On 21 July WWF and TRAFFIC – a non-governmental organisation that works globally on trade in animals and plants to address biodiversity conservation and sustainable development concerns – released a guidance document drawing attention to the red flags which indicate illegal wildlife trade within the containerised shipping industry.

The Red Flag Compendium for Wildlife and Timber Trafficking in Containerised Cargo aims to alert shipping companies to the loopholes within the system which can allow for trafficking to take place. This information will allow the industry to implement greater safeguarding measures to protect their business, employees, and security measures against these trafficking risks.

Frankie Youd speaks to Monica Zavagli, TRAFFIC programme manager for transport sector engagement and author of the compendium, to discuss how illegal smuggling takes place in the shipping industry, what the effects of smuggling can have, and what the compendium aims to achieve.



Credit: TRAFFIC.


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Frankie Youd: What are the main weaknesses and loopholes in maritime supply chains which are exploited by traffickers?

Monica Zavagli: Currently, there is an overall lack of awareness of what to look out for among shipping and freight companies and fear that raising concerns with customs may disrupt their business.

Customs also have limited capacity and technologies for container risk profiling and scanning. In many countries, documentation checks are still done manually, making risk assessment and profiling processes are inefficient and inaccurate. These lead to weak due diligence on shippers, consignees and shipments, incomplete information in the bill of lading and a low detection rate of illegal shipments.

Lastly, corruption risk is present at every step of the chain. Corruption resulting from the illegal wildlife trade tends to be higher in countries with the greatest biodiversity.


How does illegal smuggling by sea take place?

There are two main methods: misdeclaration and forged or altered permits.

An example of misdeclaration is when a shipper declares the cargo as another legal product to conceal illegal wildlife. It’s not unusual that legal products with low value are used as a cover-up for illegal wildlife. Products are typically hidden in bags and mixed among the declared goods; sometimes, containers are modified to hide the contraband behind a double wall.

Especially seen in the illegal timber trade, criminals will forge or alter permits and other documents to fraudulently legitimise the trade in species that require specific permits.

In addition, traffickers will try to conceal information about the true shipper, consignee, ownership, and business activities related to the shipment in the bill of lading by providing incomplete or fraudulent shipment documentation.


Credit: WWF, Vladimir Filonov.


What goods/wildlife are currently seen to be smuggled?

Ivory, pangolin scales and timber are often smuggled through containerised cargo that travels long distances. However, products like pangolin meat are smuggled via refrigerated containers over much shorter distances, mainly between Asian countries.

Other illegally traded wildlife found in containerised cargo includes dried animal products, such as shark fins, sea cucumbers, seahorses, donkey skins, also big cat bones and claws, giant clams, as well as dried plants such as aloe, American ginseng, and other plant-derived medicine.


What impact does illegal smuggling have on the environment?

“Wildlife trafficking is a transnational organised crime that negatively impacts biodiversity, national security, and socio-economic development.”

Wildlife trafficking is a transnational organised crime that negatively impacts biodiversity, national security, and socio-economic development.

Illicit trade is one of the main threats to the survival of many species. One of the most prominent examples can be seen in the illegal trade of ivory products, where approximately 55 African elephants and three rhinos are killed every day in the wild for their ivory.

Alongside this, smuggled wildlife does not pass through proper hygiene and sanitary controls, potentially contributing to the spread of zoonotic diseases. Ebola, SARS, and other illnesses are all believed to be associated with diseases that originated from wild animals.


Credit: WWF, Folke Wulf.


How would you summarise The Red Flag Compendium for Wildlife and Timber Trafficking in  Containerised Cargo?

The compendium highlights the crucial role of the transport sector and the red flag indicators for illicit trade and specific to wildlife and timber products that all areas of the industry may come across.

Each case is different, but it outlines to decision-makers in companies, customs, and other roles within the industry the best practice measures to prevent, detect and report on illegal wildlife trade.

One major highlight of the compendium compiles lists of the most commonly trafficked Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora listed products and explains the warning signs of the methods by which traffickers will forge the required permits.

The document also has a toolbox of links to valuable resources from a plethora of international organisations. These include species-specific identification guides, intelligence bulletins and links to existing resources to help companies prevent further exploitation from traffickers.


What does the compendium aim to achieve?

The report raises awareness of the scale of wildlife and timber trafficking happening in container shipping. It also serves as a tool for shipping lines, shipping agents, freight forwarders and other actors linked to maritime transport to detect non-compliance and illegal wildlife trade-related activities in their supply chains.


What do you hope the future holds for this current situation?

“Everyone has a role to play in countering illegal wildlife trafficking, so shipping lines, freight forwarders and the broader maritime sector could act as the eyes and ears of law enforcement.”

Everyone has a role to play in countering illegal wildlife trafficking, so shipping lines, freight forwarders and the broader maritime sector could act as the eyes and ears of law enforcement.

By securing the integrity of supply chain operations, adopting best practices in the industry, improved public-private sector collaboration, and technological advancement, traffickers will have a much more challenging job at passing undetected.