Buyer beware

The illegal wildlife trade threatens the survival of endangered species around the world. Sam Geall reports on London’s attempts to limit the trafficking, which links Europe, Asia and Africa.

Gir National Park hangs on the southern tip of western India’s Kathiawar peninsula, in the state of Gujarat. It is best known as the last refuge of the highly endangered Asiatic lion; all of the world’s remaining 350 lions live in the park. On March 6, reports emerged that three of the beasts had been found mutilated. Poachers had killed the animals deep in the park, but left their pelts behind. They had removed the claws, bones and skulls, all of which are highly prized as ingredients in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM).

Such tales of wild animal poaching would normally seem far removed from the streets of Britain’s capital. But they appear closer on a visit to the south London office of the Wildlife Crime Unit, where a vast haul of contraband – from stuffed leopards to jars of bear gall bladders – crowds every available surface. Here, the clandestine world that links criminals in India, China and London suddenly becomes all the more apparent.

“People make comparisons between this and the drugs trade,” says Andy Fisher, head of the unit. He indicates a black rhinoceros horn that was seized in a raid on a Chinese medicine shop in the capital. In 1970, over 100,000 black rhinos were thought to roam Africa. But poaching, driven by the demand for the horns – which are regarded as a fever-reducer in TCM – has reduced the population to around 2,600.

Fisher acknowledges that some similarities exist between the narcotics industry and the illegal traffic in endangered species, but continues, “There’s a basic difference, and that is that you can manufacture drugs, so you can control the supply.”

It’s a bleak picture of an increasingly globalised trade. “As rhinos become rarer, so the price of the horn goes up, which makes it more attractive to more poachers to kill more rhinos,” says Fisher. “The only way that you can stop that happening is to attack the demand for it, and the demand is generally in countries where you don’t get rhinos.”

And it is combating this demand that motivates Operation Charm, a project re-launched in November last year as a partnership between the Wildlife Crime Unit, the Greater London Authority and five international wildlife NGOs.

The initiative aims to tackle the trade in the world’s rarest animals – protected under the international CITES agreement – at the point of sale. It has principally targeted the selling of tiger, bear, rhinoceros and musk deer in London, and attempts to combine traditional law enforcement methods with partnerships in the TCM community and awareness-raising among consumers. One project, established with the support of the Federation of Chinese Medicine, encourages legal traders to advertise on their shop windows that they do not sell products made from threatened wildlife.

Operation Charm has targeted recent growth in London’s TCM industry, but where does this rise in sales come from – who buys medicines made from endangered species?

Not just members of the city’s Chinese community, says Fisher. In the past 15 years, the number of Chinese medicine shops in the capital has increased from around a dozen to almost 2,000, as a greater number of Britons seek alternative health products – outside of what some perceive as the empty materialism of western biomedicine. Fisher puts it succinctly: “Traditional Chinese Medicine has become trendy.”

This is in evidence where I live in east London; a handful of well-stocked Chinese medicine shops are within a five-minute walk of my home. I found no evidence that these establishments are selling any products made from rare species. And the majority of businesses do not. But with such a big increase in the overall market, concerns have been raised that the minority of businesses may sell such products may also be growing.

The message for the city’s consumers is a simple one: buyer beware. “The majority of people don’t think there’s an endangered species problem in this country,” says Fisher. “They think it’s all in Africa or Asia. But it’s here too…there are people in London who buy endangered species products without realising.”

In December last year, an Operation Charm investigation led to the prosecution of a southeast London man who had sold products containing bear, seahorse, saiga antelope and musk deer. Other investigations have led to the seizure of tiger bone wine, wild orchids and products containing deer. And it’s a problem that shows no sign of decreasing, as booming customer demand drives illegal procurement overseas.

Luxury markets

But London’s Chinese medicine sales are by no means alone in fuelling the international trade in rare species.

The stuffed corpses of two 10-day-old tigers stare down from a shelf in the unit’s office, mounted on gaudy wooden stands. Their eyelids, normally closed at such a young age, are held wide open by taxidermists’ glass eyes. The cubs had been killed for the gruesome, yet highly lucrative, trade in luxury ornaments. 

The cubs are flanked by a stuffed leopard, a tiger-skin rug – and most bizarrely – the skull of a mountain gorilla, of which only 600 living creatures are thought to exist in the wild. All of these were once prized by wealthy collectors, who have little regard for the ecological consequences of their buying habits.

A raid on a barber’s shop in Mayfair, one of London’s most exclusive districts, turned up a haul of ivory shaving brushes that sold for £1,100 (around US$2,165) each. It is clear that conspicuous consumption among some members of the capital’s fashionable elite is helping to destroy worldwide biodiversity. But this is not a problem isolated to London, Milan and New York. Sadly, it is also an emerging trend in parts of the developing world, where wealthy elites in emerging nations such as China now demand products made from endangered species, including ivory, rare furs and shahtoosh – a very expensive fabric that is woven from the hair of the chiru (Tibetan antelope).

World demand for endangered species products is not going away, and may well increase as these new markets emerge, which makes it particularly worrying to discover that another group is now dangerously imperiled: the Wildlife Crime Unit itself, whose budget has been drastically reduced – and whose very existence may hang in the balance.

In February, wildlife NGOs wrote to the Mayor of London, who sets the budget for the Metropolitan Police Authority, noting that the Wildlife Crime Unit now only receives £80,000 (around US$157,500)a year – “a drop in the ocean” compared to the overall Metropolitan Police Authority budget of £2.5 billion (US$4.9 billion).

Robbie Marsland, UK director of wildlife charity IFAW, made clear his dismay. “The illegal trade in wildlife is second only to the illicit trade in drugs and arms, yet it receives a fraction of the resources,” Marsland said in a statement. “London is a significant market for endangered species products, and we fear closing the Wildlife Crime Unit would send a green light to criminals that the capital is open for business as usual.”

Combating the trade in illegal wildlife is important, dangerous work that links faraway places. In the end, a “green light” in London may signal the end of the road for creatures like India’s Asiatic lion.


Sam Geall is the deputy editor of chinadialogue