In October 1994, I was in Vietnam's North Truong Son Mountains, hard against the Laos border at a logging camp on the remote Khe Môi River. On assignment for a national magazine, I was accompanying a group of scientists conducting biodiversity surveys in previously unexplored areas. The primary forest here harboured a wealth of rare mammals, with remnant populations of elephant, tiger, gibbon, pangolin, barking deer, and the just-discovered sao la—or Vu Quang ox. After several weeks in the jungle, we'd extended this bio-bonanza to numerous undescribed species of snake, frog and insect, typically discovered during night excursions.
On reconnaissance one early evening, I'd waded upriver, searching out entrances to smaller streams to return to after dark. Rounding a bend, I surprised a clutch of men huddled around a fire on a sandbar. Clad in rags, skin darkened by smoke and grit, they radiated conspiracy—and with reason. Behind them sat a brace of ancient rifles and bamboo-frame packs on which were lashed the dried bodies of several gibbons and sun bears—both critically endangered species afforded the highest level of protection under Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). As the men closed ranks to avoid eye-contact, I waded past against the far bank, pretending I hadn't noticed anything untoward. The poachers were killing time until dark, when they'd make their way downriver to town to trade their booty along a pipeline to China—the beckoning maw into which the majority of the world's illegally obtained wildlife flows.
Though I'd never beheld such a thing, I knew precisely what I was looking at: if Southeast Asia's remaining forests were a goldmine of wildlife resources, then exotic outposts like the Khe Môi were its cutting face, a tableaux of lawless isolation where CITES was less than meaningless. What I didn't know at the time was that the same could be said of Canada's vast forests for the same reasons, and, perhaps worse, that one could also buy the equivalent of a powdered gibbon smoothie on the streets of Vancouver.
"There's been a significant increase in wildlife trafficking and poaching over the last decade," says Sheldon Jordan, Director General of the Wildlife Enforcement Directorate (WED) for Environment and Climate Change Canada, and chair of Interpol's Wildlife Crime Working Group. Given his dual roles, Jordan has special insight into the reasons behind this. "Increased demand for wildlife products is driven largely by more disposable income in Asia and other parts of the world that have food, medicinal and spiritual traditions around these items."
With "wildlife trade" defined as the sale or exchange of any wild animal or plant (including trees), one might also finger both a rising population and sharp increase over the same period in the globalization of commerce. According to TRAFFIC (traffic.org)—a network established in 1976 to monitor global wildlife trade—the value of legal wildlife products in the early 1990s hovered around US$160 billion annually; by 2009 that had doubled to US$323 billion, including everything from seafood to timber. A hint of the remainder lies in a CITES-compiled list of the 2005–2009 legal trade: 317,000 live birds, 2 million live reptiles, 2.5 million crocodile skins, 2.1 million snake skins, 1.1 million beaver pelts, 73 tons of caviar, a reef's worth of coral, and 20,000 mammal hunting trophies. Though black-market trade in these same items is, by its very nature, difficult to assess, United Nations (UN) estimates of US$7 billion to $23 billion for fauna trafficking alone, and US$57 to $175 billion when flora and lumber are added, are staggering. Enough that on the scale of illicit global trade, wildlife now ranks fourth behind drugs, counterfeiting and human trafficking. It's a reality, notes Jordan, that surprises most people.
Canada's substantial legal wildlife trade—forestry, commercial and recreational fisheries, wild plant harvesting, guided hunting—aids communities when undertaken sustainably. But continued unsustainable harvesting and the illegal export and import of wildlife resources both here and abroad threatens to undermine any broader efforts at stewardship, affecting communities and economies worldwide. "Like it or not, we're all dependent on the Earth for our survival," says Jordan. "The more that's taken without being regulated, the less ecosystems are able to continue the services they provide all life—including ourselves."
What Canada lacks in diversity of desirable species is made up in sheer numbers of organisms, distributed over 10 million square kilometres, an area that could comfortably contain 30 Vietnams. With just over a third the population of that small country, famously concentrated in a few discrete areas, Canada has plenty of isolated areas where poaching bears to harvest gall bladders and paws—both in demand in Chinese traditional medicine—might go unnoticed. For Canada, an increase in wildlife crime coupled with downward trends in government spending means more work with fewer resources to do it. While WED is responsible for enforcing regulations of, among others, the Migratory Birds Convention Act, the Wild Animal and Plant Protection and Regulation of International and Interprovincial Trade Act, the Species at Risk Act and the Canada Wildlife Act, it has only 75 field officers nationwide. Excluding the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, across all other government organizations and levels in Canada, less than 1,500 people attend to wildlife laws—compared to 70,000 police officers. That makes modern intelligence-gathering methodologies crucial to efficiency, with the resulting information used to decide where the biggest problems are and how to leverage the right partnerships to deal with them—a sort of jurisdictional triage.
In practice, wildlife trade is part of a broader category of connected "environmental crime" that includes pollution, illegal fishing and logging (e.g., with up to one third of the world's paper obtained from illegally sourced wood, economic impacts accrue for countries like Canada that strictly regulate such sectors). According to a 2016 UN report, environmental crime is rising five to seven per cent annually—double the pace of world economic growth. For Jordan, a foot in both camps aids efforts to squelch internal trade as well as to identify and cut off export and import routes of everything from butterflies to birds to fish to frogs.
In 2015-2016, WED logged 4,900 inspections, 900 enforcement measures, 167 new prosecutions, and 158 convictions, handing out a record $1.1 million in penalties—the largest a $750,000 levy against the Canaport LNG facility in Saint John, N.B., which killed 7,500 migratory birds with a careless flare-off on a foggy night. "The information found on computers in that investigation would have reached to the top of the CN Tower if printed out," says Jordan. "It contained evidence that the company was warned about this problem but chose to ignore it, so the deaths were completely avoidable."
(Likewise avoidable was the death of 1,600 birds on a Syncrude oil-sands tailings pond in 2008. WED's investigation found that depressed oil prices led Syncrude to lay off most of its environmental team, which usually installed devices to scare away birds.)
Among the infractions listed above were the illegal harvesting of migratory birds in Quebec, the illegal export of narwhal tusks by a Montreal auction house, a litany of bear parts from a New Brunswick border blitz, the destruction of bank swallow nests in Nova Scotia, a Dall sheep poached in the Yukon (where it is protected) and smuggled into B.C. (where it isn't) so hunters could claim that province as its origin, and the illegal harvesting of endangered American ginseng, a slow-growing, low-seed plant with colonies that require 170 individuals to remain viable. "The reason for that particular trade is maddening," laments Jordan. "A good wild ginseng root is 10 to 15 centimetres long; the more it resembles a human—with branches that approximate arms and legs—the more it's worth, up to thousands of dollars."
WED engages not only in enforcement, but also proactive training and joint efforts aimed at stemming illegal activity while protecting legal trade. Though many environmental NGOs don't agree with it, the Canadian government's position is that non-threatened Canadian populations of globally threatened wildlife provide economic opportunity to dependent communities when managed sustainably. Emblematic is our most iconic large mammal, the polar bear. While Canada's made significant efforts to protect populations and ensure their continued health, polar bears continue to confer cultural, sustenance and economic benefits to many isolated Indigenous communities. But when auction prices for hides spiked from $5,000 to $20,000 apiece several years ago, illegal harvest rose in tandem. "Operation Aurora" is a multi-year effort to ensure trade and transport of all harvested specimens is compliant. Last year, WED joined provincial, territorial and federal agencies to collaborate with Indigenous communities on a three-pronged approach to identify and track legal polar bear hides from harvest through export. DNA analysis that reveals genetic relationships, stable isotope analysis of fur that suggests what a bear was eating, and tagging with easily scanned microchips all yield information on when and where a hide was obtained, helping thwart illegal trade while facilitating more efficient tracking for legal hides.
But while this approach can help with non-compliant exports, the tide of illegal imports, according to Jordan, continues unabated.
In the early 1980s, a curator at Ottawa's National Museum of Nature invited me to tour a warehouse across the river in Gatineau, Que., where CITES Appendix I material seized at Canadian airports, seaports and border crossings was stored. I recall a dimly lit mortuary of metal shelves stacked floor to ceiling with stuffed, glassy-eyed crocodilians and birds, sea turtle carapaces, conch shells, rolled snakeskins, numerous ivories, and the hides of lions and tigers and bears. Though this particular cache has long since been destroyed, WED maintains small exhibit rooms near Toronto and Ottawa, respectively, stocked with similar items, plus pharmacopeia made from prohibited plant and animal species. While the sheer scope of material on display remains disturbing, a single rhino horn sitting on a shelf also can't help but conjure a gruesome image of its deceased owner, bleeding in the dirt, horn severed from its head. And that raises a troubling question: How long until these great beasts are gone from our midst?
Not long considering what amounts to an 8,000-per-cent rise in rhino poaching; in 2007, 13 animals were killed, while the past four years have each seen over 1,000 removed from the wild, driven by black-market prices of up to $350,000 per horn—the price of a house in some Canadian cities. "Ten years ago, someone started a rumour that powdered rhino horn cures cancer—except it's only keratin like hair and fingernails," notes Jordan. "You have as much chance of curing cancer or erectile dysfunction with rhino horn as you do chewing your fingernails."
Pangolins, a scaly Southeast Asian anteater, are likewise slaughtered at the rate of 1 million annually for the whimsical properties of their scales. Elephant populations are seeing annual decreases of roughly 8.5 per cent (against a reproductive rate that optimally allows for only a four-per-cent increase). In the Horn of Africa, ivory is smuggled from the lawless Democratic Republic of the Congo through unstable South Sudan into Somalia, where ports are controlled by the jihadist fundamentalist group al-Shabaab, which happily taxes its passage. "With upwardly mobile collectors in emerging economies paying top dollar for decorative ivory carvings, we could be down to very few wild elephants within a generation," says Jordan. "Many of those countries are at the stage we were at 50 years ago in terms of cultural taboos, so it'll take time."
Meanwhile, Asian enclaves in large North American cities will continue to practice certain traditional beliefs despite the cultural—and legal—prohibitions of the West. "There's a large trade in anything charismatic or useful in traditional medicines that mainly has Asian Canadians as clients," says Jordan, echoing news reports and what one might find during a tour of Chinese markets and apothecaries in Toronto and Vancouver, where all manner of live (turtles, fish), dried (geckos, sea cucumbers, shark fins) and powdered (endangered large mammal bits) contraband is transacted. China itself, however, may be coming around, having announced an end to its government-sanctioned ivory trade at the end of 2017. Jordan wishes the Chinese luck, believing the trade will simply go underground for a few years.
Before encountering the Khe Môi poachers, I knew that China's insatiable appetite for alimentation, wishful aphrodisiacs and traditional medicines already accounted for many of Vietnam's endangered species—and several that soon would be. When a single king cobra netted US$200—equivalent to Vietnam's average annual wage at the time—providing for a hungry family trumped all. The traffic we observed in consumable snakes and frogs alone was staggering—thousands crammed into burlap sacks crossing into China every day. Add in lizards, turtles, fish, birds, mammals and invertebrates, with the same occurring in a hundred other countries, and you had a major global crisis. This was the real China syndrome—not the nuclear meltdown of the eponymous 1979 Hollywood flick, but a biodiversity apocalypse now.
Reptiles are surprisingly common contraband. In 2009, an undercover operation involving the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, WED, and U.S. agencies documented the illegal trade of over 2,400 protected turtles and venomous snakes, charging two dozen people. Three Ontario men rounded up in the sting faced 34 charges for selling two protected species—eastern Massasauga rattlesnake and spotted turtle—across the border. American investigators posing as vendors at commercial reptile shows in New York and Pennsylvania befriended poachers and trawled internet sites before nabbing one of the men with 33 rattlesnakes hidden in his van. The Pennsylvania show was so popular with Canadian reptile enthusiasts that WED officers set up at the border crossing between Queenston, Ont., and Lewiston, N.Y., charging several under the customs act for smuggling venomous snakes and frogs into Canada. Their $1,000 fines, however, were mere slaps on the wrist that didn't cover the time spent catching, charging and processing them. "Generally speaking, our laws go back many decades and need a tune-up," observes Jordan. "It's a challenge to the enforcement community when deterrents are mild. By-and-large judges and prosecutors don't use the penalties available."
Though you can receive up to five years in jail for wildlife smuggling in Canada, Jordan has never seen more than four months, attributable, he believes, to a perception of environmental crime as victimless among a judiciary hardened by drug crimes with clear human cost—e.g., if a smuggler brings in a kilo of fentanyl, it's assumed a certain number of people will die; not so with a kilo of endangered critters. But where Canadian law leaves things up to the discretion of an overburdened court system, U.S. legal proscriptions are stronger, the penalties much harsher: a Waterloo, Ont. man caught heading south with dozens of turtles in his pants is now serving 57 months in an American jail.
Busts can be dramatic—worthy of reality TV treatment. In a case near Cornwall, Ont., Canadian and U.S. authorities monitored a boat as it crossed the St. Lawrence River from New York to Ontario to deliver boxes to a waiting van. Descending on the smugglers, a woman took off with the boat while officers arrested the man driving the van. The boxes contained Chinese striped turtles, African sideneck turtles, South American red-footed tortoises, and numerous lizards bound for pet stores and private collections. Ontario averages four or five such files a year. "Of course we don't know how much we're not detecting," Lonny Coote, WED's director for wildlife enforcement in Ontario, told The Canadian Press in 2016.
According to documents obtained under warrant, Dennis Day, the man arrested, processed over 18,000 illegal reptiles with a street value of $700,000. Convicted of smuggling in 2013, his sentence was a $50,000 fine and six months in jail, to be served on weekends. The boat driver was charged and convicted by U.S. officials. A third conspirator, who owned a Montreal reptile store, received a $45,000 fine and was successfully sued by the store's landlord after 250 dried reptile carcasses were discovered inside the building's walls. It takes a special kind of CSI forensics unit to identify such critters; for that, Jordan can rely on the government's Pacific and Yukon Laboratory for Environmental Testing, whose Environmental Toxicology section has used molecular techniques to analyze over 120 plant and animal samples for WED.
Smuggling comes with surprises. In one case Jordan relates, a Richmond, B.C., individual, who'd been shunting iconic wildlife in and out of Canada, was lured to New York for a buy, and arrested there. "As soon as he was in custody, we notified officers waiting outside his antique shop in Richmond to enter and retrieve his computer on which all the evidence would reside—you know, suppliers, clients—but they also found ivory and coral, as well as ecstasy, white powder and marijuana. He was clearly involved in organized crime."
According to Jordan, wildlife trade is attractive to organized crime because of its outrageous profit margins—higher, in many cases, than for illicit drugs. "That element has definitely increased over the 15 years I've been working. Every couple years a bear gall-bladder ring is taken apart... One in Quebec involved 80 people."
When it comes to illegal wildlife trade, stemming the tide of supply requires lowering the high-watermark of demand, a difficult proposition when you're up against human nature, ingrained cultural beliefs, and money. Though this equation has always existed, it is compounded by the nouveau riche of emerging economies, who can now afford products previously seen as unattainable luxuries.
Thus, as long as someone is willing to pay good money, desperate people will continue to kill gorillas simply to cut off their paws. And demand for supposed aphrodisiacs is as likely to go away as traditional Chinese medicine, despite the largely superstitious basis of both. In late 2006, Zhang Gongyao, a medical history professor at Central South University in Hunan, ignited a furor in China when he wrote: "Chinese traditional medicine has neither an empirical nor a rational foundation. It is a threat to biodiversity. And it often uses poisons and waste as remedies. So we have enough reasons to bid farewell to it."
On that long-ago Vietnam sojourn, illegal wildlife trade was apparent everywhere: local markets sold putatively protected animals, restaurants specialized in them, the Hanoi hotel where I stayed had a snake dealer in the lobby, gift shops brimmed with animal contraband, and illegal—yet state-sanctioned—logging was legion. Worst was the mid-coastal port of Vinh, where our group was guided on an incomprehensibly heart-wrenching tour to view live animals—sun bears, clouded leopards, pangolins, monitor lizards, pythons and birds kept under appalling conditions in hopes they could somehow be sold before they died. My biologist companions had tears in their eyes as we left town.
Canada's task seems clearer in Jordan's top three issues: the export trophy trade in vulnerable species; the import of high-value prohibited material like ivory and rhino horn; and the emerging threat of invasive species, which can wreak havoc on ecosystems but also carry parasites and pathogens that can harm Canadian wildlife. The good news? Technology is aiding enforcement—drones and remote-triggered cameras have made it easier to identify and locate wildlife poachers both abroad and in Canada. The bad news is that environmental criminals are using the same technology—as well as the internet, where you can purchase anything, and, perhaps in the near future, have it dropped at your house via drone.
Says Jordan: "These are the challenges we're up against as a world community."
This story previously appeared in Canadian Geographic on Dec. 2, 2017.