Back to website

Wildlife crime: On the trail of a killer

Prized for their healing powers and magical properties, exotic animals are being hunted to extinction by Chinese traffickers. Ruth Padel follows the bloody trade, from Asia to America

13 June 2005

Wildlife crime is the world's third largest criminal activity after arms and drugs. Trade in wild animals and plants is worth $US160bn (88bn) a year. A lot of that is illegal. This April, the UN Crime Congress put wildlife crime on their agenda for the first time. It is growing in Britain, too: we got a National Wildlife Crime Intelligence Unit in 2002. All over the world, the trade is driving endangered mammals, reptiles and birds into extinction.

I saw it in Asia, researching my book on wild tigers. The effects are most tragic and stark in tropical forests. And while the threat to tigers and elephants is obvious, the lives of rhinos, bears, otters, leopards, monkeys and primates are also in danger.

Wild animals are "free". You don't pay for them. Poachers sell them to dealers, live as "pets", or dead - as bones, skins, whiskers, claws and meat. Invariably, they end up in China, where in the south they eat "everything on four legs except a table, everything with wings except an aeroplane". At each sell-on more money changes hands. "If you kill a tiger, you can buy a motorbike," someone told me in Laos. But when the skin reaches London or Shanghai it is worth a hundred motorbikes. Collectors from Vietnam or Japan pay more if a species is endangered.

In Sumatra, I followed ridge trails in jungly mountains. Tigers dislike the steep, scratchy undergrowth full of cobras as much as I did. All that vegetation out to get you, the poisonous pink-tipped six-inch thorns. They prefer a nice clear trail, so it is all too easy to snare them. A poisoned pig is handy, too.

Indonesia has some of the best wildlife laws, but they stay in the law book. It's illegal to display a stuffed tiger in the vestibule or a captive orang-utang, but doing so shows how far above the law you are. Debbie Martyr, who works for Flora and Fauna International with the Tiger Team of Kerinci-Seblat national park in Sumatra, last week met police who had arrested a man for poisoning a tiger. They showed her a bucketfull of tiger skin but when the Team examined it, they found it had been not poisoned but shot with a high calibre weapon. The missing suspect was a policeman with a taste for hunting.

The tiger skin trade is on the agenda for the 53rd meeting of the Cites standing committee in Geneva at the end of this month, just as the Wildlife Conservation Society in New York is hosting a Tiger Crisis conference, with top tiger biologists from Russia and India. But less glamorous animals are also disappearing. At Houxai, a cross-point between Thailand and Laos, the governor levies a private tax on pangolins illegally smuggled to China. The blood is supposedly medicinal.

Most dealers in Laos are Vietnamese. The Lao government protects the trade by ignoring it. Officials wave through Vietnamese jeeps with cardboard on the windows. In April 1999, investigators at one checkpoint watched $10,000 (5,500) worth of wildlife cross the Thai-Lao border every day. The long-term losers are the poachers - rural poor who depend on the forest and get little for their work. For porcupine stomachs and macaque bones, one dealer offered four batteries.

India has the most tigers but, amazingly, no Tiger Team. The Environment Investigation Agency is urging it to repair this omission, for India's forests are emptying fast. There is a highly organised Indian mafia, who kill or mutilate 100 unarmed forest guards every year. Skins are smuggled to Nepal, Lhasa and China, where Western expats, diplomats and tourists, plus newly rich Chinese, think it cool to have a tiger skin on the wall.

The trade is also driven by demand for bones, and other animal parts, in traditional Asian medicine. Symbolism has a lot to answer for. In Malaysia tigers themselves are more likely to be eaten than eat people. Tourists pay $20 (11) a plate for tiger meat supposed to make you "strong" - like tiger penis drunk in whiskey in Bangkok, or the pungent python stew bubbling beside me in Laos, on a tributary of the Mekong. "Only for men," said my guide. "It makes strong."

No one in Asia needs Freud to point out the phallic. For thousands of years, people have been obsessed with the symbolic properties of animals whose forest home they shared. Now the forest is emptying, but the pull of symbolism is rampant in the richer and richer Asian cities.

The black hole pulling all dead species with supposed health-giving properties is China. Tiger bone is a favoured analgesic, although top Chinese practitioners have agreed not to use it. Chinese tiger bone products are sold everywhere in the West. (Many are fake, but they encourage belief in the real thing.) In 1998, 50 per cent of Chinese medicine shops in cities with weak trade controls, including Los Angeles and Vancouver, were selling it. In London, tiger bone products stack shelves at Scotland Yard.

Traditional Chinese medicine offers 700 herbal subsitutes for bear gall, too. But China licenses bear farms, where tubes are implanted in the gall-bladder of a bear in a "squeeze cage", and the bile siphoned out. Bear bile, which supposedly protects the liver, is 18 times more valuable per fluid ounce than gold. Farming bears makes things worse for wild bears. Since China allowed farming, the gall market has expanded into unnecessary additives: throat lozenges, shampoo. But rich Chinese pay more for gall from wild bears, so poaching goes up.

Wildlife crime is also driven by the Western market for primates, reptiles, parrots and birds of prey. Everywhere the trade is increasingly violent. Anti-poaching teams are often assassinated. But lawmakers do not take wildlife crime seriously enough. A thousand Tibetan antelope died to make 138 "shahtoosh" shawls worth 353,000, confiscated recently from the Renaissance Corporation in Mayfair. The penalty for offences involving highly endangered species is 5,000 and three months jail. The Corporation was fined 1,500. So criminals take advantage of lenient penalties.

Wildlife crime is related to trans-national timber smuggling, involving international syndicates and financiers round Asia, and also the drug trade. Penalties for drugs are higher, so gangs move into wildlife but keep the drugs. Same smuggling routes, similar tricks.

Drugs mules are not only human. Officials at Miami airport recently found 39kg of cocaine in condoms inside 312 boa constrictors legally exported from Colombia. US customs has found heroin-filled condoms in goldfish, heroin packed in shells of live snails. In Rome, investigators find heroin in elephant tusks. Brazilian police estimate 40 per cent of illegal drugs shipments are combined with wildlife.

Forest communities everywhere once worshipped the tiger. In north-east China I saw altars to Shan Shin, god of the wild. Red ribbons were tied to the trees. Until now, tigers were protected by such belief. "Do not cut down the forest with its tigers," said the Mahabharata in 400BC. "Do not banish tigers from the forest. The tiger perishes without the forest and the forest perishes without its tigers. The tiger should stand guard over the forest; the forest should protect all its tigers."

There is no such reverence now. Recently Chinese poachers were mauled by a tiger they snared. Police took them to hospital, then prosecuted. "It should have been all right," said the poachers. "We prayed to Shan Shin first." The tiger died.

The tiger is the ancient soul of Asia. In its new affluence, Asia is murdering its own breathing, gold soul - which is still there, just. Everywhere, I saw fresh tracks, saw orange hairs on trees from hardworking tigresses rearing vulnerable cubs or males padding through the night to protect their territory and families. In wilderness, said Thoreau, is the preservation of the world. But if we do not police the wild, it will fade away.

Wildlife laws depend on political will to enforce them, in Britain as much as anywhere. But we destroyed most of our forest and wildlife years ago. Bill Oddie's blue tits are small beer compared to each Indian reserve's diversity.

The Chinese say that when a tiger dies, its soul flows into earth and returns as amber. That'll be an amber mountain then, throughout Asia, in five years, unless China takes its wildlife trade seriously, India revamps its creaking tiger protection, concerned informed people in all Asian countries force their governments to crack down on the trade, and the West puts higher penalties and more resources into policing and punishing its own consumption of wild animals. For we will not say about amber what Auden said of wild animals in his "Address to the Beasts":

Tigers in Red Weather, by Ruth Padel, is published by Little, Brown on 23 June 13 June 2005 08:59