Pharmacist prepares some traditional medicine for a customer in Hanoi. Rhino horn was traditionally used in Vietnam to bring down fevers, but is now used as a health tonic, a sexual stimulant and even a cure for cancer. Photo: Kristen van Schie

Johannesburg - Wealthy Asians with their status symbol “hangover cure” are part of the reason why rhino poaching in South Africa has rocketed by 3 000 percent since 2007.

And the fashion in China for ivory trinkets contributed to the deaths of at least 2 500 African elephants last year.

These are some of the facts in WWF’s report Fighting Illicit Wildlife Trafficking, released last week, which says illicit wildlife trafficking has exploded into a $10 billion (R85bn)-a-year criminal enterprise.

This excludes the illegal timber and fisheries trades, estimated to be around $7bn and $9.5bn a year respectively.

The report ranks the illicit wildlife trade as the fourth largest after the illicit trafficking of drugs, humans and counterfeit products.

But it’s not getting the attention it needs, and the current measures to fight the illegal trade are failing.

While the illicit wildlife trade is not a priority for governments, it is high on the agenda of international criminal syndicates because the risk is low and the profits high.

A convicted South African rhino poacher “may get away with a $14 000 fine”, while someone convicted of smuggling 5g of cocaine would be sentenced to not less than five years in jail.

Even if jail sentences were handed down, the profits were so high that there were “plenty of new candidates ready to fill the shoes of criminals who are prosecuted”, the report states.

As demand grows, so the price rockets. Rhino horn is now worth $60 000 a kg – twice the value of gold and platinum – and is more valuable on the black market than diamonds and cocaine.

The report says the rise in Asian demand for illicit wildlife products is linked directly to poaching increases in Africa. Increases in elephant poaching in Africa are closely correlated with increases in consumer purchasing power in China, the country with the major demand for ivory.

The demand for wildlife products is heavily influenced by culture, and is driven by myth and fashion. Rhino horn demand in Asia is driven by its perceived medicinal qualities, although it has none. The more recent myth is that it is a cure for cancer, while it has also become a fashionable “hangover cure”.

Organised criminal groups form distribution networks across national boundaries often using indirect routes to avoid detection.

The bust of elephant tusks in Malaysia this month, the biggest on record, was found in a container that left from Togo and via Spain to Malaysia.

In several African countries, the illegal wildlife trade funds rebel groups.

Interpol’s Environmental Crime Programme said organised-crime networks involved in wildlife trade were also responsible for “the corruption of officials, fraud, money laundering and violence”. Penalties must be severe enough to create a deterrent, said Interpol. - The Star