Customs agents in Haikou, a city in China’s southern province of Hainan, confiscated 68,000 python skins, estimated to be worth $48 million. The smugglers claimed that the skins would be used to create traditional Chinese musical instruments.
According to the Los Angeles Times, which cited Chinese media, this may be the largest python skin smuggling case. On January 29, authorities arrested 16 people believed to be connected with the incident. It was reported that at least one suspect said the Hainan-based company used fake customs declaration forms to import python skins and eggs. Since 2014, the company collaborated with “overseas companies” and “Vietnamese agents” to illegally import 42,000 python skins and 8,000 python eggs. An International Trade Center, a subsidiary of the World Trade Organization, report found that the company falsely reported the skins’ value, allowing it to evade $1.7 million in taxes. The company has been charged with “smuggling ordinary goods” and “smuggling rare animals and [rare animal] products”.
Limited international trade in python products is permitted. But, the International Trade Center reports that “enforcement is patchy and regulations are often flouted”. Quotas have been ignored and illegal snake skins were hidden among legal cargoes.
Olivier Caillabet, co-author of the report, told BBC News, “It is up to the local authorities to enforce the laws. A lot of the time they don’t have the capacity in terms of money, people or expertise. And sometimes they just don’t care.”
Furthermore, the rules are widely exploited. Snakes that are bred in captivity are allowed to be sold, but the report finds that many of the so-called captive pythons come from the wild.
Researchers say that the growing demand for handbags and other fashion items made from snake skins in Europe is fuelling the imports. It is estimated that half a million python skins worth $1 billion are exported annually from Southeast Asia, primarily to Europe and the United States. This appetite fuels the black market trade, making it a strong financial incentive to use illegal snakes. A skin that a villager in Indonesia might sell for $30 will end up as a bag in fashion boutiques in Europe selling for $15,000.
The report argues that the current rate is unsustainable as many of the wild pythons are killed before they reach their reproductive stage. International Trade Center’s Alexander Kasterine said, “The report shows the problems of illegality persist in the trade of python skins and this can threaten species’ survival”.
On March 21, Indian custom officials seized 146 endangered tortoises from an abandoned bag at Mumbai airport. 139 Radiated and seven Angonoka tortoises were “wrapped inhumanly” in plastic bags. Officials report two Radiated tortoises dead with broken shells, but the rest were alive. Those will be sent back to Madagascar per Indian laws.
In the meantime, the tortoises moved to Karnala Bird Sanctuary in Panvel for rehabilitation. There, five of the tortoises died on March 28. The post-mortem report revealed that they died due to infection. SK Pawar, a range forest officer at the sanctuary said the infections were from “mishandling as liver, intestine, and other parts of the body were found badly infected”.
Nepal authorities were asked to file a case against Nepalese citizen Lal Babu Thakur as per CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) as he was carrying the tortoises. He will have to face charges in Nepal for smuggling these critically endangered Radiated tortoises and Angonoka tortoises.
International collection has been documented with Asian smugglers collecting the critically endangered tortoises for the pet trade and for their livers. Along with rapid habitat loss, Radiated tortoises’ population modeling indicates that collapse and extinction in a period of 45 years is possible. As for the Angonoka tortoise, the species remains in extremely high demand. They are highly prized for their distinctive gold and black shells and fetch high prices on the international black market.
Around 2011, an explosion in demand from China for the casque of the helmeted hornbills, nicknamed “red ivory” after the hue it takes when it’s carved, led to a mass slaughtering in Indonesia. This caused its conservation status to move from “near-threatened” to “critically endangered” last November. It is estimated that the helmeted hornbill is at most three generations away from extinction.
Despite being protected by international, Chinese, and Indonesian law and given the highest level of protection by CITES, the black market is flourishing. According to the Environmental Investigation Agency, law enforcement officials have seized more than 1,800 casques since 2010. However, it is believed that the numbers account for about 20% of the actual trade.
Organized criminal syndicates have employed locals to shoot every hornbill. Only the males have the wedge on their beak, used for head-to-head airborne combat. This leaves the species vulnerable to extinction. They breed only once a year of only one chick. The female will seal herself into the cavity of the tree with her chick for up to five months, relying on the male to provide food. If the male is killed, the female and her chick will also die.
These helmeted hornbill products mainly come in the form of decorative ornaments and
jewlery. In China, the casque of a helmeted hornbill can bring more money per gram than elephant ivory. It has become a sign of wealth and luxury, especially because the hornbill is rarer than the elephant.
The native people in Borneo have carved hornbill casques into ornaments for at least 2,000 years. But it was around 700 AD, when they began trading with China, that the demand really grew. The demand began to dwindle at the turn of the 20th century and almost evaporated by World War 2; but in 2012, the hornbills were targeted once more.
The exact number remaining in the wild is unknown, but scientists know how many are being killed. Hornbill researcher Yokyok Hadiprakarsa, in 2013, found that at least 500 adult helmeted hornbills were killed every month in the Indonesian province of Kalimantan. For one region, that’s 6,000 a year killed.
“To be frank, it’s quite difficult to miss. Most shops I’ve visited in China or Chinese communities abroad that offer elephant ivory and rhino horn for sale very often have helmeted hornbill products for sale,” says Hadiprakarsa.
Watch this video, narrated by Yokyok Hadiprakarsa, to learn more about the helmeted hornbill and his research.