Illegal sales of rare animals and plants are even better-paying than the arms trade
According to Interpol estimates, the volume of the illegal market for rare animals and plants is $6 billion-$9 billion per year. Even the illegal arms market's circulation is lower; and, in terms of size, the illegal market for exotic plants and animals comes right after traffic in illicit drugs. Russia is one of the main participants in this market.
In November 2002, customs officers of the Russian city of Ussuriisk detained two Russian citizens who attempted to take 18 Himalayan bears to China. A bit earlier, 19 exotic parrots were taken from a conductor in a train traveling from Kiev to Adler. The customs department of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport also found lory parrots dosed with tranquilizers and rare Falco cherrug birds nailed inside of a suitcase. In April 2003, the customs department of Ussuriisk detained a Chinese national who wanted to take 26 freshly frozen bear paws out of the country. Such instances are numerous now.
In fact, although the flow of news about the illegal traffic of rare plants and animals has recently diminished (since the beginning of 2003, airport customs have found no contraband of this character), this doesn't mean at all that trade in rare plants and animals has stopped. The market for exotic animals and things made of their skin, fur and bones is still a most secret one.
Russia is one of the key participants in the market. Due to its geographic situation, the country acts as a wonderful exporter, importer and transit territory.
There are different ways to deliver contraband animals to the country. The WWF reports that the majority of illicit animals and plants get into Russia through Sheremetyevo airport. Lory parrots, reptiles and insects are mostly delivered by planes from South-East Asia, and parrots, reptiles and monkeys are sometimes smuggled from Peru, elsewhere in South America and Africa. What is more, rare flora and fauna can be transported in cars and trains via Poland and Central Asia; some get to Russia through the port of St. Petersburg.
Moscow and St. Petersburg act as transit points for transportation of rare flora and fauna to the West. According to the estimates by the WWF, Germany is the key importer of exotic insects. Russia's Far East is the main trans-shipment point for contraband exotic animals; this region guarantees stable volumes of a local illicit market for contraband animals and plants.
Birds of prey are the main item of contraband going out of Russia. They are usually delivered to Arab countries. Sturgeons and caviar usually go to the USA and Europe. Contraband trepang, ginseng and parts of brown bears are in great demand in Korea, China and Japan.
The system employed by smugglers is very simple. A middleman recruits some person (a forest ranger, a Chinese or a pygmy) in the Primorye region (or in the Amazon). Then, this person catches a rare animal that the middleman has ordered him to obtain and gets money for the catch. The job of the middleman is to move the captured animal further along, to auctions for further sale to another middleman, as it is done in China, or directly to a client.
On the way to a client, the price for rare animals and plants increases by hundreds and even thousands of times. For example, the Falco cherrug birds inhabiting Russia's Altai region are becoming extinct, and the birds are in great demand in Egypt and in the United Arab Emirates, where sheikhs use falcons for hunting. Russian middlemen ask $15,000 per a bird, while Arabs are ready to pay $40,000-$70,000 for a falcon during a hunting season. When a falcon is trained, its price may even reach $100,000.
Prices for other kinds of exotic animals are also very high: a South American parrot costs up to $1,500, a Peru butterfly $500; some kinds of turtles may cost $1,500. Exotic insects are also very popular on the contraband market.
The resale margin is enormous. The purchase price for shed antlers of the Izyubr elk (Cervus elaphrus) is just 250 rubles on the first stage when middlemen buy them in the Far East. But when the sample reaches auctions abroad, the price can be $840 a kilo. When the skin of antlers is cracked, they are rejected as defective and sent to Korea, where they are used for medicine production. Rejected elk carcasses are sent to China: Chinese medicine considers all parts of an elk’s body to have medicinal value. Teeth, bones, brain, meat, skin and even gall are used there for production of medicine.
Poachers in Russia's Primorye region kill brown and Himalayan bears only because of their gall and paws, which are widely used in Eastern medicine (one kilo of bear paws may cost $1,000 in China,; the price of one liter of gall is $2,000). Musk from the musk deer is used for treatment of patients suffering from cancer, other tumors and infections.
According to the anti-contraband department of the Russian Federation State Customs Committee, customs officers found the following samples of rare animals last year: 200 bear paws, 18 Himalayan bears, 8 parrots, 10 Gekko parrots, 1,634 raccoon dog skins, 3,000 spiders, over 30 falcon birds and 7 stuffed crocodiles.