A muffled growl from a suitcase | WWF

A muffled growl from a suitcase

Posted on 17 December 2012    
Alister Doyle, Reuters Environment Correspondent
© Alister Doyle
By Alister Doyle, Reuters Environment Correspondent 

Imagine you are sitting on a plane and hear a muffled growl from a suitcase.

Or you notice with shock that a tiny bird hatches from the clothing of a woman sitting beside you. Or you find some tiny, bewildered tortoises crawling on the floor.

I work as environment correspondent for Thomson Reuters – stories we’ve covered over the years show an astonishing and disheartening inventiveness among wildlife smugglers.

Is it that the chances of getting caught are too small, the value of the wildlife is too high, or the penalties for violations are too low? It’s probably all of them.

None of the examples at the top are unthinkable -- among the stories we’ve covered that have stuck with me -- the 2010 case of a 31-year-old Thai woman caught at Bangkok airport about to board a flight to Iran with a drugged, two-month old tiger cub in her bag, stashed among lookalike cuddly tiger toys.

And John Sellar, at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), once told me that women smugglers have sometimes been caught on flights with the eggs of endangered birds stuck down their bras – an aid to incubation and easier to hide than a parrot.

The depressing litany of examples includes tiny monkeys wrapped in socks, smuggled snakes or 900 tiny tortoises found in a suitcase. And then there’s the elephant ivory, tiger wine or ground-up rhino horn.

Education has to be the key – does anyone really need these products? “Thank you for buying me tiger wine for my birthday: it was delicious and I feel better already.”

And it’s odd that wildlife crime doesn’t get higher priority even though many of the creatures tied up, sedated and dragged around the world are under threat of extinction.

As a journalist, I’ve found writing about elephant ivory is hardest because of competing arguments. I went to a meeting of CITES in The Hague in the Netherlands, for instance, in 2007 where governments agreed to extend a 1989 ivory export ban for nine years, after a sale of stocks.

African governments had strongly held, and very different, views about how to strike a balance between wildlife protection and ending human poverty, for example in villages where elephants are trampling crops. And the story’s still complicated -- this October, Tanzania said that it wants to sell 100 tonnes of ivory from its stocks.

There are glimmers of hope for endangered creatures -- the U.N. General Assembly took up wildlife smuggling as a major criminal threat in September for the first time.

Let’s hope that will lead to a crackdown -- I don’t want to be at an airport and find that an angry, woozy tiger leaps out of someone’s bag.

What about you?

Alister Doyle's biography

Alister Doyle has worked as Reuters Environment Correspondent since 2004, mainly covering U.N. negotiations and the science of climate change. A British citizen based in Oslo, the job has taken him to places ranging from the Arctic to Antarctica, where he was on the last flight to land on a part of the Wilkins Ice shelf before it collapsed in early 2009. For 2011-12, he was a Knight Science Journalism Fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Before covering the environment, he had postings with Reuters in Paris, Central America, Brussels and London in a career stretching back to 1982.

Alister Doyle, Reuters Environment Correspondent
© Alister Doyle Enlarge

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