Criminal syndicates are earning more than $10bn a year from a booming environmental crime business in rainforest logging, the trade in endangered animal skins and ivory and smuggling canisters of banned gas refrigerants, it is claimed today.
Environmental crime is a growing source of income for international gangs attracted by profit margins of up to 700% on illegal items such as tiger skins, according to the Environmental Investigation Agency. Yet the problem is being largely ignored by national and international crime fighting agencies, it says.
The UK-based charity has named several men it suspects of involvement in multimillion-dollar operations that have resulted in extensive environmental destruction, but who have not been successfully prosecuted. They include an Indian, Sansar Chand, who, according to an interrogation report from the Indian Central Bureau of Investigations, has sold more than 12,000 animal skins to Nepal-based traders. The report says his haul included 400 tigers and 2,000 leopards, worth up to $10m on the open market in China, where EIA investigators found similar skins openly, but illegally, on sale. Since June 2005 Chand has been in Tis Hazari jail in Delhi.
Abdul Rasyid, an Indonesian businessman, has denied illegal logging of hardwoods such as ramin and balau in the protected Tanjung Puting national park. He was named by the Indonesian government in a list of individuals suspected of involvement in the trade. The country’s forestry ministry alleged that he organised the trade in illegal timber, in an operation which the EIA said was overseen from Hong Kong and involved middlemen in Singapore. The case against him has since been dropped for lack of evidence.
According to a signed confession obtained by the Zambia Wildlife Authority, Benson Nkunika admits poaching 38 elephants for their ivory using a range of guns including an AK-47 on the orders of an area warden in South Luangwa, the country’s most famous national park.
The EIA believes a network of environmental crime rings is thriving in the developing world, even in the ivory trade, which has been the subject of an international ban since 1989. “It is clear the ivory trade is growing among organised criminals because of the increasing numbers of large seizures we are seeing,” said Mary Rice, director of the EIA. “That is reflected in the trade in wild cat skins and illegal logging. Seizures in the 1990s were typically of far smaller volumes.”
In a report published today which includes the findings of several investigations, the EIA concludes: “Environmental crime generates tens of billions of dollars in profits for criminal enterprises every year, and it is growing. In part this is due to the proliferation of international and regional environmental agreements, leading to more controls on a range of commodities. It is also due to mutations in the operations of criminal syndicates which have been diversifying their operations into new areas like counterfeiting and environmental crime.”
The latest trend is the illegal trade in hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs), gas compounds used in refrigeration and aerosols which are known to contribute to global warming. Julian Newman, an EIA investigator, said US authorities had intercepted the first attempts to smuggle HCFCs, which were intended to replace chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) but are now being phased out in the US.