Above: A life behind bars for the owl. Courtesy WAP

Published: The East African Nation 3-10 September 2021

The illegal wildlife trade is one of the five most lucrative global crimes that include arms, drugs, laundering money and human trafficking. It’s valued between $50-150 billion USD per year, according to United for Wildlife, that’s tackling the illegal wildlife trade by bringing together conservation organisations, governments, and global corporations.

In another report launched in September (2021) by the World Animal Protection titled ‘Cargo of Cruelty, it confirms the enormity of the trade in wild animals from Africa for the exotic pet industry, transported in inhumane containers by airlines, with Ethiopian Airlines being at the forefront.

What’s inside? Cargo of Cruelty, Courtesy WAP

Advertised on social media on platforms like Instagram and Facebook, the choice is wide for customers to choose. There are more than 200 species ranging from African grey parrots to bats; the big cats to bushbabies; the great apes to nocturnal owls; from majestic eagles to little-known chameleons and tortoises.

Many of these animals are threatened with extinction or have unknown or declining wild population trends. They suffer when they are captured and kept in cruel conditions, which can leave them stressed and vulnerable to infection or death.

“This is a great report,” remarks Patricia Tricorache, the Illegal Wildlife Trade expert based at the Colorado State University. “Based on what I’ve seen during my online research into illegal wildlife advertisements, animals are being flown out of almost every country in Africa, Asia and Latin America by many different airlines.”

Ball pythons being smuggled. Courtesy WAP

Tricorache began tackling the issue of illegal trade in wildlife when alerted to two cheetah cubs held illegally at a restaurant in Ethiopia in November 2005, when working with the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF). At the time, little was known about the magnitude of this illegal trade. She began collecting data on illegal cheetah trafficking, which she later expanded with her research into cyber-commerce where animals like cheetahs are advertised for sale on Instagram, Facebook and others.

“During my research into cheetah advertisements on social media and eCommerce platforms, I’ve come across many animals from all over Africa, including species listed on this report. Most of these were offered for sale in the Gulf States. This suggests that some of the most logical routes for these animals from Africa into the Middle East are Ethiopia, Egypt, Turkey or Saudi Arabia. Ethiopian Airlines, Turkish Airways, and Egypt Air have many routes in Africa so they are all likely candidates for smuggling animals.”

According to the report by WAP, the global supply of exotic pets is largely undocumented, and regulation is insufficient. The report documented animals such as tortoises, packed so tightly they struggle to fully extend their head and neck during the journey.

A young monkey being transported illegally. Courtesy WAP

However, it’s not only the airlines smuggling live animals out. Tricorache’s research reveals cheetah cubs out of Djibouti or Somalia/Somaliland are mostly transported by boat into the Middle East. Now, there are even unconfirmed reports of private jets out of Tanzania and Somaliland transporting cheetahs.

Spreading Viruses

What’s inside? Even chimpanzees have been smuggled in crates. Courtesy WAP

The report further reads that the global wildlife trade is considered to be one of the leading causes of ecosystem collapse and biodiversity loss globally, in addition to posing huge biosecurity risks. More than 70% of zoonotic emerging infectious diseases are thought to originate from wild animals, with poor welfare conditions and proximity to people creating the ideal situation for viruses to mutate and spillover to humans like the corona virus.

“While the world still grapples with the pandemic, it’s important to remember how it’s believed to have all started – the wildlife trade,” says Dr. Patrick Muinde, WAP’s wildlife campaigns manager.

“People continue to be subjected to travel restrictions to stop the spread of disease,” states Muinde. “Hence, it’s shocking to know that wild animals of high biosecurity risk are being flown around the world, going under the radar. We could have a Trojan horse situation as wild animals are known to pose disease risks. We need to stop pathogens spreading, and the most effective way to do this is to stop them being placed on an airplane in the first place. The luxury exotic pet trade is a good place to start.”