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Two legal challenges expose grave flaws at the heart of global wildlife trading system

February 17, 2021 in The Canary By Tracy Keeling

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) is one of the most important international bodies in the world right now. Its actions and choices have immense bearing on what the future holds. CITES determines what trade in at-risk wildlife species is permissible or not. As such, whether the world properly tackles the biodiversity crisis, aka the disappearance of essential diverse life on earth, and limits the risk of future zoonotic pandemics, like coronavirus (Covid-19), partly lies in its hands.

Currently, CITES is subject to two legal challenges. They both relate to China and its trading in Asian elephants and chimpanzees with Laos and South Africa respectively. The challenges are complex and allege numerous violations of CITES wildlife trading rules. They paint a picture of a highly profitable and thriving market in some of the world’s most endangered species, where corruption, rule-bending and fraud is rife. In essence, the legal complaints expose the CITES system as one where the rules are used to accommodate the trade, rather than the other way around.

With CITES’ increasing importance in our wildlife-depleted and pandemic-riddled world, these legal challenges offer an insight into how the UN body currently functions. Unfortunately, they starkly highlight how unfit CITES is for the existential problems we face.

The Convention

As The Canary has previously reported, CITES is a global agreement between most states – known as parties – on international wildlife trading. Its primary purpose is meant to be ensuring that trade doesn’t drive species to extinction. It currently regulates the trade in around 38,700 species that it’s designated as in need of protection – approximately 32,800 species of plants and 5,950 species of non-human animals.

It lists these species in three appendices, essentially depending on how much at risk of extinction they are. It then sets out rules for trade of species in those different appendices. This rules-based trade is authorised through a permitting system. Permits are issued by national CITES management authorities in member countries “upon advice” from their national CITES scientific authorities. A central CITES authority, called the CITES Secretariat, oversees the working of the Convention, assisted by a number of committees.

In theory, the system is simple enough. For international trade in CITES-listed species to occur, the national CITES authorities in the involved countries have to issue import and export permits, which are in line with the applicable rules for that species, to confirm the trade is permissible.

The legal complaints show, however, that in practice, the system is anything but simple or, indeed, functional.

Responsibility for source codes

CITES has created source codes for species subject to trade. As the name implies, these codes indicate where the trader sourced the individuals in question from. The legal complaint about Asian elephant trades between Laos and China, which UK law firm Advocates for Animals has raised with CITES on behalf of filmmaker and author Karl Ammann, has issues relating to source codes at its core.

CITES lists Asian elephants in Appendix I, reserved for species that are “the most endangered”. However, one of the special provisions for trade that CITES has is that if individuals from an Appendix I species are bred in captivity for commercial purposes, they are downgraded to Appendix II. There are more restrictions on trade for Appendix I species than Appendix II.

In the CITES list of Asian elephant trades from Laos to China since 2014, all of them are listed as captive-bred, or source code C. The legal complaint disputes this, arguing that the source code has been ‘misused’. It claims that Laos “does not have any CITES registered commercial breeding facilities”. It also highlights a study that states “80% of calves born in captivity in Laos during the past decade are from wild genitors [fathers] from the Nam Pouy Protected Area”. Ammann says his sources have confirmed this.

Whether the source code has been misused here is a case that Laos has to answer. But a further burning question is, why didn’t China question Laos’s repeated use of source code C, if it’s a country that has no CITES registered breeding facilities? Indeed, in its guidance on the application of source codes, CITES says that:

If no licensed operation for the species exists, the legality of the export should be questioned.

Internal inconsistencies

The complaint also points out that CITES’ data says that Laos has exported 87 elephants to China since 2014. But a media report from Laos claimed that the country has exported 142 Asian elephants to China through one port – Mohan Port – since 2015. A further report by the Rescue Animals Project, which is quoted in the complaint, says that in 2014 there were 195 Asian elephants in 57 venues in China. The report said the number had increased by 140 to 335 Asian elephants, in 67 venues, by 2020.

Clearly, the numbers don’t stack up. The Advocates for Animals complaint alleges that elephants are regularly smuggled, via a “hidden forest trail”, across the Laos/China border. This could account for the discrepancy. A failure by involved countries to fully record their permit documentation in the CITES database could cause such disparities too. Nonetheless, the fact that the discrepancy has only come to the fore because of the legal challenge begs another question: where are the checks and balances in CITES whereby the declared trades are checked against actual trades and what’s happening on the ground?

Definition issues

The second legal complaint, which Advocates for Animals has also raised on behalf of Ammann, focuses on the sale of 18 chimpanzees from South Africa to a Chinese zoo. As is the case for the Asian elephant complaint, it claims that the trade potentially violated numerous CITES rules. One of the violations the complaint alleges is that the traded chimpanzees will be “used for primarily commercial purposes”. As an Appendix I species, people cannot trade chimpanzees for primarily commercial purposes.

CITES has a definition of what ‘commercial purposes’ means. It states that:

An activity can generally be described as ‘commercial’ if its purpose is to obtain economic benefit (whether in cash or otherwise), and is directed toward resale, exchange, provision of a service or any other form of economic use or benefit.

It also says that the term should be defined “as broadly as possible so that any transaction which is not wholly ‘non-commercial’ will be regarded as ‘commercial’”.

The legal complaint partly asserts [pdf p6] that the trade was ‘primarily commercial’ because the zoo – Beijing Wild Animal Park – is a “profit based facility”, with a net profit of around $7m in 2017. As various tourism websites have boasted, the park also puts on ‘animal shows’, meaning the venue forces certain species to perform for the paying spectators.

China issued a government directive in 2011 banning such performances. It reiterated the ban in further guidance in 2013. Nonetheless, the performances continue in many venues, with some notable exceptions.

Lack of clarity

CITES has responded to the chimpanzee complaint. Based on its response, Advocates for Animals understands that CITES is satisfied the trade in chimpanzees was for zoo purposes due to China claiming that the park’s focus is on science, education and research, among other related things. However, it appears all parties have acknowledged the venue isn’t registered as a scientific, educational or research institution.

Essentially, CITES concluded that the purpose of the chimpanzee sale was for ‘zoo’ purposes not for ‘commercial purposes’ because that’s what China claims. It did concede that more clarification is needed for purpose code Z, i.e., zoos, and pledged to take action accordingly. But the fact CITES doesn’t appear to already have a clear definition of what constitutes a zoo and under what circumstances it considers a zoo to be a commercial entity – in light of its own definition of ‘commercial purposes’ – is deeply troubling.

As Advocates for Animals’ Alice Collinson commented:

It is vital that CITES put measures in place to prevent protected animals from being traded to zoos for primarily commercial purposes, which is happening increasingly according to Karl Ammann’s growing evidence base, particularly with China, and could undermine the purpose of a regime aimed at protecting the most vulnerable species. CITES has not ruled out that zoos can fall into the category of primary commercial, but have failed to clarify when that could occur.

A system ripe for corruption

The Asian elephant complaint also raises concerns over corruption being an issue in the current CITES system. Ammann has been investigating the wildlife trade, including the trade in elephants, for years. The complaint asserts that his investigations have shown that trafficking of elephants between Laos and China, in some cases, “involved bribes with officials”. The complaint alleges that bribes, which were not exclusive to one or other side of the border, were sometimes connected with preparing the ‘paperwork’ for CITES permits.

Adding to concerns over corruption, Ammann’s investigations show that although Chinese dealers may purchase a Laotian elephant for around $25,000, the price Chinese zoos pay for them can be up to $500,000. This raises further issues with the ‘non-commercial’ classification of such trading. It also begs the question of where these vast sums of money are going.

Ammann previously co-authored a 2013 report on illegal sales of chimpanzees from Guinea, mainly to China. Guinea issued numerous fraudulent permits for the chimpanzees between 2009 and 2011. In their investigation, the 2013 report’s authors said animal dealers told them that getting the fraudulent permits was “just a question of the relevant financial initiative (bribe)”.

In short, allegations of corruption are neither new nor uncommon in CITES. One of the reasons why that’s the case is because CITES still relies on an archaic paper permitting system. As The Canary previously reported, an e-permit system does exist, called eCITES. But it appears to be barely functional, partly because of a lack of funding. It’s also not compulsory.

The Canary contacted China’s CITES authorities for comment on the Asian elephant complaint. They did not respond to the request.

Iceberg ahead

Like the Laotian elephants, the issue with the Guinea-China chimpanzee trades centred on the classification of the great apes as ‘captive-bred’, despite Guinea having no breeding centres for them. Meanwhile, as with the South African chimpanzees, these apes were destined for Chinese zoos that the 2013 report’s authors argued were for ‘primarily commercial purposes’. One of the grounds for the Asian elephant complaint is also that they are used for ‘primarily commercial purposes’.

Considered together, these three situations highlight recurring issues with the CITES system. Clearly, the body needs to address the inconsistencies around its ‘captive-bred’ source code. Arguably, given this source code appears ripe for abuse, the body needs to consider affording all individuals of a species the same stronger trade restrictions, regardless of their ‘source’ being the wild or captivity. CITES also needs to firm up who bears responsibility for ensuring source codes are adhered to. Notably, in the Guinea-China chimpanzee controversy, China faced no repercussions for its role in the years-long fraudulent use of the code. Moreover, CITES didn’t enforce a crucial obligation the involved parties had in the situation. Namely, under the Convention, parties are “obliged… to provide for the confiscation or return to the State of export” of any individuals who are “traded in violation of the Convention”.

The apparent lack of checks and balances regarding declared trades and the reality on the ground also needs to be addressed. Systematic checks of submitted CITES paperwork, and wholesale adoption of a transparent, electronic permitting system, should happen too. Furthermore, the body must provide clarity on the critical purpose codes it has created and address the inconsistencies in its guidance and definitions. In particular, it needs to urgently resolve the ambiguity over when zoos should be viewed as commercial enterprises, so that the Z purpose code matches up with its definition of ‘primarily commercial purposes’.

Like all international bodies, CITES is a behemoth. Coordination of the global wildlife trade involving most of the world’s governments is understandably no easy task. But for the sake of everyone in the living world – human and non-human – it is an essential one, with its importance only growing amid the biodiversity crisis and the threat of zoonotic diseases.

Given its critical role, CITES needs to operate like a tight ship. But right now, it more resembles the Titanic. If it doesn’t buck up and get its act together, there’s nothing but icebergs ahead.

Featured image via Wikimedia and Karl Ammann


CITES protection of animals no longer fit for purpose, says wildlife filmmaker

September 21, 2020 By Don Pinnock

One of the world’s worst wildlife scams is being permitted by the United Nations organisation formed to protect wild animals from over-exploitation and regulate trade. It all hinges on the letter Z on an export and import permit.

Is forcing an elephant to sit on its haunches while twirling a hula hoop on its trunk or teaching a chimp to ride a bicycle in a tailcoat science, conservation or cruelty? 

This is a question that has vexed filmmaker and wildlife investigator Karl Ammann for many years because they are activities permitted, by implication, under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).

Read the full story here.


‘The legal and illegal trade are inseparable’: The drain of Africa’s chimpanzees for foreign zoos

Chimpanzees in a glass-fronted enclosure after being exported from South Africa to a wildlife park in Beijing, China
Photo Courtesy of Karl Ammann, 2019

September 17, 2020 By Louise Boyle

Chimps in South Africa due to be shipped to China under questionable circumstances, conservationists believe.

We are working with conservation charity Space for Giants to protect wildlife at risk from poachers due to the conservation funding crisis caused by Covid-19. Help is desperately needed to support wildlife rangers, local communities and law enforcement personnel to prevent wildlife crime.

Chimpanzees are being illegally shipped out of Africa to foreign zoos under the guise of the legal wildlife trade, conservation groups have told The Independent.

Chimps are an endangered species with only around 200,000 left in the wild. Their numbers are projected to decline by 80 per cent by 2050, according to the Jane Goodall Institute, due to habitat loss, diseases and poaching, compounded by their slow reproduction rate. 

Illegal trafficking also poses a significant threat. While some 3,000 chimpanzees, gorillas, bonobos and orangutans are killed or snatched from the forest each year, the UN Environment Programme says, wildlife organisations also point to the blurred lines of the legal trade, and the seemingly lax oversight of governments, as having an impact on dwindling numbers.

Read the full story here.


How We Can Use the CITES Wildlife Trade Agreement to Help Prevent Pandemics

August 24, 2020 By Bruce J. Weissgold, Peter Knights, Susan Lieberman, Russell Mittermeier

At the moment, we can’t—so let’s adapt it

In reaction to the global COVID-19 pandemic, attention has focused on the potential role of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) to further regulate—or ban—various form of the wildlife trade. Banning the wild animal trade, particularly for human consumption, means stopping the movement of some zoonotic diseases—infections that can be transmitted from animals to humans.

There have also been suggestions that the World Health Organization (WHO), the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), or the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) could be instructed by governments to collaborate to prevent future zoonotic epidemics and pandemics. Other options include a protocol to the Convention on Biological Diversity (an umbrella treaty, adhered to by all but one party to CITES) or a protocol under the U.N. General Assembly. But with little experience dealing with transport of terrestrial wild animals, these bodies simply lack the expertise and infrastructure needed to regulate the international trade of wild animals.

Read the full story here.


How China’s Expanding Fishing Fleet Is Depleting the World’s Oceans

August 17, 2020 By Ian Urbina

After exhausting areas close to home, China’s vast fishing fleet has moved into the waters of other nations, depleting fish stocks. More than seafood is at stake, as China looks to assert itself on the seas and further its geo-political ambitions, from East Asia to Latin America.

For years, no one knew why dozens of battered wooden “ghost boats” — often along with corpses of North Korean fishermen whose starved bodies were reduced to skeletons — were routinely washing ashore along the coast of Japan.

A recent investigation I did for NBC News, based on new satellite data, has revealed, however, what marine researchers now say is the most likely explanation: China is sending a previously invisible armada of industrial boats to illegally fish in North Korean waters, forcing out smaller North Korean boats and leading to a decline in once-abundant squid stocks of more than 70 percent. The North Korean fishermen washing up in Japan apparently ventured too far from shore in a vain search for squid and perished.

Read the full story here.


African forest plunder condemns chimpanzees to miserable lives in zoos

August 14, 2020 By Don Pinnock

(Photo: EMS Foundation)

Chimpanzees are our nearest genetic relatives on the tree of life. At this rate, eaten or forced to entertain zoo visitors or wealthy sheikhs, they’re heading for extinction. CITES seems unable to stop the slide and African governments don’t appear to consider it a problem.

If a wild animal has monetary value it’s a prelude to extinction. That’s because the cheapest way to acquire that animal is to poach it. Across Africa, control of poaching is dismal, haphazard, often corrupt and the increase in the value chain from the forest floor to the foreign consumer is eye-watering. As a result, the scale of wildlife extraction is best compared to a vacuum cleaner. 

Read the full story here.


Nature documentaries increasingly talk about threats to nature, but still don’t show them

September 17, 2019 By BES Press Office

Researchers analysing recent BBC and Netflix nature documentaries found that although they increasingly mention threats to nature, visual depictions of these threats remain scarce, potentially misleading audiences on the state of the natural world.
 
The findings are discussed in a Perspective published in the British Ecological Society journal People and Nature.

Researchers from Bangor University, University of Kent, Newcastle University and University of Oxford coded the scripts from the four most recent David Attenborough narrated series. They found the Netflix series Our Planet dedicated 15% of the script to environmental threats and conservation, far exceeding the BBC series Planet Earth II and Dynasties, with only Blue Planet II coming close to this figure.

Read the full story here.


More tigers now live in cages than in the wild.

May 19, 2019 By Terrence McCoyWashington Post Special Report

The animal has become a commodity: farmed, butchered, sold. We joined one man on his dangerous quest to expose the truth.

THA BAK, Laos —He was up there somewhere, at the top of the hill, the man Karl Ammann had come to see. It would soon be night. The forest was all shadows and sounds. Ammann had driven across the country to reach this remote river village, and now he was finally here, looking to the top of the hill, ready to confront the person he believed had murdered more tigers than anyone in Laos. In the distance, he could hear them: dozens of tigers roaring.

For nearly five years, Ammann, 70, a Swiss counter-trafficking conservationist, had tracked the tiger butcher, a man named Nikhom Keovised. He had placed hidden cameras inside what had once been the largest tiger farm in Southeast Asia, an illegal operation where tigers had been raised to one end — slaughter — and where the man doing the slaughtering had been Nikhom. And he had listened to Nikhom describe it all in his own words: “Use the anesthetic,” he had said. “Then just cut the neck.” Then “peel its skin.”

Read the full story here.


Calls for CITES to address the corruption fueling the illegal wildlife trade

September 23, 2016 Mike Gaworecki

  • The European Union and Senegal have put forward a resolution at CoP17 proposing measures to tackle corruption in wildlife trafficking.
  • Late last year, Yury Fedotov, executive director of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, joined with John Scanlon, secretary-general of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), to call for increased anti-corruption efforts in the fight against the illegal wildlife trade.
  • A new report by independent conservationist and researcher Karl Ammann, who has been studying the issue for decades, paints a sobering portrait of the extent of the corruption enabling the illegal wildlife trade.
Conversation
Critically endangered Eastern Mountain gorilla
(Gorilla beringei beringei) in the Bwindi jungle.
Photo by Rhett Butler.

Late last year, Yury Fedotov, executive director of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, joined with John Scanlon, secretary-general of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), to call for increased anti-corruption
efforts (http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=52450#.V-VZH7orLRY) in the
fight against the illegal wildlife trade. In a joint statement, Fedotov and Scanlon said that “corruption feeds and sustains wildlife and forest crime, as well as many other crimes including terrorism and extremism.”

The two did not mince words when it came to diagnosing the problem and prescribing a solution: “For the criminals to succeed, customs officials must be bribed to look away; logging and hunting licenses forged; and poachers set free due to obstructed prosecutions. Thanks to corruption’s deadly touch, the natural wealth of countries is being stolen, efforts to eradicate poverty paralysed and development efforts greatly hindered. We are united in the belief that, by addressing corruption and bribery, we can deal a significant blow to all those involved in this transnational organized crime.” CITES’ seventeenth major Conference of the Parties (CoP17) begins in Johannesburg, South Africa tomorrow, and it represents a key opportunity to address the corruption fueling the illegal wildlife trade, experts say. In an attempt to seize this opportunity, the European Union and Senegal have put forward a resolution proposing measures to tackle corruption in wildlife trafficking.

“[I]t is an important development that for the first time, the issue of corruption will be formally debated at the world’s most important wildlife trade meeting,” Rob Parry- Jones, head of international policy for the WWF / TRAFFIC Wildlife Crime Initiative, and Aled Williams, a senior advisor at the U4 Anti-Corruption Resource Centre, wrote in an op-ed for Business Daily.

China and Guinea: A case study in the illegal wildlife trade

A new report (https://karlammann.com/pdf/citesdouble- standards-2016.pdf) by independent conservationist and researcher Karl Ammann, who has been studying the issue for decades, paints a sobering portrait of the extent of the corruption enabling the illegal wildlife trade — the report is essentially a case study of the illicit trade of primates between Guinea and China and the opportunities to tackle the problem that have been missed by the CITES Secretariat in the past. “Between 2007 and 2011 a great deal of illegal ape trade took place between Guinea and China when at least 104 endangered chimpanzees and 10 endangered gorillas were officially reported as having been exported from Guinea to China only for it to later come to light that these were wild animals exported illegally by way of fraudulent CITES permits stating they were bred in captivity,” according to the report.  

The CITES Secretariat went on record confirming that “exports have occurred from Guinea in relation to specimens declared as having been bred in captivity… in violation of the Convention” in 2011, Ammann notes. But even though Article VIII of CITES states that “Parties shall take appropriate measures to enforce the provisions of the present Convention and to prohibit trade in specimens in violation thereof,” China has not taken any of the recommended actions to address the problem.

“The CITES Secretariat, apparently content with this failure by China to do what is required under the convention has, similarly, taken no action whatsoever to compel China to do what the convention requires,” Ammann writes in the report. The recommended actions include penalizing trade in or possession of illegal wildlife as well as the confiscation of the animal and its return to the state of export.

As a decentralized system, CITES leaves enforcement to member countries and has no enforcement body with the power to seize assets or arrest criminals involved in illegal trade. Each country that is a party to CITES has a management authority that issues export permits for animals that are legally exportable, but, as Ammann has demonstrated, corrupt authorities in African countries that are home to wild apes are facilitating the export of these animals with improper and even fraudulent permits. This has created a situation in which apes are being traded more or less in the open on social media.

One of the only enforcement actions that did take place after the revelations of the fraudulent CITES permits used to export apes from Guinea to China came in September 2015 when the former wildlife director and head of the CITES Management Authority of Guinea was arrested for his role in the corrupt and fraudulent issuance of CITES export permits. “Concerns regarding illegal trade in CITES-listed species involving Guinea have been dealt with in a thorough manner by the [CITES] Standing Committee and the Secretariat,” a briefing for CoP17 by the CITES Secretariat states, per the report.

But the ensuing court case was actually initiated by an NGO and never joined by the government, Ammann reports. None of the fake and falsified permits were ever presented in court, which could be another symptom of the corruption allowing the illegal trade to flourish, he suggests: “In some parts of Africa the bribe income officials are collecting through selling fake or falsified permits is now such that they encourage the illegal trade (standard quote for a fake ape permit is $5,000),” Ammann told Mongabay. The only other action taken was in March 2013, when the 63rd meeting of the CITES Standing Committee recommended the suspension of any commercial trade in CITES-listed species from Guinea.

Import and export permits are the “backbone of the CITES convention,” Ammann said, and if countries are able to be non-compliant with CITES provisions and there are no actions taken by the CITES Secretariat to compel their compliance, “there is a danger that the convention is becoming part of the problem.”

It works like this, Ammann explained: “Dealers buy falsified permits from the [CITES management authority] representatives of their country. In some cases blank and signed and stamped documents. They are then used for the export and import.” In the case of the imported apes from Guinea, Ammann found that Chinese officials had issued the necessary import permits that declared the apes as captive-born before Guinea had even issued the corresponding export permit declaring them captive-born. “So the scam started in China,” Ammann concluded. “We have the evidence of one such case for 7 chimps.”

Yet there was no action at the importing end, as the report documents, and “suspending Guinea for the commercial trade — while all these transactions were declared as non-commercial mostly with the purpose code Z for Zoo which makes it scientific and educational, never mind how much money changed hands — was once again avoiding dealing with the issue,” Ammann said.

The CITES Secretariat does have punitive powers that Secretary-General John Scanlon could use to rein in countries like China that are flouting the law, but according to Amman, they are not being put to use often enough: “The CITES Secretariat has the unique enforcement tool of recommending trade suspension of any party in constant non-compliance of convention rules and regulations. The Guinea-China case involved some 150 chimps and 10 gorillas and was the largest such scenario ever with no attempt of any kind to enforce Article VIII of the Convention. If no action is possible on such a pronounced noncompliance issue then is there a point in spending more money on CITES? To what extend does the lack of enforcement now encourage the trade?”


INDEPENDENT PRO BONO LEGAL ANALYSIS OF THE ILLEGAL TRADE IN GREAT APES FROM AFRICA AND SYRIA TO CHINA SINCE 2007

Report for the Interpol Environmental Crime Directorate
November 22, 2015 By Richard Hargreaves

A CALL FOR AN INTERPOL INVESTIGATION INTO THE KEY CHINESE, AFRICAN AND SYRIAN APE TRADERS; CHINESE ZOOLOGICAL PARK OWNERS AND AUTHORITIES; AND CITES MANAGEMENT AUTHORITY AND SECRETARIAT STAFF  INVOLVED IN AND / OR POTENTIALLY ACQUIESCENT TO THE ILLEGAL APE TRADE SINCE 2007


Trade secrets: Karl Ammann

Southeast Asia Globe Interview – June 18, 2014

Swiss-born photojournalist and wildlife activist Karl Ammann has been investigating the illegal trade in wildlife products for more than three decades. On the phone from Kenya, Ammann spoke to Southeast Asia Globe about staying out of trouble and his disillusionment with the authorities’ efforts to clamp down on the illicit wildlife trade.

Illustration by Natalie Phillips

When did you visit Southeast Asia for the first time?

My brother-in-law has lived in Singapore and Bangkok and other places in the region for the past 30 years, so I’ve been visiting the region regularly throughout this time. I travelled extensively in Myanmar 20 or 30 years ago when it was still a pretty adventurous place.

When did you begin investigating wildlife crime in Southeast Asia?

It started around the same time. I remember when there was still cannabis for sale in the Sunday markets in Bangkok. People would open a bag up while you were having lunch to sell you stuff. One time there was a little gibbon inside a bag. I wondered how common these sales were. When I was in Jakarta I would go to the bird market to see what was going on.

What was the scariest moment you have had while doing an investigation?

In West and Central Africa you always get accosted by people and you never really know if it’s related to your work or if they’re checking out if you’re doing anything investigative. So my method is usually to arrive unannounced, stay around a day or two and then, when you start to get the impression people are wondering why you are there, why are you asking these questions, then move on. That has served me well. I think I’ve been close to confrontational situations many times, but if you move away fast, they don’t know what you’ve got, how much harm you might be able to do. You’re gone and you just hope that takes care of any future problems.

How successful have your campaigns against the trade in rhino horn and tiger bones been?

I got involved in it kind of by accident by following tiger stories and we ended up with dealers who, on the way out, would offer rhino horn to see if you were interested. So then we wondered if these dealers were concerned about selling and the next stage was, of course, realising it was too easily available, that it couldn’t be all real, and that probably 90% of what is being sold is fake, on the retail level anyway.

Vietnam’s prime minister recently issued a top-level directive to his line ministries prioritising enforcement at all levels, and across ministries, to combat the poaching and trafficking of African elephant ivory and rhino horn. How effective do you think this will be?

At the moment, I’m convinced that 90% of what’s being done in Southeast Asia is window dressing and lip service. Making pronouncements, signing MOUs [Memoranda of Understanding], that’s the easy part. I have identified dealers, particularly a major dealership outside of Hanoi, that sell kilos and kilos of real rhino horn on a daily basis. The information has been in the hands of Interpol and Traffic [a wildlife trade monitoring network] and Cites [Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species] for more than a year now and there has been no enforcement action and the dealer’s shop is still as active as before. And it turns out there are more shops in the same village doing the same thing. In my opinion, they are some of the biggest dealers in Southeast Asia and they go on operating despite the fact I have passed on information to a range of enforcement authorities and nothing has changed. Once something changes on that front, then I will believe that something is really happening.

What do you think organisations and affected countries need to do to combat the trade?

I think they need to go after the top end, the big guys, the ones with the connections. We need to send a message that they are not immune. Just going after one or two guys with a small amount of rhino horn at the airport, who were probably just couriers, those are the easy guys to hammer and sort out. The top-end guys are well connected, they stay behind the scenes. It’s easy to link them with evidence because they finance and arrange it all. They are the key players and as far as I can see, none of them are ever arrested or prosecuted.

Are there other people or organisations working towards combating the illegal wildlife trade that you believe deserve more credit?

There are people out there that pass on information, who do it on the quiet, which is the only way to be really effective. In my travels I have to worry about being recognised and in some ways I have been too high profile and I can no longer do what I used to do. Now I work with local guys with hidden cameras. We review the material then make transcripts of what was said and get the story that way. There are players out there who go unrecognised and want to remain unrecognised.

What message do you have for the leaders of Southeast Asian countries?

I think China and Vietnam are the key places. So for China and Vietnam, my message is that I want them to become serious. Don’t think you are going to get away with window dressing and lip service. Sooner or later the world will catch up to what is really going on – and I hope that more people will be doing more investigative work – so don’t expect the issues to go away. Become serious now and deal with it.


Bilder einer sterbenden Welt

(Images of a dying world)

September 17, 2009 Von Thilo Thielke

Karl Amman, Schweizer Naturfotograf und TierschŸtzer in Borneo

Die Kamera ist seine Waffe gegen Wilderer: Der Schweizer Naturfotograf Karl Ammann dokumentiert mit seinen Aufnahmen die gnadenlose Jagd auf aussterbende Tierarten. Er führt einen fast aussichtslosen Kampf – auch weil Verlage lieber heile Welt als drastische Bilder zeigen.

Der Mann ist ständig auf Achse. Steht unter Strom. Gerade kommt er aus Laos zurück, wo er das finstere Treiben chinesischer Glücksritter dokumentiert hat. Jetzt sitzt er in Bangkok, spricht mit einem Kontaktmann, der den illegalen Handel mit Elefanten untersucht. Morgen wird er in Singapur sein, danach auf den Seychellen, drei Tage darauf endlich zu Hause in Kenia. In drei Wochen dann aber schon wieder: Zürich, Hamburg, London.

Der Schweizer Karl Ammann, 61 Jahre alt, ist Naturfotograf. Er hat wunderbare Bildbände veröffentlicht: über Geparden zum Beispiel, über Gorillas und Orang-Utans. Bilder aus der Massai Mara oder Borneo. Doch schöne Fotos sind längst nicht mehr das, was Karl Ammann an- und umtreibt. Amman will nicht mehr länger nur abbilden. Er will gestalten. Will retten, was noch zu retten ist.

“Die Tiere sterben”, sagt er, “und wir schauen teilnahmslos zu.” Die Welt sehe düster aus, wenn sich nicht bald etwas ändere. All die Tiere, denen er einen Großteil seiner Lebens- und Arbeitszeit gewidmet hat, gebe es dann nur noch ausgestopft oder bestenfalls als domestizierte Zoo- und Zirkustiere zu sehen: die Löwen und Tiger, die Schimpansen und die Bonobos, die Waldelefanten und die Okapis.

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