Global wildlife trafficking has risen to become one of the largest organised crimes in the world, and airlines are unwitting accomplices. As the global air transport network expands, so do opportunities for traffickers to ship illegal wildlife products across borders.
Not only does this illicit trade threaten to wipe out some of the world’s most iconic species, but its potential to spread zoonotic diseases means there are also human health implications. But the good news – or bad news for those involved with wildlife smuggling – is that the aviation industry is fighting back.
Five years ago, airlines and airports began signing United for Wildlife’s Buckingham Palace Declaration (BPD) – an agreement between the public and private sectors to work together to shut down the routes exploited by illegal wildlife traffickers, by sharing information and raising awareness of the issue. United for Wildlife was created by the Royal Foundation of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.
Since then, more than 120 companies – including 63 airlines, as well as airports and trade associations such as IATA and ACI International – have signed the declaration and joined the United for Wildlife Transport Taskforce. That list is expected to grow as the air transport industry seeks to fly out of the pandemic more sustainably, and protect itself against the threat of future pandemics.
“Five years ago, the fact was that illegal wildlife trade was not a priority,” says Dr Timothy Wittig, head of intelligence at both United for Wildlife and partner group Focused Conservation. “But today, we’ve worked closely with the aviation industry to put wildlife on the agenda across passenger, cargo and express operations.”
Wittig designed and led the implementation of the intelligence-sharing platform that enables the transport and financial taskforces’ public and private stakeholders to share information, and then feed it to specially-vetted local law enforcement units on the ground.
Tackling the illegal wildlife trade is “fundamentally an information problem”, says Wittig. “The airlines lack the information – they need to know where to look, where to put extra scrutiny, and how to work with law enforcement.”
Taskforce members receive monthly bulletins updating them on the latest wildlife trafficking threats and trends, as well as detailed alerts on specific areas of concern.
“The more information that’s shared, the more awareness that’s raised, the more people who are trained, and the more initiative airlines are taking, the easier it becomes,” says Wittig.
IATA joined the Transport Taskforce in 2015 and signed the BPD on behalf of its members when the initiative launched in March 2016. Since then, scores of airlines have signed up individually, “representing 33% of global traffic, as was 2019”, says Jon Godson, IATA’s assistant director, environment. “As we’ve been working over the last five years, the resources available to airlines have massively increased.”
Alongside the drive to protect endangered species as part of their corporate sustainability efforts, it makes sense for air transport companies to take illegal wildlife trafficking seriously because of its potential to spread zoonotic diseases. The Covid-19 pandemic has shone a spotlight on this issue, with the virus strongly suspected to have jumped from animals to humans.
Potentially contaminated bushmeat – or meat from wild animals – is being illegally flown into Europe from Africa and sold in food markets, posing human health risks.
“Hundreds of tonnes of bushmeat are transported into Europe every year, and it’s meat that comes from bats, rats and chimpanzees so the risk of another pandemic because of zoonotic transfer is very high,” says United for Wildlife Transport Taskforce manager Ian Cruickshank. “It’s coming by air because it’s frozen or fresh meat that’s time sensitive, and it goes to the markets.”
When samples were taken from bushmeat that was seized in Paris, “they found that there was contamination by microbes and viruses within the meat that was being smuggled”, says Godson.
Unlike high-value items such as ivory and rhino horn, which are trafficked by transnational criminal gangs, bushmeat does not generate huge profits and is more likely to be transported by individuals.
“People aren’t making big profits, so this leads us to believe it’s more related to ignorance – simply being unaware that when you’re flying to Europe you shouldn’t be flying with this meat. This makes it a bit more challenging, but it also lends itself to things like public awareness,” he says.
IATA’s work on combatting wildlife trafficking is supported by the USAID Reducing Opportunities for Unlawful Transport of Endangered Species (ROUTES) partnership. Michelle Owen, ROUTES lead at non-governmental organisation Traffic, says the BPD “has provided a sound basis for common understanding and action that the aviation industry can respond to”.
Part of IATA’s role as a taskforce member is to “make sure airlines actually deliver” on the 11 commitments contained in the declaration. IATA has added an illegal wildlife module to its environmental assessment (IEnvA) programme, and five airlines have now been independently assessed and certified as having met the new standard.
One of those carriers is Air Canada, which signed the BPD in mid-2020.
“We wanted to make sure that when we signed it, we would be able to act on it. We didn’t just want a piece of paper collecting dust,” says Teresa Ehman, senior director of environmental affairs at Air Canada. “We wanted to be able to operationalise the commitments and requirements.”
Following conversations with regulators about the importance of raising awareness in order to fight the illegal wildlife trade, Air Canada started working with the wider Canadian transportation sector to spread the message.
“We said, if we’re going to do awareness let’s go big and make sure we reach all the participants in the supply chain to get people thinking and talking about a call to action,” says Ehman. “It takes a network to fight a network, and the more airlines, airports, freight forwarders and cargo companies who participate, the more chance we have of identifying suspicious activities.”
One of the founding taskforce members, Kenya Airways, also realised the importance of collaborating with other local stakeholders. The airline has worked closely with the airport authority in Nairobi, the police, customs officials and the Kenya Wildlife Service to crack down on trafficking, says Linda Itindi, the carrier’s former manager of industrial safety and environment.
The first steps the airline took were to introduce a zero tolerance policy towards illegal wildlife trafficking and to train staff to spot suspicious activities. On one occasion, an employee who had recently undergone this training helped intercept three Hong Kong-bound bags containing pangolin scales which had been concealed among wood shavings. The bags were then seized by enforcement agents and the passenger was apprehended.
“That was one of the success stories we had, and it was nice because we were right in the middle of the training sessions,” says Itindi. “For me, it was a proud moment, as well as for the airline as one of the members of the taskforce.”
The fact that wildlife traffickers are masters of concealment is a huge challenge for air transport companies. Illegal wildlife products are routinely hidden among legitimate items or disguised in some way and misdeclared on customs documents, says Simon Roberts, who until his recent retirement served as vice-president, global head of security compliance at Taskforce member DHL Express.
“They wouldn’t send an entire rhino horn with DHL but they would cut it into discs,” he says. “When we saw ivory, they would cut it up into smaller pieces and carve it – sometimes it would be coloured – and it would be shipped as African art made of bone.”
Another challenge is the sheer scale and variety of illegal wildlife products that are shipped.
“There’s a common misconception when people think of wildlife products,” says Roberts. “They think of tiger skins and rhino horns and ivory, but the reality is that there are hundreds of thousands of illegal wildlife products, and they’re not all animal-based.”
This “enormous diversity” makes it “very difficult for people at a screener level to determine the difference” between legal and illegal products.
However, technology could play a key role in improving detection of illegal wildlife products in the future. United for Wildlife is supporting a project at London Heathrow airport which uses advanced screening technology to scan for wildlife items.
The pilot scheme is supported by Microsoft as part of its AI for Good programme, and uses artificial intelligence to detect illegal wildlife products in checked baggage and air cargo.
“It uses images to build up a database so that airlines can use those images to find rhino horns, elephant tusks and any other illegal wildlife items hidden in luggage, which we’ve never been able to do previously,” says Cruickshank.
Stronger co-operation across different aviation stakeholders and the establishment of regional taskforce chapters are the next items on United for Wildlife’s agenda as it steps up efforts to combat the illegal wildlife trade. Each region requires a different approach, with the focus in southern Africa being on preventing illegal wildlife products from leaving a country, for instance, while the emphasis in countries such as China is on stopping them from entering.
“We’re busy implementing that model so that we can deliver the right kind of intelligence to the right area,” says Cruickshank. “We’re also starting to go deeper in collaboration with airlines, airports and freight forwarders, so we’re increasing the scope of our operations.”