When it comes to preventing the trafficking of wildlife and other illicit items, there’s a real opportunity to, shall we say, feed two birds with one scone. Because traffickers of all sorts of contraband often exploit the same vulnerabilities in the aviation industry, agencies and stakeholders may be able to use the patterns detected in one trafficked commodity to anticipate how other items might be trafficked. Enforcement agencies can then close the most commonly exploited loopholes, thereby blocking multiple categories of illicit trade. By collecting, analyzing, and sharing data with each other and the public, and coordinating prevention and enforcement strategies, the various agencies and stakeholders involved can stanch the flow of illegal weapons, drugs, animals, and other contraband being smuggled by air.
This report from USAID identifies five points where wildlife trafficking converges with the trafficking of other goods like gold, counterfeit items, drugs, and weapons: shipment level, organization level, route level, hub level, and jurisdiction level.
At the shipment level, convergence occurs when multiple commodities are smuggled by the same individual or shipped in the same package. A passenger on a flight from Thailand to Bangladesh, for instance, was discovered smuggling 80 turtles as well as 12 gold bars. The contraband was seized in a joint effort between multiple agencies. Shipment-level convergence often goes unreported, as different agencies are involved in the tracking of different illicit goods. By improving the reporting and sharing of data on seizures of illicit goods, agencies should be able to better coordinate to intercept illegal shipments. Further, security and customs workers should be trained to identify illegal wildlife products as well as the drugs and weapons they may be more accustomed to identifying.
Organization-level convergence occurs when the same criminal organization trafficks in multiple categories of goods. For example, the Kromah syndicate in Uganda smuggles rhino horn, ivory, and heroin, sometimes hiding the goods inside hand-made vests. Once a criminal organization has identified an exploitable vulnerability in air transport, they can use it to traffic multiple types of illicit goods. Organization-level convergence can be difficult to identify in data and is more often detected through qualitative research. When it is detected, a single bust may lead to the discovery and dismantling of an entire criminal network dealing in multiple illicit goods. This should provide reason for authorities to crack down on all forms of trafficking including wildlife.
Route-level convergence occurs when a particular route is used in the trafficking of multiple categories of illegal goods. Certain routes appeal to traffickers because of weak enforcement or proximity to raw materials on one end and consumers on the other. In recent years flight routes between Hong Kong and Malaysia have been implicated in the trafficking of goods from tortoises, lizards, and pangolin products to methamphetamines, heroin, and ecstasy. Irrespective of the direction of travel, 90% of these seizures were made on arrival, indicating that the greatest vulnerability is on the departure side and mitigation efforts should focus there.
In hub-level convergence, we see many different illicit goods pass through the same airport or city. For instance, meth, cocaine, rhino horn, and ivory have all been seized on their way through Amsterdam. It turns out that two-thirds of the cities implicated in wildlife trafficking are also hubs in the trafficking of other illicit items. This convergence presents an opportunity for agencies to multiply the effects of their efforts by focusing on the hubs of greatest convergence.
In jurisdiction-level convergence, various illegal products are trafficked through the same country. In Madagascar, for example, both endangered tortoises and heroin have been seized. Traffickers in various goods can be drawn to the same jurisdiction by its poor enforcement, proximity to raw materials or end markets, or because it is well-connected to other destinations. Where jurisdiction-level convergence is found it is a good indication that improved enforcement in the form of better training or a greater allocation of resources may be fruitful.
This report recommends that customs and law enforcement improve their data collection, reporting and accessibility. More granular data including descriptions of seized goods, route, location, and links to criminal organizations should be collected and maintained in a centralized, accessible database. Stakeholders such as customs, law enforcement, aviation industry representatives, and conservationists should work together to understand and address trafficking convergence. Enforcement agencies should conduct vulnerability assessments and incorporate convergence analysis into their budgeting and programming.
Law enforcement and customs agencies should take a holistic, data-based, collaborative approach in their anti-trafficking measures. By including trafficked wildlife among their priorities and focusing on points of convergence, they can seal the holes in the armor of aviation security and reduce trafficking across our shared skies.