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Wildlife Trafficking Is Big Business For Criminals, Even Here At Home

Canadians need to understand that wildlife trafficking isn't confined to faraway jungles.

08/10/2017 14:23 EDT | Updated 08/10/2017 15:00 EDT

While agents from U.S. Fish and Wildlife lured a smuggler to a storage facility in the Bronx with the promise of $400,000 worth of illegal rhino horn as part of a sting operation, Sheldon Jordan readied his team to raid the man's warehouse in Canada.

The smuggling ring's Richmond, British Columbia headquarters was posing as an antique auction house, where police found piles of illegal ivory, rhino horn and coral. Animal parts were stored next to 50,000 tablets of ecstasy, bags of marijuana and cocaine.

Jorge Silva / Reuters

Wildlife trafficking is a global phenomenon. Most people think of shark fins and elephant tusks on black markets in East Asia, but Jordan, director general of Wildlife Enforcement at Environment Canada, says it's much closer to home. He's is in charge of rooting it out across the country.

Jordan recovered a laptop during the sting that mapped out an illegal network of suppliers and buyers stretching across borders, proof of Canada's connection to a global animal trafficking market that's also tied to guns and drugs.

Black-market prices have skyrocketed to meet growing demand in recent years, leading to a surge in trafficking of everything from exotic timber to the scaly pangolin, the world's most poached animal. Conservative estimates value the industry at US$91 billion annually.

With lax international regulation and the promise of huge profits, criminal networks have been quick to capitalize.

Barcroft Media via Getty Images
A pangolin is seen inside a cage after the Navy foiled illegal smuggling operations on June 13, 2017 in Medan, Indonesia.

"Animals and plants are just another low-risk, high-reward commodity for transnational organized crime," explains Kelvin Alie, executive vice president of the International Fund for Animal Welfare.

While the world focuses on the usual suspects in Africa and Asia, Canada has quietly become both a destination and a source country. Turtles, lizards and birds are smuggled here for collectors. Polar bear hides and narwhal tusks, prized as trophies, and bear gall bladders and wild ginseng valued for medicinal purposes, are illegally exported.

Often seen as victimless, wildlife crime struggles to capture the attention it deserves.

Beyond the destruction of ecosystems and devastation of animal populations, it can spark violence and unrest, creating the conditions for poverty, hunger and draught, leading to human casualties, explains Jordan.

Governments should focus on criminals and corruption to dismantle the trading networks that breed violent crime.

Media — and the U.S. State Department — tend to pay attention to environmental crime only when it's connected to terrorism. The Lord's Resistance Army in the Congo trades ivory for arms and Al-Shabbab's insurgency in Somalia is financed partly by illegal coal mining.

Sygma via Getty Images

Alie says the connection to terrorism is overblown. Instead, governments should focus on criminals and corruption to dismantle the trading networks that breed violent crime.

That is exactly what Environment Canada is doing with a pilot project launched last year to crack down on the polar bear trade.

Using microchips to track animals, enforcement officers follow the supply chain to ensure polar bears are hunted and purchased legally. Jordan hopes to share this tactic and technology with other nations to help safeguard their animal populations.

"This is a problem that grew very quickly, like a grassfire," says Jordan.

He says Canadians need to understand that wildlife trafficking isn't confined to faraway jungles. It's big business for major criminal networks, and it's happening right here in Canada.

Craig and Marc Kielburger are the co-founders of the WE movement, which includes WE Charity, ME to WE Social Enterprise and WE Day. For more dispatches from WE, check out WE Stories.

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