Wild Animal Slaughter Surges for Fashion's Sake
Author: Jeremy Lovell
John Sellar, senior enforcement officer for the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), said there had been a surge in seizures of tiger and leopard skins as the fashion industry embraced fur once again.
"In the 1980s and 1990s the illegal skin trade virtually ceased to exist because it was not fashionable," he told a gathering of wildlife enforcement officers. "But we are seeing models going back into it and a consequent boom in the trade."
Only last month, Chinese officials impounded 1,276 illegal pelts in their biggest seizure to date. They said the skins had come from 32 tigers, 579 leopards and 665 otters.
Sellar, tasked with monitoring and encouraging international enforcement of the CITES bans and restrictions on trade in endangered animals and plants, said London was a significant transit hub in the illegal trade, but not a major consumer.
"A lot of the fur trade is heading for China these days. It is a huge and increasingly affluent market," he said.
Sellar, who works from CITES headquarters in Geneva, admitted that patrolling, let alone preventing, the illegal trade was a one-sided struggle as the lone operators of old were increasingly sidelined by organized crime syndicates.
And it was not just easily identifiable animal skins that were involved. The trade covered skins and products from reptiles, birds, snakes, rhinos, and elephants as well as bushmeat, caviar and plants for use in traditional medicines.
Sellar said that for every sturgeon legally taken in Russia for its caviar, up to 12 more were taken illegally and emptied of their eggs which were then fed into the lucrative legal trade using fake or purchased papers.
Those involved in the highly profitable and illicit trade were not averse to using bribery or violence to get their way. There had been numerous cases of investigators and officers being killed in mysterious circumstances, Sellar said.
But the threat of violence aside, in most cases enforcement officers were hugely overstretched just trying to catch the poachers, he said, let alone tracking down the merchandise.
In Tibet, the endangered Chiru antelope is slaughtered for its under-fur, which is made into a very fine, cashmere-like material called Shahtoosh but the country has just 15 officers to police an area larger than Switzerland.
And even when caught, the penalties were in most cases too feeble to act as a deterrent - except in China which had executed 28 wildlife smugglers in the past 14 years.