Safeguarding Species: Role of Transportation Sector in Combating Wildlife Smuggling

Safeguarding Species: Role of Transportation Sector in Combating Wildlife Smuggling

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For smuggling of wildlife contrabands, wildlife traffickers need to move wildlife contrabands from their source points to destination points passing through various levels of supply chains. For this, wildlife criminals exploit various modes of transportation such as rail, road, maritime, air and multi-modal transport (e.g. road to rail, rail to sea, road to air etc.).

Due to potential for avoiding stringent checks because of ever-increasing volume of import-export or domestic cargo and passengers movements along with other factors like speed and wider reach to destination markets make air transport sector one of the most preferred mode of transporting wildlife contrabands domestically as well as internationally. This swift transportation method not only minimizes the time taken between acquisition and delivery of wildlife contrabands but also reduces the risk of getting intercepted by the law enforcement agencies. Due to time sensitive nature, this is also the ideal means of transportation for smuggling of live species. For example, lots of exotic wildlife species are smuggled from South-East Asian countries mainly Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore into India by air either through cargo mode or concealed in checked-in baggages of international passengers.

Wildlife traffickers also use maritime transport for trafficking of large consignments of wildlife contrabands mainly timber species like red sanders & other rosewood in addition to other protected flora & fauna species. Fishing boats, Container & Cargo Vessels are exploited for smuggling of mainly marine and terrestrial species or their body parts across the ports. For example, fishing boats are widely used  to illegally harvest sea cucumbers from Indian waters, transporting them to the International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL) where sea cucumber consignments are transferred to the Sri Lankan fishing boats for their onward smuggling to South-East Asian countries.

Similarly, huge consiignments of red sanders are smuggled from India through maritime route concealing them in containers and misdeclaring them as something else mainly to Hong Kong & China either directly or transiting through Dubai, Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia).  

Rail and Road transport modes are also used mainly for smuggling of wildlife contrabands domestically and also for smuggling across the borders between countries connected with road and rail networks. Wildlife contrabands may be carried by passengers themselves or they may be smuggled by concealing them in freight shipments. For example, in India many cases of smuggling of protected bird species like parakeets, protected turtles species like Indian Softshell Turtles etc. through trucks, buses & trains have been detected.

Multi-modal transport are also exploited by the traffickers to move willdife contrabands from source point to destination point. Once wildlife contrabands are smuggled through maritime/air transport from originating sea/air port to the destination sea/air port, the consignment may be transported onward to its final destination point either by air or rail or road. For example, once the exotic wildlife species are smuggled from Bangkok Airport to Chennai Airport in India, they are transported onward to different parts of India using rail or road transport modes.

Shipping Lines/Container Lines/Freight Forwarders & Airlines can significantly contribute in combating wildlife trafficking by being vigilant of certain risk indicators such as:

  • Cargo originating from, destined to or transshipping through seaports/airports known for wildlife trafficking.
  • Cargo originating from seaports/airports known for wildlife trafficking which follows long circuitous routes to reach its destination which also falls under high risk category as far as wildlife trafficking is concerned.
  • Typologies or patterns drawn from historical records of trafficking of wildlife contrabands.
  • Unusual or suspicious packaging such as oversized or undersized packages for declared items.
  • Inconsistency between weight and declared content of the cargo in Bill of Lading.
  • Discrepencies between the value, quantity of goods in Commercial Invoice and actual cargo.
  • Discrepancies between the declared contents of each package in Packing List and actual content.
  • Passengers frequentlly travelling on high risk routes like Bankok-Chennai route whose air tickets are bought either in cash or by a third party.
  • Request by shipper for Switch Bill of Lading i.e. for change of shipper/consignee details, change in place of delivery etc.
  • Goods of specific descriptions being shipped to destinations not known for importing those types of goods.
  • Unusual payment methods like offering to pay in cash for transportation of their cargo.
  • Inadequate documentation like permits/certificates required for legal possession/trade of certain willdife species or their products.

These are just indicative list of risk indicators as wildlife traffickers keep changing their modus operandi. Also multiple factors need to be considered to arrive at conclusion regarding suspicious shipments of wildlife contrabands.

Transportation sector can implement several safeguard measures to ensure that their services are not exploited for wildlife trafficking which may include the following:

  • Transportation sector must have a comprehensive wildlife policy put in place which prohibits transportation of wildlife contrabands and which requires compliance of CITES & other wildlife laws for transortation of willdife species, their parts & products.
  • Transportation sector must implement a robust Customer Due Diligence Processes so as to ensure that wildlife traffickers don't exploit their services using fake IDs or IDs of some other persons and escape from the clutches of law enforcement once smuggling of wildlife is detected.
  • Regular training programmes must be conducted by transportation sector  for their employees  to make them aware about wildlife contrabands in illegal trade, modus operandi of smuggling, red flag indicators and protocols for reporting suspicious activities etc.
  • They must conduct their own risk assessments & identify their vulnerabilities, put in place internal control mechanism and regularly conduct audit of their internal processes to ensure strict compliance with their wildlife policies.
  • Transportation sector must also develop partnerships with customs and other law enforcement agencies for sharing of information, intelligence and best practices to counter this menace of wildlife smuggling.
  • Sniffer Dogs trained to detect wildlife contrabands can also play significant role in detection and prevention of wildlife trafficking.
  • Railways, Airlines, Shipping/Container Lines etc. can also play cruacial role in raising awareness among their customers about wildlife trafficking by displaying images of wildlife on their trains, ships, containers, aeroplanes, station premises; wildlife conservation & its significance for human beings and legal consequences of getting involved in wildlife smuggling and thereby help in cutting the demand for wildlife contrabands.

Leveraging technologies like Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, Generative AI etc. can also help transportation sector in many ways such as follows:

  • AI powered Image Recognition Tools can easily detect suspicious baggages, packages or containers that might contain wildlife contrabands. Machine Learning Algorithms trained to identify patterns associated with wildlife contrabands can be embedded in X-Ray Machines installed at Airports, Railway Stations, Bus Stations and also in Container Scanners installed at Sea Ports/Land Ports can play a significant role in detection and prevention of wildlife smuggling.
  •  Natural Language Processing (NLP) Algorithms/Tools can be harnessed by the transportation sector to analyze shipping documentation including descriptions and declarations to identify inconsistencies and discrepancies indicating wildlife trafficking.
  •  Machine Learning Algorithms can also be trained to detect various anomalies in shipping data such as unsual cargo types for specific routes, irregular shipping routes, or request for unexpected changes in shipment details for flagging them for further inspection.
  • Artificial Intelligence based Tools can also be used for predictive analysis as they can analyze the historical data & patterns and make predictions regarding potential high risk shipments & routes prone to wildlife trafficking. This may enable the transportation sector and law enforcement agencies in taking preventive measures.
  • AI driven risk-assssment tools can also assist in prioritization of inspection by evaluating various factors such as origin & destinaton of shipments, historical data, compliance records of the consignor/consignee etc. This will be helpful for optimization of resources for maximum output. These types of risk analysis by transportation sector can supplement the risk analysis by customs & other enforcement agencies.
  • Artificial Intelligence based algorithms can also be leveraged for automating the process of information/intelligence sharing between airlines, shipping lines, customs and other relevant enforcement agencies.
  • Such Machine Learning based models can further improve their efficacy in detecting suspicious shipments of wildlife contrabands by  continuously learning from the new data and feedback over time.
  • Transportation sector can also harness AI Technology mainly Generative AI for creating simulated environment for training of their personnel in identifying wildlife contrabands and therby enhancing their capabilities to detect and prevent the transportation of wildlife contrabands.
  • Transportation sector can also leverage Blockchain Technology for creation of transparent & immutable records of all shipping details and transaction to ensure authenticity & integrity of their data related to wildlife shipments and thus prevent the manipulation of the same by their corrupt employees in collusion with wildlife traffickers.

 In a major breakthrough, to bring down the illegal networks exploiting maritime supply chains for wildlife trafficking, on 13/05/2022 , the 46th Meeting of the Facilitation Committee (FAL46) of the International Maritime Organization (IMO) adopted new "Guidelines for the Prevention and Suppression of the Smuggling of Wildlife on Ships Engaged in International Maritime Traffic".   In July 2021, WWF and TRAFFIC launched the ‘The Red Flag Compendium for Wildlife and Timber Trafficking in Containerised Cargo which provides insights into the warning signs of corruption, wildlife smuggling and other related crimes. Besides, it also mentions about additional tools to identify frequently trafficked CITES-listed species, including big cats, specific marine species, large mammal species such as rhino, elephant and timber also. This compendium includes high risk routes as well as typical indicators of illicit activities such as questionable paperwork and discrepancies in information such as value, weight, and appearance. The tool is now a part of the new IMO Guidelines. Other relevant resource materials are  "Preventative Measures for Shipping Companies and Freight Forwarders to Combat Illegal Wildlife Trade" , "Known Trafficking Routes, Concealment Methods and Misdeclarations of Wildlife Products Commonly Trafficked in Containerized Sea Cargo" and "Red flags Indicating Illicit Wildlife Trade" which can be of great help for Transportation Sector for increasing their capabilities to fight this menace.

In 2016 United For Wildlife Transport Taskforce or "Buckingham Palace Declaration" was signed: Following are  Signatories of Buckingham Palace Declaration:

The United for Wildlife Transport Taskforce brings together global transport and freight industry experts including airports, shipping companies, and airlines with law enforcement and other agencies to  to raise awareness among transportation sector about wildlife trafficking , identify their exposure to wildlife smuggling and find solutions to detect and prevent the illegal wildlife trade.

In a nutshell, Transportation Sector has a pivotal role to play in countering the menace of wildlife trafficking. Public- Private Partnership between Transportation Sector & Law Enforcement Agencies, Private-Private Partnership between Transportation Sectors themselves & with Not For Profit Organizations (NPOs) working in the field of wildlife conservation can go a long way in winning the battle against wildlife trafficking and preserving the global biodiversity.

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