How The Illicit Wildlife and Resource Trade Is Financing Militias and Terrorists
August 8, 2014
Samuel Oakford / Vice News & Kayla Ruble / Vice News & Angela Kubo and Jake Adelstein / Vice News
Illicit resource extraction and poaching -- industries worth up to $213 billion a year -- are funneling money to criminals, militias, and (in some high-profile cases) terrorists, according to a joint study by Interpol and the UN's environmental agency (UNEP). The total supersedes both the world market for illegal drugs, which is valued at an estimated $200 billion, and the $135 billion in official development assistance given to low-income countries, where most of the plundering takes place.
The Illicit Wildlife and Resource Trade Is Financing Militias and Terrorists
Samuel Oakford / Vice News
(June 26, 2014) -- Illicit resource extraction and poaching -- industries worth up to $213 billion a year -- are funneling money to criminals, militias, and (in some high-profile cases) terrorists, according to a joint study by Interpol and the UN's environmental agency (UNEP).
The total supersedes both the world market for illegal drugs, which is valued at an estimated $200 billion, and the $135 billion in official development assistance given to low-income countries, where most of the plundering takes place.
In Pakistan and Afghanistan, the Haqqani Network has been accused of profiting from illegal logging and timber trade. Rebels in Bangladesh, India, and Mozambique have all been linked to poaching to finance their operations.
In Somalia, much of the unregulated or illegal wood and charcoal trade -- estimated at up to $100 billion worldwide -- has been captured by the al Qaeda-linked militant group al Shabaab.
At least $360 million in charcoal exports, mostly to nearby Middle Eastern countries like Yemen and the Gulf States, have helped finance several high profile al Shabaab attacks in neighboring Kenya, including the siege of the Westgate Mall that killed some 70 people and another in mid-June on a coastal resort that left 48 dead.
"Unlike what's all over the media, al Shabaab is not trading ivory, it's actually mainly involved in forest crimes," Christian Nellemann, head of UNEP's Rapid Response Unit and Assessments and the editor of the report, told VICE News. "Charcoal and forest crime constitutes a major source of financing for organized crime militias, including terrorist groups."
Indeed, at one roadblock in al Shabaab-controlled territory, the group has been able to earn nearly $20 million in taxes on charcoal shipments.
Elsewhere, militias in the eastern part of Democratic Republic of the Congo have extracted similar amounts. In parts of northern Nigeria, it's possible Boko Haram is profiting off similar set-ups.
Militias linked to the Sudanese government have been monitored venturing hundreds of miles from the border to exploit an uncontrolled ivory trade in parts of Cameroon and in the Central African Republic. The remaining traces of the Lord's Resistance Army, as well as groups from Chad and Niger, are also believed to be involved in the trade.
"The striking range of some of the militant groups, using pick-up trucks, is around 1,000 miles," said Nellemann.
Recent reports show that the Janjaweed, the Sudanese government-backed horse militia implicated in the genocide in Darfur, have become brazen once more in coordinated attacks aimed at "emptying" certain areas the region.
Between 20,000 and 25,000 African elephants are killed each year by poachers. From 2002 to 2011, the number of forest elephants in Africa declined by over 60 percent. Rhino poaching, a scourge mostly limited to Zimbabwe and South Africa, led to the deaths of at least 1,000 animals last year, an alarming increase from only 50 in 2007. Between 2005 and 2011, some 22,000 great apes were also killed.
Outside of a few successes in East and Southern Africa, rangers, if there are any, are no match for organized criminal gangs funded by a rapacious Asian market for ivory, estimated at up to $188 million in the case of elephants.
While tales of murdered animals may catch headlines, it's still the charcoal trade that provides the greatest illicit opportunity. Exploits like al Shabaab's are minuscule next to a continent-wide trade in charcoal estimated at up to $25 billion, about one percent of which ends up in the hands of organized criminals.
Unlike the plundering of diamonds or cobalt in the Congo to feed Western vanities and motherboards, demand for African charcoal is mostly local. Ninety percent of the wood consumed in Africa is used as fuel -- mostly by the poor to cook and heat -- either directly burned or converted into charcoal.
It's estimated that the charcoal trade in Africa will likely triple in the next decade, which the study says will lead to a "dramatic increase in deforestation . . . with subsequent impacts on forest-related water resources, land degradation and loss of ecosystem services." Such growth in an industry that requires little in the way of violence to control could provide a bonanza for parasitic rebel and terrorist groups, who when they control the trade are on average able to skim 30 percent of its value via taxation.
"Organized crime wants to get into normal things, a commodity that everyone is using, like paper, food," Nelleman said. "If you can tax that even a little bit, you would be making a lot of money."
Because it's unregulated, governments in East, Central, and West Africa are unable to tax up to $9 billion in trade. By comparison, the total street value of illegal drugs in those regions is only $2.65 billion.
Burning charcoal can emit up to 16 times as much greenhouse gases as kerosene or gas. Focusing on changing Sub-Saharan Africa's small but growing carbon footprint is easier, of course, than those of developed countries that extract fuels from the continent. Though flows have since slowed, in 2010 Nigeria alone exported 341 million barrels of oil to the US, worth some $36 billion at today's prices. Until the continent's masses are presented with a viable alternative to burning wood products, it will remain the fuel of choice.
There is some good news, though it comes from outside Africa. In 2012, deforestation of Brazil's Amazon rainforest fell, by 78 percent, to its lowest level since monitoring began in 1988.
Illegal forest harvests are typically imported to the European Union as paper products, abetted by complex networks of shell companies.
Still, Nellemann said, "the volume of organized crime in illegal logging in the Amazon is so advanced that they are hacking government websites in order to obtain permits to cut down forest."
Follow Samuel Oakford on Twitter: @samueloakford
China Outlaws Eating of Tiger Penis, Rhino Horn,
And Other Endangered Animal Products
Kayla Ruble / Vice News
(May 2, 2014) -- Consumers of endangered animal products in China face a risk of considerable jail time after the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress reinterpreted existing criminal laws last week to put greater pressure on those who eat or purchase protected species.
Chinese law makes it illegal to hunt and buy any of the country's 420 protected endangered species, which include Asiatic black bears, South China tigers, golden monkeys, and giant pandas. But the statutory language is highly ambiguous.
The change adopted by the Standing Committee redefines what it means to purchase endangered species, making it illegal for anyone to knowingly buy or consume animals that were poached. The aim of the law is to crack down on the demand for endangered species, which are widely used in traditional Chinese medicine. Various animal parts are thought to offer assorted health benefits, like preventing cancer or relieving back pain.
Many of these species are also valued as a mark of status. Consumption has boomed in tandem with the country's economy, and the demand has encouraged large-scale illegal hunting.
While activists would prefer the language of the protection statute to be strengthened, they welcome the new interpretation.
"This is very good in its own way," Grace Gabriel, the Asia director at the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), told VICE News. "This interpretation is finally making it illegal to knowingly consume endangered species and their products."
An IFAW report on the illegal wildlife trade says that it's the fourth most profitable criminal activity in the world, after drug smuggling, financial counterfeiting, and human trafficking. China is the world's largest consumer of illegal wildlife products, which include rhino horn, bear bile, and tiger bone.
Profits for endangered species and their body parts are sky-high. Ivory can go for $1,000 a pound on the streets of Beijing, and the pangolin -- an anteater whose scales are used to disperse blood stasis and promote pus discharge, and whose meat is considered a delicacy -- can fetch up to $324 a dish at local restaurants. A report published in March noted that the pangolin is the world's most heavily trafficked endangered animal.
According to the IFAW report, rhino horn and deer musk can be more valuable than gold or cocaine. A single gland from Asia's musk deer can fetch upwards of $250. The musk is used for cardiac, circulatory, and respiratory problems.
The belief that consuming certain animals enables the absorption of their attributes has endured throughout Chinese history.
Nearly every part of a tiger's body is believed to offer some sort of health benefit. Its blood is thought to build willpower, and its bones are said to have an anti-inflammatory effect capable of treating arthritis, headaches, and all manner of swelling. Its eyeballs are used to ease epilepsy, malaria, and cataracts. The tiger's penis is particularly prized as an aphrodisiac, and is commonly prepared by soaking the dried member in water and then simmering it with herbal ingredients.
Virtually nothing is spared: tiger fecal matter is regarded as a remedy for hemorrhoids and alcoholism.
But the tiger is merely one prominent example. Bile from Asiatic black bears is used to treat liver ailments, tapeworm, and colds, among other maladies. The bile is gathered through a painful and inhumane extraction process; the bear is tightly confined in a "crush cage" as a catheter implanted in its gall bladder drains the bile out. Thousands of bears are kept in bile farms across China. Most of them are Asiatic black bears that were illegally caught as cubs. Animal rights activists have long railed against this cruel enterprise, which persists despite the endangered status of the bears.
China's purported wildlife protection laws have done little to limit the exploitation of these animals. While hunting tigers and black bears in the wild is illegal, the government has sanctioned the development of farms that breed these species in captivity on the assumption that they reduce poaching.
Under Chinese law, an animal is categorized based on how endangered it is. Because the Asiatic black bear doesn't have class-one protection status, it's legal to farm it and extract bile. The situation is worsened by the fact that China doesn't ban animal cruelty.
In the case of the tiger, the farms nominally operate as wildlife parks, but these businesses can legally utilize and sell the animal's parts. The loophole has undermined a putative ban on the trade, which the state doesn't really enforce.
"On one hand, the government says don't buy these products, but wildlife parks sell tiger wine and people think it must be okay," Gabriel said. "These parallel markets allow farmers to sell products from endangered species. It confuses the consumer and creates the possibility for people to traffic wild tigers."
While the use of endangered species still persists in Chinese medicine, Lixin Huang, the president of the American College of Traditional Chinese Medicine, told VICE News that the field has been very responsive to campaigns against consuming endangered species.
Huang explained that Chinese medicine takes two forms in China: one sector is state regulated and mindful of endangered species regulations, and the other is a consumer-driven market for what she called "socialized nutrition," which isn't monitored.
"With the use of rare species by that kind of consumer, education needs to be really strong because they still hold their own beliefs from the old ways," she said.
IFAW polls have uncovered a surprising lack of public awareness in China regarding endangered species products. In one survey, 70 percent of respondents didn't know that ivory comes from dead elephants.
"A lot of the consumers don't realize what they did was wrong," Gabriel said. "They say, ‘If I didn't kill it, if it's on the market, then what's wrong with me buying it?' There's no stigma attached with wildlife consumption."
Demand in China is increasingly driven by affluence. "Wealth-driven demand is going up," Gabriel noted. "It's not replacing health-driven consumption, but is certainly overtaking it."
In March, suspected gang members were arrested in the southern Guangdong province for operating a criminal ring that bought and slaughtered tigers. The meat and other products were sold to wealthy people and government officials. The act of slaughtering the animals has become a sport, with wealthy customers eager to observe the killings.
Most online animal listings that organizations like IFAW are seeing are not for health. Tiger bone wine is sold for upwards of $1,000, well beyond what an average consumer can afford. Rhino horns, long a staple of traditional Chinese medicine, are now more commonly coveted for carvings.
"For those in this for greed, the only way to stop it is if you have tighter laws and enforcement of the laws," Gabriel said.
The new interpretation of the endangered species statute is seen as just a first step in China's conservation efforts, though many observers are justifiably skeptical of its effectiveness.
"This change is really reflecting, to a certain level, more support for endangered species in China," said Huang. "But there are still challenges. You can have the law, but law enforcement is another issue. Are they going to enforce the policy?"
China's 1988 wildlife protection law is expected to be updated sometime in the next two years, and activists are cheered by indications that its citizens are increasingly receptive to such measures. E-commerce sites now monitor and block sales of endangered species, and an awareness campaign targeted at auction houses led many of them to remove rhino horn, tiger bone, and ivory from their sales, keeping $322 million in contraband off the market.
"This is very encouraging," Gabriel said. "The Chinese public actually supports stronger wildlife protection laws and stronger policy of the trade of endangered species."
The Japanese Can't Stop Eating Endangered Sea Mammals
Angela Kubo and Jake Adelstein / Vice News
(March 7, 2014) -- Japan understandably loves sea mammals. After all, they're typically adorable and often intelligent. But what many people in Japan appear to love about them most is how delicious they are.
The annual dolphin hunt in the country's notorious Taiji cove was again a source of controversy this past January. Recently appointed US Ambassador Caroline Kennedy even caused a minor diplomatic stir when she tweeted that she was "deeply concerned" by the "inhumanness" of the practice.
Japan has also raised the ire of the world with its annual whaling "research," when Japanese fishing boats head to Antarctica to study whales by killing a bunch of them. They then bring the meat back home and attempt to sell it even though, in reality, there's little demand for whale meat in Japan.
Recently, the Japanese have found more cute sea mammals to consume -- sea lions and seals. Endangered sea lions and seals. Government sources estimate several hundred of them are eaten each year, though it's not clear if anyone is truly keeping track of how many are killed.
According to Greenpeace, there are about 85,000 Steller sea lions left in the north Pacific. The species is endangered in Alaska, and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has them on their Red List. "Steller sea lions were the most abundant marine mammal until their precipitous decline in the early 1980s," Greenpeace has stated. "The reasons for the decline are not known."
To discover one potential reason, all you need is a can opener.
Sea lions and seals are being hunted and killed off the shores off Hokkaido, Japan and then showing up in souvenir stores and on websites like Rakuten, Amazon Japan, and Yahoo!. There, shoppers can find the animals swimming . . . in curry sauce. (If seafood isn't your thing, you can opt for the brown bear, which is also an endangered species.)
But it's not a huge money-making venture. "There are tourist shops that sell canned seal and sea lion, but I wouldn't consider this the most popular souvenir choice," said Masahide Obura, a spokesman for the food-related industry office at the Hokkaido Prefectural office.
Instead, selling the meat may be a way to earn a little money after slaughtering the animals to prevent them from disrupting Japanese fishermen. An August 2012 government report found that sea mammals do $22.3 million of damage a year by ripping through fishing nets and eating the fish fishermen are after.
That's no doubt why the colorful packaging on the cans warns, "Beware of frequently appearing sea lions!" And as one web site selling canned sea lion informs the buyer, "Sea Lions are called the ‘gangsters of the ocean'; they break through nets, consume huge amounts of fish. They're the archenemy of the fisherman. However, in Hokkaido they are a delicacy. In order to preserve the deliciousness, they're boiled the traditional Japanese way (with ginger, miso, sugar)."
So for a mere 735 yen (about $7) you cannot only battle the scourge that is the sea lion, you can enjoy their savory flesh -- cooked Japanese style!
OKAY, WE ATE THEM
We purchased a can of sea lion curry and a can of seal curry from a store in Tokyo called Village Vanguard. The curry, still retaining the cylindrical shape of the can, landed in the pot with a plop and infused the kitchen with the briny scent of Japan's northern coast.
First, we gave the sea lion a go. The meat was tender, with a texture similar to that of lamb. The saltiness of the meat was subtle and not completely overpowered by the strong spices in the curry. In a nutshell, it was pretty good. However, while eating both sea lion and seal is a crime against nature, eating seal is also a culinary evil.
Seal curry simply shouldn't exist. Both because of how unethical it is to hunt, kill, and eat endangered species, but also because all the curry spices and hot peppers in the world couldn't mask the unbelievable reek and taste of the blubbery seal.
We decided to ask the company that sells these cans of curried endangered species, Sapporo's Hokuto Corporation, to explain why they're doing it.
"We're a small company, so we don't really have the manpower or time to take media requests," said a representative who declined to give his name. "If we allowed one media company to interview us, then we have to allow the rest the same privilege, so we make no exceptions at all."
He did add that all the sea lion and seal meat is hunted in Hokkaido Prefecture, and that you can get a sweeter deal on the meat if you buy in bulk.
IS THIS LEGAL?
In 2002, amid debate over changes to Japan's Wildlife Protection Act, the director of the Resources Enhancement Promotion Department in the Fisheries Agency told a member of the Upper House Environment Committee that he didn't think Steller sea lions were in the "critical situation of being considered an endangered animal," because data showed that the population of sea lions in Japan had increased, according to the newspaper Yomiuri.
But this was only half the story; the Stellar sea lion population had increased in Japan, but only because sea lions had migrated closer to the shores due to global warming. The population of sea lions in the Far East as a whole has actually decreased sharply.
Seals and sea lions wound up being covered as endangered species. But in 2009, the Ministry of Environment downgraded sea lions from a Class 2 endangered species to a near-endangered species. Why? Maybe it's because they're not as adorable as seals. They have a loud bark and unruly facial hair, and they have definitely never had a cute mascot called Tama-chan floating around in Tokyo waterways to remind people to not kill and eat them. Sea lions are also far more likely to destroy fish nets and gobble up the local fish population.
So sea lions are no longer protected in Japan -- but seals still are, which means hunting them for consumption is illegal. Coincidentally enough, you don't see the seal meat curry being offered on Hokuto's website. We dug up a 2004 newspaper article from Mainichi about a seafood processing company in Hokkaido that announced they'd stopped producing seal products, and that canned seal had vanished from the shelves. Times have changed.
You'd think the Japanese would know better. They hunted the country's only indigenous sea lion to extinction in 1973.
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