SA's live wild animal trade with China is "corrupt and riddled with irregularities” -report
Over three years, South Africa issued permits to export 321 giraffe to Jinan Wildlife World but when wildlife investigators visited the zoo in China, they could find only 16 giraffe.
“With no legal protection in China, it is impossible to trace the whereabouts of the 305 giraffe no longer at Jinan Wildlife World; or the nine giraffe legally exported to a tiger bone wine factory in Guigang; the 21 giraffe exported to Golden Land Animal Trade - a broker company implicated in the trafficking of wild-caught chimpanzees - and 132 giraffe exported to various unnamed zoos,” says a new report, Breaking Point: Uncovering South Africa’s Shameful Live Wildlife Trade with China.
The “poorly regulated” trade in giraffe between South Africa and China is just one of a raft of glaring wildlife trade violations uncovered in the four-year investigation by the EMS Foundation and Ban Animal Trading (BAT), who analysed hundreds of live animal export permits issued, and shipments authorised between 2016 and 2019 by South Africa's conservation authorities, and visited the destinations in China where the animals were purportedly sent.
“Our analysis... reveals that the ‘destinations’ that appear on the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) permits are often pure fiction," says the 118-page report.
“We have also established that the Chinese recipients of the animals usually do not keep them for so-called ‘educational’ purposes but sell them on, either to individuals for possible consumption, to laboratories, to circuses, and sometimes they simply disappear."
South Africa’s live wild animal trade with China is “extensive, corrupt and riddled with irregularities that are exploited by traffickers”, says the report.
At least 5035 live wild animals were exported from SA to China in the period but this is “likely an extremely conservative estimate” because of the limited permit and export data available to the organisations.
The list of 32 species includes 45 Bengal tigers, 159 caracal, 11 white rhino, 25 African penguins, 23 wolves, 597 giraffe, 45 hyenas, 182 lions, 1394 meerkats, 18 chimpanzees and 35 wild dogs.
The trade is lucrative, with the report showing 100 meerkat sold for R600000, 57 giraffes for nearly R7 million and 18 African wild dogs sold for over R1m, among others.
The report lists 15 exporters and 41 importers, “finding questionable listed information and permit violations in most cases”.
Most of the export permits were in breach of CITES regulations, irregular and “may well have been illegal”.
Some of the South African wildlife traders identified have links with international organised crime syndicates. Illegal shipments of wild animals classified by CITES as threatened with extinction and endangered ”masquerade” as legal exports.
“Animals are traded into a range of theme and amusement parks, circuses, laboratories, zoos and ‘safari parks’ (that are) often untraceable.”
CITES permits operate on a manual system, subject to pervasive fraud.
“False declarations by traders, agents and exporters are ubiquitous, and yet we discovered that not a single offender had been prosecuted to date.”
South Africa’s international live wildlife trade is “large, poorly enforced, indefensible and shameful”.
“The main problem is that the measures that have been put in place to ensure the legal trade are not adequately enforced or policed. Moreover, there is no verification system in place through the CITES Secretariat.
“It is rather a free-for-all and a small number of South African and Chinese wildlife traders benefit from a trade that is iniquitous in every sense of the word. South African authorities repeatedly fail to comply with the very basics of a regulated trade in wild animals.”
On Friday, in response to the investigation, Environment, Fisheries and Forestries Minister Barbara Creecy held an online meeting with the EMS Foundation and BAT, as her department regarded “allegations that the system is being abused in a serious light”.
South Africa, she stated, remains committed to the highest level of compliance with its international obligations. Her department will investigate the allegations over the next three months to find evidence of irregularities and take the necessary remedial action, and review whether remedial action is necessary to strengthen the administrative and regulatory system.
BAT and the the EMS Foundation welcomed Creecy’s commitment to investigate the serious issues raised in their report.
“We also welcome the Minister’s commitment to strengthening the permit system, her commitment to greater transparency within governmental systems, and access to information produced by the department and the provinces.”
Their report states that the “box-ticking exercise” that defines CITES is “dangerous because it creates the illusion of a well controlled system of compliance, efficiency and verification - and therefore protection. Our research has shown this is certainly not the case.”
Francisco Pérez, programme support officer (communications) at CITES, says it has a very robust and detailed compliance procedure.
“The CITES Parties and the Secretariat are fully aware that, as with all regulatory systems, there could be violations. As usual in these cases, we will review the report carefully and will not hesitate to take up any serious breaches of the Convention with the states concerned or bring matters to the attention of the CITES Standing Committee if required.... We should note, however, that the authors oppose the trade in wild animals in principle and view it as 'inappropriate, counter-productive, unethical and fundamentally unsustainable’.
“The CITES Secretariat respects their views, but this is not the policy of the 183 Parties to CITES.”
CITES has been weak in using its enforcement tools, says conservationist and wildlife photographer Karl Ammann. The level of corruption within CITES’ permit system is a major “but little talked about issue.
“It’s pretty obvious South African authorities have an interest in closing their eyes and having good relations with with some of the traders and dealers and know how the system works.”
BAT and the EMS Foundation say that the international wildlife trade and the captive breeding and farming wild animals is dangerous "because it is increasing opportunities for zoonotic spillover and is the cause of the current pandemic.
"Covid-19 has provided humanity with a window of opportunity to do things differently and this must include the way we interact with other species."