.

This will include an increasing amount of information as COP 12 approaches.


UK Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) A huge site with a database of endangered species and up-to-date information about policy decisions concerning CITES listed species.

Partnership for Action against Wildlife Crime - PAW

The Partnership for Action Against Wildlife Crime is a multi-agency body comprising representatives of all the organisations involved in wildlife law enforcement in the UK. It supports the networks of Police Wildlife Liaison Officers and Customs Wildlife and Endangered Species Officers.

Guild of Taxidermists:


Traffic was founded largely to assist in the implementation of CITES. CITES now covers some 30,000 plant and animal species. Traffic has developed its role in addressing wildlife trade issues in a wider context, including major commercial sectors such as fisheries and timber trade.


The Redlist of threatened species


The online resources concerning the WWF campaign against the wildlife trade contains a number of ways in which students can get involved, including acting as "eyes and ears" - looking out for examples of possible illegal activity; contacting their MP concerning the trade and the anomalies in UK law. Also information concerning the kinds of illegal trade that tourists can encourage by buying pieces of coral, sea shells and tortoise products.

The Reptile Trust



Conduct a study of the WWF or Traffic as part of a project looking into the work of international pressure groups or charities. Report your findings back either to your class or during a school assembly.

Start to compile information concerning the trade in endangered species, keeping up to date with a current news stories and the build up to the next COP meeting of CITES in November.

Participate in the campaign against the trade in endangered species by writing to your MP or joining the WWF's "eyes and ears" campaign.


Conduct a debate concerning the ownership of exotic species as pets. Follow this up with the production of leaflets concerning the trade in endangered species or material for tourists advising them how to shop "ethically" while abroad.

Other debating topic: should we worry about animals becoming extinct?


Use the internet to research other CITES listed creatures such as the musk deer.

Science (SC1; SC2)

Explore and discuss the trade in endangered species and the trade in wild animals as a factor determining the size of animal populations. Carry out an investigation into previous extinctions such as the loss of the North American Carrier Pigeon.

Explore the theme of biodiversity and provide some examples of the intricate inter-relationships between species that makes the loss of a single example of flora or fauna often highly significant.

Travel and Tourism.

Explore the ethical dimension of international travel including the pressure that tourism can place on endangered species. A good report Worlds Apart , which examines this and other ethical issues relating to international tourism was published in January by the Tearfund.

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