Trading in wildlife entails sale and exchange of wild animal and plant resources that may be either dead or alive, and as parts and derivatives. It cuts across buying, selling, bartering, exchanging, importing, exporting or re-exporting. Wildlife trafficking involves illegal trade of protected specimens of wild animals and plants, either threatened with extinction or not threatened, but controlled in order to avoid utilization incompatible with their survival. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) provides definitions on the protected specimens submitting their international trade to certain controls.
Wildlife can be traded for reasons such as food, timber, traditional medicine, pet trade, zoos and collectors, trophies, decorations and luxury items. The International Civil Aviation Organisation, the global aviation standard setting body estimates that wildlife trafficking generates between $7 billion and $23 billion each year, making it one of the largest illicit trade activities in the world.
At a webinar held by the Airports Council International, the voice of the world’s airports, which looked at the actions airports can take to combat wildlife trafficking, Rob Campbell of United for Wildlife confirmed that there are half as many animals as there were 50 years ago and that the pangolin is now the world’s most trafficked mammal. Their scales are delicacies in some countries and in 2019, two seizures in Singapore discovered 38,000 smuggled pangolins.
The global Covid-19 pandemic has also revealed the risk that zoonotic diseases pose when animals are exploited and brought into contact with people. Airports also risk the safety of staff when these wild animals which are venomous try to be free or defend themselves. For example, at Melbourne Airport in 2017, airport personnel discovered 11 poisonous snakes concealed in a shoebox, six of which were Wagler’s pit vipers from South East Asia. This is one of the risks airports face. Airports also face reputational and economic risks as a result of wildlife trafficking. So it is very important to combat wildlife trafficking. The World Health Organisation says that in the last 30 years around 75 percent of new infectious diseases in humans have originated in animals.
The wildlife trafficking network is secret and relies on the aviation and maritime industries for trafficking. Plane Sight reports on a study in the US which found that airport screeners failed to identify banned material 95 percent of the time. Further insight from the report was that traffickers tend to identify particular airports “for their location, size, connecting flight routes, customs screening procedures, and perceived ability to identify contraband, amongst other things”. It states that “large international ports with lax customs screening procedures for trafficked goods, but many connecting flights, are at the highest risk”.
Airports can raise awareness among staff and passengers on wildlife trafficking, its effect on biodiversity and the importance of conservation efforts in its contribution to combating wildlife trafficking. Other actions involve conducting thorough cargo and baggage checks and increasing collaboration with law enforcement. Staff should be trained to recognize signs of wildlife trafficking as well as have the necessary tools and resources to report suspicious activities. To help identify trafficking routes, help make criminal networks sterile and give a boost to efforts at enforcement, airports can collaborate with other transport bodies, regulatory authorities and enforcement agencies to share information and intelligence on illegal wildlife trade.
Wildlife trafficking is a serious issue that requires the collective efforts of various stakeholders, including airports.