Wildlife trafficking in Europe: the tip of a growing iceberg

5 July 2013

(This blog is adapted from an article that will be published in the Norwegian Police Magazine Miljøkrim, publication date August 2013)

Globally, illegal wildlife trade is flourishing like never before. Wild populations of elephants, rhinos, tigers and many other mammal, bird and reptile species are facing a risk of extinction due to massive, large-scale poaching and trafficking. This illicit trade is fuelled by a surging demand in Asia for exotic wildlife. Evidence that organised crime groups in Africa and Asia have become heavily involved in the low risk, high profit business of wildlife trafficking is mounting. Moreover, ivory poaching in Africa is feeding armed conflicts and as such is posing a threat to international security. Public concern and outrage at this onslaught is great, including in Europe. There seems to be a perception among the general public as well as many governmental and non-governmental organisations that wildlife poaching and trafficking is mostly a problem in Africa and Asia. There is evidence, however, that it is happening in Europe as well. This article discusses some incidents of wildlife smuggling that have occurred in Europe recently, which show that Europe is affected by the poaching crisis in Africa and the wildlife trafficking to Asia and which indicate that wildlife trafficking may be more widespread than some might wish to think.

Rhino horn trafficking

A few years ago a rumour started circulating in Vietnam: it was said a high-level Vietnamese government official had been cured after consuming rhino horn. The rumour is considered to be false, given the fact that rhino horn is made up of keratin, the same substance as human fingernails. It had terrible consequences, however, because it sparked a surge in demand for rhino horn from Vietnam. This demand led to an unprecedented rise in the illegal killing of rhinos in Southern Africa and the trafficking of rhino horns from all over the world, including the EU. Prices of rhino horn now surpass that of gold ($55.000 per kg), and so it is no wonder rhino horn trafficking has spiralled out of control.

Whereas in Africa live rhinos are being killed for trade, in Europe it is old horns from museums, antique shops and private collections that have become the target of criminals wanting to cash in. Thanks to good criminal analysis work by EUROPOL, in 2010 it emerged that members of an Irish organized crime gang, the Rathkeale Rovers, were stealing and illegally buying up rhino horns all across Europe.[1] Despite the publicity concerning this rhino horn smuggling ring and preventive measures taken by museums, the rhino horn thefts are still on-going. Recent incidents happened in Portugal (March 2013)[2], the UK (April 2013) and Ireland (April 2013).[3]

Other groups and individuals have also become involved in the illegal rhino horn trade in and from Europe:

–        In 2012 the Czech Republic’s authorities discovered that Vietnamese nationals residing in the Czech Republic were recruiting Czech citizens to shoot rhinos in South Africa under the guise of a hunting permit and bring the horns back to the Czech Republic. The horns were then most likely smuggled to Vietnam.[4]

–        In February 2013 Dutch authorities seized five rhino horns (estimated value €125.000)) and arrested two suspects who had tried to sell the horns.[5]

–        In March 2013 two Chinese passengers from France were arrested in Shanghai for smuggling rhino horns and ivory (total estimated value $800.000).[6]

Ivory trafficking

From rhinos, let’s move on to ivory. Anyone who reads the newspapers is aware that a slaughter is taking place among the elephant populations in Africa. Tens of thousands are killed illegally each year now, and if this continues African elephants may go extinct within 10 years time. Frequent seizures of tons of ivory tusks in Asian harbors testify to the magnitude of this illicit trade. The sophisticated manner in which it is conducted shows the hand of organized crime networks.

The huge ivory shipments find their way to Asia on ships that most often take direct routes from Africa to Asia. Unknown quantities are trafficked via Europe too, however, both via sea and air. Belgian Customs, for example, makes frequent seizures of ivory as well as other wildlife parts from Asia (e.g. pangolin scales, seahorses, reptile skins), both from parcel post and Chinese passengers from African countries transiting in Europe en route to China. Possibly, the EU is also an end destination for some of this ivory. In April 2013 Belgian Customs seized 17 kg of ivory from the luggage of a Chinese passenger from Democratic Republic of Congo in transit to Romania.[7]

Surveys of wildlife trade on the Internet have further shown that it is not just Asians who fancy ivory. An investigation in 2012 into the online ivory trade in the EU by INTERPOL uncovered considerable volumes of online ivory trade. 660 ivory advertisements found on 61 websites in 9 countries during a 2-week period were analyzed. The adverts represented an estimated volume of around 4500 kg, with a value of nearly € 1.5 million.[8]


An illustration of the money craze that has drawn many to try their luck in wildlife crime is the rather astounding incident that happened in in the Natural History Museum of Paris, March 2013: a man hacked off a tusk from an elephant exhibit, which had belonged to Louis XIV (see photo).[9]

Odd stuff hidden in vehicles

It is a well-known fact that the lack of border controls in the EU has facilitated the trafficking of all kinds of illicit goods as well as humans. Wildlife is no exception. Criminal investigations into illegal wildlife trade in several EU countries have shown that illegal wildlife often finds it way into the EU through entry points where enforcement is weakest, and from there is transported by road to end destinations across the EU.

bushmeat trade apes

An incident that points at such trans-boundary trafficking occurred in the Netherlands in February 2013. During a routine inspection by the Dutch border police on the highway in the most southern province of Limburg (bordering Germany and Belgium) a Congolese man was found to have a sack of monkey parts in his car. The border police made the grisly discovery when they looked in the back of the car and noticed the sack, with two monkey hands sticking out.[10] It is unclear where the monkey parts came from, but it is likely that the parts had been smuggled into a European airport from an African country. As we know, the meat of monkeys and other wildlife from African forests is savored as a delicacy by Africans. The trafficking of bushmeat from Africa is very worrisome, not just from a viewpoint of species conservation, but also because it is known to carry infectious diseases. HIV, for example, is suspected to have spread from apes to humans through bushmeat consumption.[11]

Another disturbing find happened in that same month, February 2013, when a Vietnamese man was arrested in the Czech Republic with a sack of tiger bones in his car.[12] The man claimed the bones were intended for his own use, to produce medicine. In Vietnam tiger bones are used to produce tiger bone glue. It is likely the tiger bones came from a tiger that had lived in captivity, probably in a zoo or circus. The incident is evidence that there is illegal trade from such captive sources, an illegal trade that goes unnoticed in the vast majority of cases.

Why should we be concerned?

It is telling that most of the examples of illegal wildlife trade mentioned above occurred in the time frame of a few months. And these are only a selection of incidents that were reported in the media. Clearly, these incidents indicate that wildlife trafficking is happening right under our noses.

Illegal wildlife trade is not only a threat to endangered species in Europe and other continents. It is a potential threat to human health, as the bushmeat trafficking incident shows. Wildlife crime is linked to other types of crime such as fraud, money laundering and corruption. Furthermore, the involvement of criminal organizations, not just in Africa and Asia but also in Europe (e.g. the Irish and Vietnamese gangs) is a threat to the rule of law in all countries affected.

[1]EUROPOL and Ireland identify organized crime group active in illegal trading of rhino horn’, EUROPOL press release 7 July 2011:  https://www.europol.europa.eu/content/press/europol-and-ireland-identify-organised-crime-group-active-illegal-trading-rhino-horn-9

[2]Valuable rhino horn thefts from Coimbra Museum’, Algarve Resident, 22 March 2013: http://www.algarveresident.com/0-52026/algarve/valuable-rhino-horn-thefts-from-coimbra-museum

[3]Rhino heads and horns worth £428,000 stolen from Irish museum’, BBC, 18 April 2013: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-22200051

[4] ‘Interpretation and implementation of the Convention, Rhinoceroses: Report of the CITES Secretariat to the 16th Conference of the Parties’, CoP16 Doc. 54.2 (Rev. 1): http://www.cites.org/eng/cop/16/doc/E-CoP16-54-02.pdf

[5] Dutch language press release: ‘NVWA neemt vijf neushoornhoorns in beslag’, 21 February 2013: http://www.vwa.nl/actueel/nieuws/nieuwsbericht/2030365/

[6]Ivory, rhino horn smuggling rises’, Shanghai Daily 21 March 2013: http://www.china.org.cn/china/2013-03/21/content_28313004.htm

[7] Belgian Customs Airport News CITES 12/2013, dated 29/04 2013 (unpublished).

[8]Project WEB: An investigation into the ivory trade over the internet within the European Union’. INTERPOL Environmental Crime Programme, February 2013, accessible via www.interpol.int.

[9]Chainsaw man caught stealing tusk from Louis XIV elephant in Paris’, The Guardian, 31 March  2013: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/mar/31/chainsaw-man-stealing-elephant-tusk-paris-museum

[10] Dutch language news report: ‘Dode aap op achterbank gevonden’, 13 March 2013: http://nos.nl/artikel/484123-dode-aap-op-achterbank-gevonden.html

[11] F. Van Heuverswyn and M. Peeters: ‘The origins of HIV and implications for the global epidemic’, Current Infectious Disease Reports, July 2007, Volume 9, Issue 4, pp 338-346: http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11908-007-0052-x and: ‘Lethal viruses could leap continents in bushmeat trade’, New Scientist, 12 January 2012: http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn21347-lethal-viruses-could-leap-continents-in-bushmeat-trade.html#.UdbUBD5NtwU

[12] See EcoJust blog: ‘Tiger trade in the EU?’, 26 February 2013: https://www.ecojust.eu/tiger-trade-in-the-eu/

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