Cleared for Takeoff: Stopping Wildlife Trafficking in the Airline Sector

“Snakes on a plane” is real—not only a Hollywood tagline. In 2019, authorities seized more than 1 million illegal wildlife products being moved through the air transport sector, and the actual figures may be much higher due to the difficulty of detecting these items.

Whether transporting the horn of a slaughtered rhinoceros in checked luggage from South Africa to Vietnam or tons of baby eels going from Spain to a Chinese market, transnational organized criminal networks corrupt the legitimate businesses of airlines and their partners in freight forwarding and express mail. These groups exploit air transportation to ship illegal wildlife products, trafficked people, and other contraband, such as drugs, while posing threats to legitimate businesses and airports.

“Many of these airports are gateways for connecting the rest of the world with fragile and endangered ecosystems and wildlife species,” Juliana Scavuzzi, Senior Director, Sustainability, Environmental Protection and Legal Affairs, Airport Council International (ACI) World, says. “It’s therefore vital that airports and airport staff know how they can help protect the natural environment from wildlife trafficking crimes.”

These crimes extend far beyond the airports. As Scavuzzi notes, trafficking threatens nature’s wealth, disrupting the balance of the world’s ecosystems; in turn, it also harms the well-being of people around the world who depend on natural resources and creates an opportunity for disease to spread across borders.

Seized pangolin scales on display at a Hong Kong Customs and Excise Department press conference. Alex Hofford/USAID Asia

Wildlife trafficking presents a number of threats to the air transportation industry. The illegal trade bypasses security and safety checks, may increase corruption among airport and transport staff who facilitate the trade, and raises risks of disease spread across borders. According to the USAID-supported report, In Plane Sight: Wildlife Trafficking in the Air Transport Sector, “wildlife smugglers are often able to disappear into the crowd, counting on overwhelmed customs and enforcement officials to overlook them.” Traffickers also masquerade as unaware travelers to avoid penalty and to claim, “I didn’t realize it was illegal.”

In the modern era of heightened connectivity and concerns about the safety of air travel, airlines and airports are taking steps to detect and reduce risks, prevent trafficking, and protect their businesses. ACI and the International Air Transport Association (IATA) are central members of USAID’s Reducing Opportunities for the Unlawful Transport of Endangered Species (ROUTES) partnership, which TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network, coordinates. ROUTES brings together diverse partners to help industry associations and companies eliminate wildlife trafficking within legal transportation businesses. With data analysis support from C4ADS, a non-profit that researches transnational crime, ROUTES’ aviation partners now better understand the most commonly abused flight routes and concealment methods and can better target training and screening efforts. ROUTES’ gap assessments at eight airports have also helped customs agencies and airport staff understand specific wildlife trafficking risks and loopholes.

By identifying common trafficking paths, ROUTES helps partners to more strategically and efficiently target enforcement and deterrence efforts.

Training has been essential in helping transport staff to recognize the common red flags of illegal behavior-like smelly packages or bulky clothing. Using their influence across the sector, IATA and ACI have successfully encouraged many of their members to integrate training for various staff developed by TRAFFIC into their management systems. TRAFFIC’s creation of electronic modules and their translation into other languages is making it easier for companies to reach a greater number of staff.

Law enforcement and other government authorities have a significant role to play in eliminating wildlife trafficking, but they operate in different realms than the private sector, which leaves a gap between detection of trafficking and action against it. As a U.S. Government foreign assistance agency, USAID has helped ROUTES partners to engage with both U.S. and foreign agencies. For example, USAID has connected ROUTES airline partners with experts from U.S. Customs and Border Protection, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Transportation Security Agency, and Sandia National Laboratories to co-develop technologies that enhance baggage screening and crime reporting, with participation from a foreign government on pilot testing. Such collaboration between public entities and private airline partners presents a united front against trafficking, deterring wildlife criminals and limiting the supply chain weaknesses they abuse.

In 2019, more than 50 participants from airports across Africa attended a workshop hosted by the ROUTES partnership during the ACI Africa Annual General Assembly & Regional Conference and Exhibition in Accra, Ghana. Photo Credit: ROUTES Partnership

More air transport companies are recognizing the benefits of the ROUTES network and resources. At least 16 airlines and one courier company are now taking meaningful actions based on ROUTES assistance to eliminate wildlife trafficking. “Tackling illegal wildlife trafficking is a joint effort and we appreciate the support and feedback on our initiatives from ROUTES partners. Qatar Airways is dedicated to eradicating this appalling trade, and will continue to work with our stakeholders to raise awareness and improve detection of illegal activity,” says Fathi Atti, Senior Vice President Aeropolitical and Corporate Affairs for Qatar Airways.

Companies, stakeholders, and government agencies are also forming transport “task forces” in critical regional hotspots. In early 2020, ROUTES co-convened a meeting with United for Wildlife—a partner organization funded by the Royal Foundation in the United Kingdom—to form the Southern Africa Transport Taskforce. Forty-five industry participants from the air transport sector, the South African government, and ROUTES partners collaborated to create a regional strategy to address wildlife crime in the sector and identified the critical actions needed to carry the strategy forward. This experience has provided a model which ROUTES and United for Wildlife can use to build more regional task forces over the next year.

With support from the USAID ROUTES partnership, the air transport sector, governments, and conservationists are building a better future and a global economy that prevents illegal wildlife.

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This story originally appeared on the USAID Private Sector Engagement Exposure channel.