Last February, armed troops and fisheries officials on two Australian navy ships and a helicopter boarded and seized the Volga and the Lena, Russian-flagged fishing vessels operating near Heard Island, some 2,200 nautical miles southwest of Perth. The two ships were found to be carrying about 200 tons of illegally caught Patagonian toothfish in their holds. This bounty, valued at an estimated $1.25 million, had been taken in violation of conservation agreements negotiated under the auspices of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources.
Few casual seafood lovers have heard of Patagonian toothfish, but many are familiar with Chilean sea bass, a different name for the same fish. Chilean sea bass began appearing on menus in the early 1990s, and consumption of the flaky, white fish took off fast, quickly endangering the health of the fishery. Large-scale commercial fishing of the species began only a decade ago, but scientists estimate that at current rates of plunder the fish could become commercially extinct in less than five years.
A few months after the drama in the Southern Ocean, a different front in the same battle opened up thousands of miles away in Washington, D.C., where nearly 60 restaurants and caterers pledged to keep the fish off their menus. More than 90 restaurants in the Los Angeles area did the same a few weeks later, following similar promises by chefs in Northern California, Chicago, and Houston. Thus the fight to save the Patagonian toothfish is beginning to hit close to home. But many Chilean sea bass fans remain unaware that they may be accomplices to a growing phenomenon known as international environmental crime.
Although variously defined, in this article international environmental crime means an activity that violates the letter or the spirit of an international environmental treaty and the implementing national legislation. Trade in endangered species, illegal fishing, CFC smuggling, and the illicit dumping of wastes are all cases in point that are explored below. Illegal logging is another major category of environmental crime, although environmental treaties currently impose few specific constraints on logging (see sidebar, Logging Illogic, page 23). The rapidly growing illegal trade in these environmentally sensitive products stems from strong demand, low risk, and other factors (see sidebar, Variable Crimes, Constant Incentives, next page).
The number of international environmental accords has exploded as countries awaken to the seriousness of transboundary and global ecological threats. The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) estimates that there are now more than 500 international treaties and other agreements related to the environment, more than 300 of them negotiated in the last 30 years.
But reaching such agreements is only the first step. The larger challenge is seeing that the ideals expressed in them become reality. What is needed is not necessarily more agreements, but a commitment to breathe life into the hundreds of existing accords by implementing and enforcing them.
Here the genteel world of diplomacy often runs into hard-nosed domestic politics. Countries that ratify treaties are responsible for upholding them by enacting and enforcing the necessary domestic laws. This requires the backing of businesses, consumers, and other constituencies, which may not be easily secured. Countries with strong fossil fuel industries, for instance, may meet staunch resistance to international rules to mitigate climate change. And countries where natural resource industries are politically powerful will probably find it difficult to adequately enforce environmental treaties designed to regulate resource-related activity. The effect has been to expand trafficking in a number of restricted substances, an increasingly urgent problem that is beginning to stimulate a stronger international response.
Trading in Wildlife
Undercover Russian police officers in the port city of Vladivostok recently trailed two investigators from environmental groups posing as eager purchasers of Siberian tiger skins from a corrupt official. When the deal went down, the officers arrested the wildlife trader on the spot. Russian investigators earlier had infiltrated the wildlife trade crime ring and determined that it was raking in some $5 million a year from smuggling wild ginseng, tiger skins, and bear paws and gallbladders across the Russian border.
Trade in these wildlife products is restricted under the terms of the 1973 Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which bans international trade in some 900 animal and plant species in danger of extinction, including all tigers, great apes, and sea turtles, and many species of elephants, orchids, and crocodiles. CITES also restricts trade in some 29,000 additional species that are threatened by commerce; among them birdwing butterflies, parrots, black and stony corals, and some hummingbirds.
CITES has shrunk the trade in many threatened species, including cheetahs, chimpanzees, crocodiles, and elephants. But the trafficking in these and other species continues, earning smugglers profits of $8 billion to $12 billion annually. Among the most coveted black market items are tigers and other large cats, rhinos, reptiles, rare birds, and botanical specimens.
Most illegally traded wildlife originates in developing countries, home to most of the world's biological diversity. Brazil alone supplies some 10 percent of the global black market, and its nonprofit wildlife-trade monitoring body, RENCTAS, estimates that poachers steal some 38 million animals a year from the country's Amazon forests, Pantanal wetlands, and other important habitats, generating annual revenues of $1 billion. Southeast Asian wildlife has also been plundered: the Gibbon Foundation reports that in a single recent year, traders smuggled out some 2,000 orangutans from Indonesia--at an average street price of $10,000 apiece.
The demand for illegal wildlife--for food and medicine, as clothing and ornamentation, for display in zoo collections and horticulture, and as pets--comes primarily from wealthy collectors and other consumers in Europe, North America, Asia, and the Middle East. In the United States (the world's largest market for reptile trafficking) exotic pets such as the Komodo dragon of Indonesia, the plowshare tortoise of northeast Madagascar, and the tuatara (a small lizard-like reptile from New Zealand) reportedly sell for as much as $30,000 each on the black market. Wildlife smuggling is also a growing concern in the United Kingdom, where in 1999 alone, customs officials confiscated some 1,600 live animal and birds, 1,800 plants, 52,000 parts and derivatives of endangered species, and 388,000 grams of smuggled caviar.
The multibillion-dollar traditional Asian medicine industry has also been a strong source of demand for illegal wildlife, with adherents from Beijing to New York purchasing potions made from ground tiger bone, rhino horn, and other wildlife derivatives for their alleged effect on ailments from impotence to asthma. In parts of Asia, bile from bear gall bladders (used to treat cancers, asthma, eye disease, and other afflictions) can be worth more than narcotics. The New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society reports that the illegal hunting and trafficking of animals for medicine, aphrodisiacs, and gourmet food is now the single greatest threat to endangered species in Asia.
The scale of the illegal wildlife trade reflects the serious obstacles to enforcement under CITES. Smugglers may conceal the items on their persons or in vehicles, baggage, or postal and courier shipments, resulting in fatality rates as high as 90 percent for many live species. They may also alter the required CITES permits to indicate a different quantity, type, or destination of species, or to change the appearance of items so they appear ordinary. In February 2000, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service arrested a Cote d'Ivoire man for smuggling 72 elephant ivory carvings, valued at $200,000, through New York's John F. Kennedy airport. Many of them had been painted to resemble stone.
As wildlife smuggling grows in sophistication, it accounts for a rapidly rising share of international criminal activity. RENCTAS now ranks the illicit wildlife trade as the third largest illegal cross-border activity, after the arms and drug trades. Wildlife smugglers commonly rely on the same international trafficking routes as dealers of other contraband goods, such as gems and drugs. In the United States, consignments of snakes have been found stuffed with cocaine, and illegally traded turtles have entered on the same boats as marijuana. The U.S.-Mexico border has become a significant transfer point for environmental contraband: in the first eight months of 2001, Mexican authorities reported seizing more...