Blog dedicated primarily to randomly selected news items; comments reflecting personal perceptions

Friday, August 01, 2014

Destructively Illicit Market

"[The trafficking of rhino and elephant parts] is the highest priority investigation for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. If something isn't done to stop this illegal trade, there's a good possibility our children won't be able to see elephants or rhinos in the wild."
Edward Grace, deputy assistant director of law enforcement, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
A Zimbabwe National Parks worker walks in the room where elephant tusks and rhino horns are kept on October 12, 2010 in Harare Photo by Desmond Kwande/AFP - A Zimbabwe National Parks worker in Harare in a storehouse with elephant tusks and rhino horns
But the poaching (gentle word that -- it is almost devoid of negativism, like children reaching for cooling cupcakes, irresistible to their sense of entitlement) of rhinos and elephants is taking place not within the geographical territory of the United States of America, needless to say, but rather within Africa. Rhino horns can fetch between $20,000 to $30,000 a pound. As for elephants, it is estimated that 20,000 of the great beasts were poached across the African continent last year alone.

This is a figure reached by the Secretariat of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. In 2013, over a thousand rhinos were 'poached', which is to say they were hunted and killed in a well organized manner for the lucrative trade in their horns. That's a threefold increase from 2010, when an estimated 333 rhinos were killed, according to South African National Parks.

It is such a lucrative field that organized crime has moved into the picture, finding the allure of the trade just as irresistible as that four-year-old reaching for the cupcake. An Irish gang known as the Rathkeale Rovers was considered a major player in the global rhino horn trade before the arrest and conviction of some of their members. That's quite a stretch, from Ireland to Africa, but money speaks loudly in its appeal.

Authorities noticed an "astronomical" spike in the price of rhino horns on the black market; up to $30,000 per pound, which alongside the reports of huge numbers of rhinos being killed, spurred them to act. A Canadian antique dealer out of Richmond, British Columbia, was recently indicted by a federal grand jury in New York following an undercover sting in which American wildlife agents were involved.

There are strict export laws in effect forbidding the importation of ivory and horn, including objects made from them. The underground trafficking of such objects made from endangered species represents a multibillion-dollar industry. Xiao Ju Guan, the B.C. antiques dealer, had travelled to New York from Vancouver in May, paying $45,000 for two black rhinoceros horns.

His trouble began when he bought those horns from undercover wildlife agents posing as traffickers. Mr. Guan took his horns to a shipping store for the purpose of sending them forward to a Point Roberts, Washington address, located just south of the Canadian border. On the shipping label, Mr. Guan identified the contents of the box as "handicrafts" with a value of $200.

Arresting authorities hold that in the last two years, Mr. Guan and his partners were responsible for smuggling dozens of wildlife items made of rhino horns, elephant ivory and coral, their value estimated at over half a million dollars. He is only one of nineteen people who have thus far been arrested since the Fish and Wildlife Service and U.S. Department of Justice began their crackdown three years earlier.

Experts point to the growing purchasing power of Asia's middle class being responsible for the expanding underground trade, with its concomitant conscienceless predation on vulnerable African wildlife. Rhino horns are particularly valued in China and Vietnam.

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