THE United States federal agent who wore a gorilla suit recently to nab five outlaw animal traders represents a small victory in the effort to stop the underground trafficking in endangered species. But despite the fact that 118 nations have signed on to the international agreement that regulates trade in animals and plants, much remains to be done.
The number of black rhinos, whose horn is ground into medicinals or fashioned into dagger handles, has plummeted by 90 percent in less than 25 years. Siberian tigers, poached for their skins and body parts, have dwindled to fewer than 500 in Russia and China. Bears are slaughtered for their paws, which are a delicacy in some Asian countries.
Just last month, 85,000 caiman crocodile skins worth an estimated $1 million were confiscated in Uruguay illegally en route to Singapore to be turned into belts, shoes, and handbags.
The 20th anniversary of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) was celebrated in Washington last week at a gathering of 500 dignitaries and diplomats who had some reasons to be grateful. The trade in elephant ivory has been cut way back since it was banned in 1989. Some African countries want to renew regulated trade, elephants having become so numerous in certain farming areas that they are viewed as pests. Japan, which was one of the biggest importer s of threatened wild animals, is cracking down more. Because of CITES, many spotted-cat species no longer face extinction.
But overall, the illegal trade in wildlife still amounts to $2 billion to $3 billion a year "with profit margins comparable to those of the drug trade," according to a recent report by the World Wildlife Fund citing the 10 "most wanted" species.
Tiger bones bring $500 a pound. A year-long investigation by the organization Earthtrust found that nearly two-thirds of 115 medicine shops surveyed in Taiwan had real or fake tiger parts for sale. Ground rhino horn is so valuable - many times the selling price of gold - that investors in Taiwan are hoarding rhino horns. Gall bladders from bears bring as much as $200 a gram in South Korea. Sold for parts, a dead bear can be worth $10,000 or more.
"Of the eight bear species worldwide, the populations of six are declining," states the World Resources Institute's 1993 Environmental Almanac,
Much of the illegal traffic is in or to Asia, where exotic animals like bears, tigers, and rhinos are valued as aphrodisiacs, medicinal potions, and extremely expensive meals. But such things happen in Europe and the US as well.
Belgian police last month confiscated 21 rhino horns (banned from trade since 1977) and 400 pieces of ivory in a Brussels antique shop. Bog turtles in North America are illegally sold as pets for $250 or more. Black bears in the US and Canada are illegally hunted for their paws, which are shipped to Asia.
There have been recent scientific breakthroughs in tracking down and identifying illegally traded animals. A device developed at the US Fish and Wildlife Service's forensics lab in Ashland, Ore., for instance, distinguishes elephant ivory from legally tradable ancient mastodon and mammoth ivory.
But some recent political developments have raised the possibility of increased animal smuggling. As Asian countries become more prosperous, more money is available and therefore demand rises. The former Soviet republics, now independent nations, are not bound by CITES, and they are desperate for the hard currency such trade can bring. The same is true for countries like Poland, Hungary, and the Czech and Slovak Republics.
An animal smuggler who later cooperated with law-enforcement agencies (he's the one who tipped off the agent in the gorilla suit) said the former Soviet intelligence agency known as the KGB helped him smuggle orangutans to Eastern Europe.
"Unfortunately, the lack of commitment of some CITES nations keeps the treaty from living up to its promise," said Ginette Hemley, who heads the World Wildlife Fund's wildlife-trade monitoring unit.
What's needed is more political commitment, more international pressure, and more public awareness about a seamy business whose victims are truly innocent.