INTERVIEW - US Urges Tougher Policing of Wildlife Black Market
Author: Daniel Wallis
The illegal trade in animals and plants has grown to more than US$10 billion a year, experts say, making it the world's third biggest source of criminal income after drugs and guns.
"We have to try to stop demand while hitting supply through improved enforcement," Claudia McMurray, US assistant secretary for the environment, told Reuters. "That is the way to actually see very strong results, at least within our lifetime."
She was speaking ahead of the launch of a new coalition to fight trafficking that groups the United States, Britain, India and Australia with a dozen business and conservation bodies.
Experts say it will have its work cut out taking on well-organised crime syndicates fuelled by enormous profits.
Contraband from powdered rhino horn to organs from endangered tigers can sell for more than their weight in gold, largely driven by Chinese demand that has surged as the country's economy rapidly expands.
As a result, most attempts to strike the traffickers have focused on Southeast Asia. Early last year, states in the region deployed special wildlife crime-busting units with some success.
McMurray hailed these raids, including the seizure in July in Bangkok of hundreds of shawls worth more than US$10,000 each and made from the wool of slaughtered rare Tibetan antelopes.
But they need more staff, better training, equipment and sometimes weaponry, she said in an interview after a major UN environment meeting in Kenya. Experts question some countries' political will to follow through on prosecutions.
Both India and China have stiff penalties for wildlife smugglers, but India has convicted only about 30 in three decades, and more than 1,000 cases are still pending before its courts.
A main focus of the new Coalition Against Wildlife Trafficking (CAWT) will be to try to slash demand by teaching Western consumers more about banned products ranging from tropical plants and birds to turtles and African elephant tusks.
The United States was key, McMurray said, as it was the second biggest market for illegal wildlife products after China. For example, she said, a shop in her Nairobi hotel was openly displaying necklaces made of Indian Ocean coral.
"They are selling endangered species right there in the lobby," McMurray said. "They shouldn't be doing it, but the average tourist doesn't know that and thinks it must be OK."