A celebration of Laotian wildlife traders – illegal trade kingpin Keosavang at centre
We all know that South Africa loves to trade in wildlife products. Some of these trades are even legal – to some extent. Alerted by a recent article by Adam Cruise entitled “Wildlife Trafficking: The sordid Southern African-South East Asian connection” I decided to do some digging. Especially since Adam reported that “Despite public announcements, displays for the media and signed Memoranda of Understanding, these countries are doing little to combat the criminal networks involved in the flood of wildlife products out of Africa. The four countries have become a nexus of an international criminal network that rivals drugs, arms and human trafficking in both scale and profitability.”
My results, to put it mildly, were shocking, and once again a strong indictment of the façade that is CITES. Let’s begin with the South African exports of lion “trophies” to Laos and Vietnam.
It is known the world over that South Africa has for many years engaged in a sordid lion breeding for trophy hunting profit industry known as “canned hunting”. Every year South Africa exports about 1,000 or so hunted trophies of captive bred lions across the world. Most of these went to the USA, the European Union, Mexico, Norway, etc – but to my complete surprise such trophies also ended up in Laos and Vietnam.
Why is this surprising? For several reasons. Laos and Vietnam have no trophy hunters (the Vietnamese “pseudo-hunting” scheme came to light a few years ago – with the explicit collaboration of South African rhino owners, professional hunters and wildlife authorities, individuals with no hunting experience were recruited by illegal wildlife trade syndicates to shoot rhinos and therefore via CITES regulations be allowed to export the valuable horns to Vietnam as “hunting trophies” – taking advantage of a massive loophole preventing any trade in rhino horn). So why did South Africa export 155 lion trophies to Laos between 2009 and 2014 and 44 lion trophies to Vietnam 2010 to 2014 if there is no such thing as a bona fide Laotian or Vietnamese trophy hunter? It is a clear fact that these supposed trophy hunters only imported lion trophies from South Africa, not a single trophy from any other species on earth (except for the rhinos mentioned above).
There could be some simple explanations of course.
The first is that as there are no real Laotian and Vietnamese trophy hunters, dealers decided to buy those trophies from South African taxidermists. Perhaps individuals in Laos wanted 155 lion trophies to be displayed in their homes? Not likely.
The second explanation is that these were not trophies at all, just skeletons of lions wrongly exported under the “trophy” category. That’s illegal.
South Africa, as a CITES signatory, is at least entrusted with the responsibility of stringently adhering to CITES regulations to ensure that trade in products of CITES-listed species is carefully and assiduously monitored. That responsibility has been shown time again to have been broached. CITES exports under the trophy category are supposed to only include items “legally obtained by the hunter through HUNTING for the hunter’s PERSONAL use; and is being imported, exported or re-exported by or ON BEHALF OF THE HUNTER (capitals mine), as part of the transfer from its country of origin, ultimately to the hunter's State of usual residence” according to CITES Resolution 12.3 (Rev. CoP16). Hunting trophies are not meant for trade.
South Africa is also well known to export lion bones to Laos, Vietnam and Thailand. The most recent CITES Conference of Parties gave South Africa tacit permission to do so from their massive captive bred lion population while (sort of) banning the trade of lion bones from wild lions. As if anyone can tell the difference, and as if South Africa would ensure that now illegal bones from wild lions would not be seamlessly folded into the captive lion bone trade?
But even with the so-called legal trade of lion bones, South Africa seems to struggle with accurate CITES records. For example, CITES records show that in 2013, Thailand reported the import of 2,910 lion skeletons from South Africa. South Africa reported that only 14 lion skeletons were exported in 2013 to Thailand. That’s a major discrepancy to say the least?
In addition, two wildlife product trading companies authorized by the Laotian government (Vinaskhone and Vannaseng) were registered to have imported 7.7 tons of “lion and tiger bones” in 2014. Those were surely almost entirely lion bones, and those accounts are highly believable as the companies had to pay tax on those imports. South Africa, the only exporter of lion bones in the world, reported to CITES that they exported 374 lion skeletons to Laos in 2014. Given that a lion skeleton weighs on average 9kg, that would mean that about 50% of the skeletons declared as imports by only two companies in Laos were “missing” from South African export records.
Some of these discrepancies were reported in the UK media but neither CITES nor South African authorities made any response.
Clearly, shenanigans are the order of the day in just one species’ export trade from South Africa and import trade to Laos, Vietnam and Thailand. These four countries are on a CITES “watch list”, but CITES is not likely to take any measures against these “Parties”. In fact, CITES held their 2016 Conference of Parties in South Africa and surely permit irregularities/illegalities were not mentioned. Also, Vietnam in 2016 hosted an International Summit on Illegal Wildlife Trade. I wonder if any of the delegates at the conferences were aware of the irony?
Picture credit – Handout and the Guardian