Exotic object trafficking flourishes

  • Nearly three hundred seizures of objects stemming from endangered species in 2012.
  • Live animals, plant matter, objects, all illegal.

An elephant’s foot, ostrich skins, dried seahorses, snakeskin belts, Jackson’s chameleons, musk deer glands, turacos, orchids, komodo dragon skins, Greek tortoises – the list of exotic discoveries made by customs services in travelers’ suitcases or in packages arriving on Belgian soil goes on and on.

It’s an exotic and illegal list. These objects are protected by the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species, (CITES). Any sales of certain species are completely forbidden. A certificate to prove they came from a breeder must accompany other species.

Despite public awareness campaigns, Belgian customs officers regularly seize forbidden cargo. In 2011, the CITES team working with the federal environmental service states there were approximately 123 seizures. In 2012 there were 120. These were only from Zaventem airport customs. Beirset and Charleroi airports as well as the port of Antwerp must be added. The numbers then climb to 281 in 2012. Add to that pet shop and amateur breeder inspections that are carried out every year, 25 in each region.

Smaller or larger trafficking is frequent. “Ivory in the form of elephant tusks, statuettes or other small objects are constantly being found,” explains Isabelle Grégoire with the CITES team. “We made 56 seizures in 2011 and 63 in 2012 of about one thousand pieces.” One hundred kilos of ivory have been intercepted in 2012 at Zaventem. “However, for the past two to three years we have observed mass shipments of dried seahorses, ivory, reptile skins in greater numbers.” Connections with Africa and objects traveling between Asia and the African continent draw the greatest suspicion. They are targeted for inspection.

Customs officers, who do not inspect more than 5% of all shipments, must keep their eyes open. Even though the false-bottomed suitcase is a perennial favorite, the traffickers’ imaginations are boundless. “We discovered chameleons underneath a row of poisonous snakes, sliced ivory tusks painted over with metallic paint that were declared as ‘mechanical parts’.  There also were objects hidden inside statuettes or children’s games boxes or in a clock.”

Some “traffickers” import illegal objects for their own use at times without malice. “In a marketplace, you don’t always get a certificate allowing the purchase and export,” acknowledges Grégoire. But this importation is more and more often accompanied by re-exportation to distant countries.

What is the fate of the objects that are seized? “Chameleons have been sent to a British zoo where some have reproduced. Some tusks wound up in the Tervueren Institute of Natural Sciences. Some objects are used to train customs officers, and others are destroyed. Living animals are placed in approved centers.”

Fifteen superb Senegal parrots from Senegal were seized in 2012. They did not have that chance: they were euthanized.

These seizures are not limited to exotic animals. The customs officers regularly find raptors (barn owls, snowy owls) illegally held by breeders, especially in Flanders. All raptors are protected in Europe. The only ones that can be legally purchased must come from a breeder.

A note of advice for amateurs: fines can range from €150 to €300,000 and 3 to 5 years of prison. “Just because it’s sold at a market doesn’t mean it’s legal.”


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