Front-line transport workers largely lack awareness on how criminal networks disguise illegal wildlife products, it emerged at a summit in Bangkok.
Customs officials and wildlife trade experts say that educating freight forwarders and handlers of air, ship and land cargoes could help the fight against trafficking.
Their recent meeting with transport operators was the first of its kind.
“There was a genuine shock (among participants from the transport industry in the meeting) as to the magnitude of wildlife trade and the methods of disguise used by traffickers to transport these commodities,” said Martin Palmer, an expert in global trade compliance requirements and international transport.
“For example, when a rhino horn is ground down to powder, it’s almost impossible to identify the difference between a box of grey chalk and a box of rhino horn powder, from a visual check.
“Facts like these came as a big surprise to participants from the transport industry.”
Wildlife organisations say around 35,000 elephants are killed for their tusks every year, mainly in Africa.
The South African government has said poaching of its rhinos reached a record of 1,215 last year.
Only around 3,000 tigers are now left across the globe, which is only 5% of what the population was a century ago.
Experts say despite international efforts against wildlife trafficking, criminal networks have been adopting new tactics in transporting the illegal goods – which are estimated to be worth up to $23bn annually, according to the United Nations Environment Programme.
“And a lot of these people (from the transport industry) said over and over again that a lot of freight handlers lacked awareness,” said Tom Milliken, an elephant and rhino trafficking expert with Traffic, an international wildlife trade monitoring network.
In the meeting, Mr Milliken had presented a case study in which a major international courier company in 2011 suddenly found in its Europe depot that one of the parcels it was transporting had ivory bangles that were going from Nigeria to China.
“Within the next two weeks, three more similar seizures were made which was a red flag for larger international courier companies and so they immediately started screening at source,” Mr Milliken said.
“Now, there is evidence of ivory processing taking place by Asian carvers in Africa. There is increasing evidence of Chinese processing in particular shifting all the way to Africa.”
Wildlife trade experts say that this shift is a new challenge for transport operators.
“You could at least identify raw elephant tusks – but if they are processed into bangles, they could resemble resin bangles,” said Mr Palmer.
Wildlife trafficking experts say such information needs to be tailored for transport industry so that they can better assess the risks.
“These freight handlers could become valuable eyes and ears in the trade, because they are the ones who actually handle these consignments in different ways,” Mr Palmer added.
Trafficking experts say they are seeking the transport industry’s help particularly because most of the customs and security authorities at ports and airports across the globe are “overwhelmed” by security, drugs and human trafficking issues.
“Certainly one cannot expect that customs could inspect every shipment crossing international borders, given the volume of the cargoes. And you don’t necessarily want to inspect all the shipments because of trade facilitation,” said an official with World Customs Organisations (WCO), which counts 197 countries among its members.
“Also, very few customs authorities around the world have specialised teams that know which species of wildlife are prohibited from international trade,” the official added.
“The port of Hong Kong has 19 million containers going through it and if they are going to scan and open even one or two percent of that, it’s just a huge number of containers,” said Mr Milliken.
About 90% of the items traded around the world are shipped internationally, according to the UN’s International Maritime Organisation.
In most cases, sea containers are not X-rayed – unlike air cargoes.
Therefore, experts say, customs officials work on the basis of a very reasoned risk assessment to choose containers that have a higher probability of containing illegal wildlife products.
“The transport industry people know the customer, they know all the trade routes and then they handle the goods,” said another senior WCO official, who did not want to be named.
“If they are interested and if they are aware of that kind of threat, then they can tip off the customs authority, which can then improve its performance.”
The International Air Transport Association said that a number of airlines had instigated training programmes for staff to identify suspect bags or behaviours.
The IATA recently accepted an invitation to join the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s United for Wildlife Taskforce, which will look at a whole range of issues and actions to help stamp out this illegal trade, said Michael Gill, its aviation environment director.
There was no comment from the International Chamber of Shipping.
A representative with a shipping company, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the industry was unaware of the tactics used by wildlife traffickers but there was a general awareness that such crimes could take place.
“We mainly rely on declarations from our customers about their goods and if that is false, we cannot do anything about it. It then becomes a customs issue,” the representative said.