Airport Insiders Fast Tracking Wildlife Smuggling

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Research Shows Airline and Airport Officials Colluding with Traffickers

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Mass seizures of pangolin scales like this illustrate the scope and sophistication of the illegal wildlife trade through airports.
Photo credit: Kayleigh Ghiot/Freeland


BANGKOK, March 20, 2017
– Last week’s two revelations that US$8 million worth of poached African rhino horn being smuggled through Southeast Asian airports may be linked to corrupt airport and law enforcement personnel reaffirms findings from a new research study that has made startling discoveries about threats to both wildlife and people posed by lax security systems in major international airports.

The newly concluded analysis on wildlife smuggling cases over the last 12 months by Freeland, a counter-trafficking organization based in Bangkok, indicates that the trafficking of rhino horn, elephant ivory, pangolin scales and other endangered species contraband is being facilitated by law enforcement and airline officials working in some African and Asian airports. The findings imply that other illegal cargo could be similarly facilitated by the same well-placed networks. For aviation security the research warns that these complex criminal schemes in which a chain of corrupt personnel conceal and move cargo could also aid drug smugglers, human traffickers and terrorists.

Working with government and airline partners, Freeland has identified cases from seven airports in Africa and Asia where ground personnel have been actively involved on a regular basis in concealing and moving endangered wildlife. The research has only focused on 11 airports so far, which means the scale of this corruption could be far greater. Meanwhile, the research continues.

Some well-placed airline officers, baggage handlers, police, Customs, shipping agents and others in southern Africa, Eastern Africa, Central Africa, and Southeast Asia, are colluding with wildlife traffickers who pay bribes to facilitate the illegal trade through international airports. Documents are changed to dupe inspectors. Airline officers help carry and monitor illicit cargo, while corrupt border security officers and shipping agents connive to allow this contraband to be exported and imported.

Freeland’s findings are part of a two-year research project into wildlife trafficking along many international smuggling routes. The research involved interviewing inmates convicted of wildlife crimes, following up on tips from informers and other confidential sources. These findings were then cross-checked against more than 100 seizures, arrests and court cases.

Freeland is not publishing these findings. Instead, the counter-trafficking organization will be using the research to provide technical assistance to governments and airlines to mitigate these threats. Because of the serious implications for aviation and human security, security agencies will also be engaged.

Some cases demonstrate how brazen, sophisticated and well-funded the traffickers are. For example, last week’s discovery of US$5 million worth of rhino horn being smuggled through one airport revealed collusion among corrupt police, baggage handlers, a public prosecutor, and several civilians in the source, transit and receiving countries. X-ray machines are effective in screening cargo, but may be used to extort payment from the smuggler.

“We found in many cases that baggage is being switched, re-tagged, and even moved onto tarmacs and then onto planes before a plane takes off to throw off inspectors,” said Steven Galster, Director of Freeland. “Imagine what those same well-placed people could do when they are paid by drug traffickers or terrorists?”

Freeland runs a program called “Trafficking Free Enterprises,” which trains airport-based staff on how to identify and report wildlife trafficking. It is also providing analytical assistance to government agencies that are currently tracking down members of cross-border syndicates linked to airport and seaport related cases, including last week’s double seizures in Hanoi and Bangkok, where millions of dollars of poached African rhino horn was intercepted by Customs officers in Vietnam and Thailand.

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