En­abling the deal­ers in death
Don Pinnock
24th May 2020

The le­gal trade in wild an­i­mals be­tween SA and China is help­ing the il­le­gal trade grow, writes en­vi­ron­men­tal in­ves­ti­ga­tor Don Pin­nock.

The le­gal trade in wildlife be­tween SA and China is ex­ten­sive and of­ten corrupt, with glar­ing vi­o­la­tions over­looked by au­thor­i­ties and ben­e­fits flowing to a few wealthy traders. It’s also act­ing as a cover for il­licit trade. This is doc­u­mented in an ex­ten­sive, metic­u­lous re­port by Ban An­i­mal Trading and the EMS Foun­da­tion — the out­come of four years of re­search.

The re­port says photos taken at Chi­nese im­port­ing cen­tres show bar­ren enclo­sures that “tell their own story of an­i­mal wel­fare vi­o­la­tion and naked greed” de­spite the dan­ger of Covid-type dis­eases.

The au­thors found that ex­port per­mits fre­quently list fake des­ti­na­tions and that the is­su­ing of per­mits un­der the Con­ven­tion on In­ter­na­tional Trade in En­dan­gered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) is so lax it’s al­most nonex­is­tent. As a re­sult, wild an­i­mals are sub­jected to cruel and de­grad­ing con­di­tions when cap­tured, bred, trans­ported, dis­played in Chi­nese “theme parks” or used in sci­en­tific ex­per­i­ments. Their wel­fare is be­ing ig­nored.

Given that the trade in wildlife has trig­gered a global pan­demic, says the re­port, this is ex­tremely wor­ry­ing, threat­en­ing not only the lives of an­i­mals but of hu­mans too. In­fec­tious zoonotic (trans­mit­ted from an­i­mals to peo­ple) disease out­breaks have in­creased dra­mat­i­cally in the past 30 years. The most likely causes are com­mer­cial­i­sa­tion through ex­ploita­tion of wildlife. This in­cludes hunt­ing, trade in and trans­port of wild and farmed an­i­mals, habi­tat degra­da­tion, an in­crease in the num­ber of farmed an­i­mals, par­tic­u­larly wild an­i­mals, in­ten­si­fied agri­cul­tural ac­tiv­i­ties and ex­pan­sion of agri­cul­tural land.

Ac­cord­ing to the re­port, “habi­tat loss, global travel and a per­sis­tent and grow­ing ap­petite for wild tastes and ex­otic prod­ucts has cre­ated a per­fect storm for the next hu­man pan­demic”.

The CITES reg­u­la­tory sys­tem, it says, has cre­ated a false sense of se­cu­rity for those who be­lieve the in­ter­na­tional trade in wildlife is jus­ti­fied, sus­tain­able and ed­u­ca­tional — and con­trib­utes to con­ser­va­tion.

“In fact it fa­cil­i­tates the il­le­gal trade by en­abling the laun­der­ing of an­i­mals while boost­ing de­mand for il­le­gal wildlife and il­le­gal wildlife prod­ucts,” it says.

Some of the many young giraffes at Jinan Zoo in Shandong province.

The re­port, which is based on in­ves­ti­ga­tions in China, open-source re­search and in­for­ma­tion ob­tained from gov­ern­men­tal and non­govern­men­tal sources, shines a glar­ing spot­light on SA’s “le­gal” trade in live wild an­i­mals with China. This trade, it says, is “rid­dled with ir­reg­u­lar­i­ties” with “gap­ing loop­holes” in the CITES per­mit­ting sys­tem. These in­clude:

● Il­le­gal ship­ments mas­querad­ing as le­gal ex­ports of wildlife species clas­si­fied as threat­ened by ex­tinc­tion (Ap­pendix I) and en­dan­gered (Ap­pendix II) by CITES;

● Il­le­gal ship­ments mas­querad­ing as le­gal ex­ports of wildlife species clas­si­fied as threat­ened by ex­tinc­tion (Ap­pendix I) and en­dan­gered (Ap­pendix II) by CITES;

● Bro­ker­ing and whole­sale com­pa­nies and zoos im­pli­cated in the traf­fick­ing of wild-caught CITES Ap­pendix I-listed species;

● The sale of CITES-listed species to theme and amuse­ment parks, cir­cuses, lab­o­ra­to­ries and zoos and so-called sa­fari parks in vi­o­la­tion of CITES rules;

● Un­trace­able des­ti­na­tions, im­porters and ad­dresses de­spite these be­ing re­quired in CITES per­mits;

● En­force­ment neg­li­gence, par­tic­u­larly in re­la­tion to likely false dec­la­ra­tions made by traders, agents and ex­porters;

● En­force­ment neg­li­gence, par­tic­u­larly in re­la­tion to likely false dec­la­ra­tions made by traders, agents and ex­porters;

● An­i­mals traded be­ing un­trace­able af­ter ex­port;

● Ab­sent ver­i­fi­ca­tion mea­sures;

● Lack of trans­parency and ac­cess to per­mits; and ● An in­ter­twin­ing of the le­gal lo­cal and global per­mit sys­tem with il­le­gal wildlife trade.

A young chimpanzee is threatened by its keeper. 

“The repet­i­tive box-tick­ing ex­er­cise that de­fines CITES is, in a very real sense, dan­ger­ous be­cause it cre­ates the il­lu­sion of a well-con­trolled sys­tem of com­pli­ance, ef­fi­ciency and ver­i­fi­ca­tion — and there­fore pro­tec­tion,” the re­port notes.

SA’s poli­cies and pro­ce­dures ac­tively pro­mote this con­ver­gence. For these rea­sons, “transna­tional wildlife traf­fick­ing net­works and crimes per­pe­trated against wild an­i­mals can­not be dis­rupted with­out fo­cus­ing on the en­tire sup­ply and de­mand chain of the so-called ‘le­gal’ trade”.

The de­tails that back these claims are shock­ing and de­mand the ur­gent at­ten­tion of the depart­ment of en­vi­ron­ment, fish­eries & forestry (DEFF). The re­port lists a litany of bad prac­tices, ques­tion­able de­ci­sions and shady deals.

SA is the largest ex­porter in Africa of live wild an­i­mals to Asia, but au­thor­i­ties re­peat­edly fail to com­ply with the very ba­sic CITES reg­u­la­tions gov­ern­ing this trade.

Be­tween 2016 and 2018, SA and China were listed among the top five coun­tries for wildlife traf­fick­ing seizures.

The coun­try’s “con­sump­tive use” wildlife doc­trine and lax reg­u­la­tions risk un­leash­ing myr­iad Covid­type dis­eases.

The DEFF en­cour­ages trade in wild an­i­mals and their body parts with­out sci­en­tific ev­i­dence and with­out prop­erly as­sess­ing the im­pact this may have on free-rang­ing pop­u­la­tions of wild an­i­mals, the re­port says. DEFF says its trade in wildlife is reg­u­lated, “but this does not ac­cord with our ob­ser­va­tions”.

Nearly all ex­ported pri­mates are not bred in cap­tiv­ity; they are wild-caught and il­le­gally traded out of Africa and In­done­sia.

False dec­la­ra­tions by traders, agents and ex­porters are com­mon yet not a sin­gle of­fender has been pros­e­cuted.

The ori­gin of any given an­i­mal is al­most im­pos­si­ble to trace. Once an­i­mals leave SA it is sim­i­larly im­pos­si­ble to iden­tify where they end up. Many des­ti­na­tions are “pure fic­tion”.

Most ex­port per­mits are in breach of CITES reg­u­la­tions. CITES im­port per­mits are of­ten not signed or dated.

Lo­cal and CITES le­gal wildlife trade mon­i­tor­ing sys­tems con­tain ex­ten­sive loop­holes, gaps and op­por­tu­ni­ties to laun­der il­le­gal items into the le­gal mar­ket.

The source of so-called cap­tive-bred an­i­mals is not checked or prop­erly ver­i­fied.

Ar­chaic, pa­per-based lo­cal and CITES le­gal wildlife trade mon­i­tor­ing sys­tems make it vir­tu­ally im­pos­si­ble to rec­on­cile and au­dit trade in­for­ma­tion or to cross­check in­for­ma­tion pro­vided on way­bills.

The name of the im­porter on the per­mit is very of­ten not the ac­tual des­ti­na­tion or ad­dress that the ex­ported an­i­mals will be sent to.

In China, an­i­mal wel­fare laws gov­ern­ing cap­tive wild an­i­mals are nonex­is­tent.

The idea of “well-reg­u­lated” mar­kets is a myth, a smoke­screen be­hind which deeply em­bed­ded in­ter­ests ex­ploit wild an­i­mals for purely com­mer­cial gain.

DNA tests are rarely done.

It is ex­tremely dif­fi­cult to iden­tify the source of baby an­i­mals ar­riv­ing in China from Africa.

CITES mem­bers are us­ing zoos as a shield to ab­solve them­selves of any re­spon­si­bil­ity for an­i­mal wel­fare. Far from be­ing places of care and safety,

“zoos are places of stress-in­duc­ing con­fine­ment and cap­tiv­ity and there is no con­ser­va­tion-ed­u­ca­tion value to the use of wild an­i­mals”.

CITES as an in­ter­na­tional treaty is “weak, un­ten­able, im­prac­ti­ca­ble, un­fea­si­ble and ir­repara­ble”.

The re­search found that, be­tween 2015 and 2019, at least 32 wild species from SA were ex­ported to China. It lists 15 ex­porters and 41 im­porters, find­ing ques­tion­able listed in­for­ma­tion and per­mit vi­o­la­tions in many cases. Many of the an­i­mals were be­ing used to per­form in cir­cuses and wildlife events or were go­ing to labs for ex­per­i­men­ta­tion and vivi­sec­tion in vi­o­la­tion of CITES reg­u­la­tions.

Of par­tic­u­lar con­cern was the ex­port of CITES Ap­pendix 1-listed chim­panzees and tigers (not indige­nous to SA), chee­tahs, rhi­nos, li­ons, cara­cal, mon­keys, gi­raffes and un­listed species such as wild dogs, hye­nas and meerkats.

The re­port con­cludes that the wildlife trade be­tween SA and China is “mas­sive, ever-ex­pand­ing, eco­log­i­cally un­sus­tain­able, dam­ag­ing and closely in­ter­twined with il­le­gal ac­tiv­i­ties”.

“South Africa’s wildlife con­ser­va­tion rep­u­ta­tion is ef­fec­tively in tat­ters be­cause DEFF has mis­in­ter­preted sec­tion 24 of the South African con­sti­tu­tion and is in­stead and ex­pe­di­ently in­ter­pret­ing the no­tion of ‘sus­tain­able use’ as a catch-all jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for ram­pant ex­ploita­tion of wild an­i­mals.”

The coun­try’s in­ter­na­tional live wildlife trade, says the re­port, is “large, poorly en­forced, in­de­fen­si­ble and shame­ful”. The re­port says bans should be placed on:

● The live trade of wild an­i­mals, in­clud­ing cap­tive­bred wild an­i­mals;

● Cap­tive breeding and farm­ing of wildlife for trade;

● The con­sump­tion of wild an­i­mals; and

● Wet mar­kets and wild an­i­mal mar­kets.

It calls for a pro­hi­bi­tion on the in­ter­na­tional com­mer­cial le­gal trade and sale of wild an­i­mals and their body parts and a pre­cau­tion­ary and com­pas­sion­ate ap­proach in re­la­tion to wildlife.

The NGOs rec­om­mend the craft­ing of a com­pre­hen­sive global agree­ment “as a mat­ter of ex­treme ur­gency, to tackle the dan­ger­ous, in­hu­mane and in­dis­crim­i­nate trade in wild an­i­mals”.

The re­port is part of larger re­search into the wildlife trade, which will in­clude Viet­nam, Thai­land, Pakistan and Bangladesh. In view of the Covid-19 pan­demic, how­ever, it was de­cided to re­lease the China sec­tion ahead of the fi­nal pub­li­ca­tion.

Fran­cisco Pérez, a CITES com­mu­ni­ca­tions of­fi­cer, re­sponded to the re­port: “We will re­view the re­port care­fully and will not hes­i­tate to take up any se­ri­ous breaches of the Con­ven­tion with the States con­cerned or bring mat­ters to the at­ten­tion of the CITES stand­ing com­mit­tee if re­quired.”

The DEFF did not re­spond when ap­proached for com­ment.

Wildlife trade be­tween SA and China is ‘mas­sive, eco­log­i­cally un­sus­tain­able, dam­ag­ing and closely in­ter­twined with il­le­gal ac­tiv­i­ties … SA’s con­ser­va­tion rep­u­ta­tion is in tat­ters’