Chapter 6 Illegal Trade

6.1. Introduction

Snow leopards are killed and traded for their fur and other body parts. Although snow leopards have full legal protection in all range countries and have been listed in Appendix 1 of CITES since 1975, illegal trade in snow leopards poses a serious continuing threat to the species that persists in all range countries.

Demand for snow leopard products exists at national and international levels. A report by TRAFFIC International reviewed the snow leopard trade in detail (Theile 2003) and an update to this report is currently underway (A. Maheshwari, pers. comm.). The Environmental Investigation Agency also summarized the results of its research into the illegal wildlife trade in Asia since 2005 (EIA 2012). Snow leopard fur is used for clothing, hats, and furnishings and one instance of snow leopard meat available in a restaurant has been reported (Theile 2003). Recent evidence indicates that trade is now moving towards rugs, luxury décor and taxidermy (EIA 2012).

Until relatively recently, snow leopard skins could be seen on sale in markets and fur shops in several places, but the open market has declined over the last 10-15 years and the trade has become more clandestine almost everywhere, with some exceptions. Pelts have been traditionally used as decorative wall mountings in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia and Xinjiang in China (NABU 2002). This practice is less evident currently since it is illegal, although skins obtained before national legislation was enacted may be exempt. Linxia in Gansu Province, China, has long been a centre for the animal skin trade, with more than 80 000 people engaged in the business, mainly trading sheepskin and cow leather, as well as skins from fox and otter. Although very few traders engage openly in tiger and leopard trade, the rare animal skin business is many times more lucrative than sheepskin and leather (Xu and Compton 2008). Traders stated that Asian big cat skins for sale were sourced from Afghanistan, Burma, China, India, Mongolia, Pakistan, Russia and Vietnam (EIA 2008). They did not appear to know, or be willing to discuss, the original source of the skins or whether the sources indicated were in fact transit / trading points. In Linxia, the buyer demographic appears to have diversified, with buyers coming from all over China, according to traders and the skins are marketed as ready-made rugs for home décor or taxidermy specimens (EIA 2008). The government of China is taking steps to address this trade as part of a strategic crackdown on illegal wildlife trade: for example, around 200 kg of ivory products were seized in April 2013 in Beijing’s markets (TRAFFIC e-Newsletter, 17/05/2013).

Domestic markets have created a second trade chain, one step removed from the first (Wingard & Zahler 2006). Instead of supplying consumers directly, hunters bring wildlife products that require little or no processing (fish, unprocessed skins, meat, and animal parts) to small local markets and restaurants for resale to local consumers. This second chain has an international component where some products (such as furs from wolf, lynx, fox, snow leopard, horns from ibex and argali) are marketed to international visitors who then transport them across borders as souvenirs (Mishra and Fitzherbert 2004; Wingard & Zahler 2006).

In Afghanistan it was estimated that 50-80 skins were sold annually in the 1970s (Rodenburg 1977) and relatively recent visits to fur markets of Kabul indicate that snow leopard pelts are still available, with foreigners, aid workers and members of the international military forces reportedly among the main buyers (Mishra and Fitzherbert 2004, Manati 2008). In response, the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) has mounted awareness programs targeting these consumer groups. The National Environmental Protection Agency (NEPA) in cooperation with Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) have developed a trade monitoring system in 2008 for the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) that regularly inspects bazaars and military bases for snow leopard products (Kretser et al. 2012). The US Department of Defense has also supported production of a film for military personnel on the dangers of trade in snow leopards and other threatened species and the development of a mobile app for use by military personnel in identifying snow leopard and other illegal wildlife products (Kretser et al. 2014).

A study by TRAFFIC (2008) reviewed the economic and social drivers of wildlife trade and emphasized the need to (i) improve available data and knowledge of wildlife trade (ii) design wildlife trade interventions taking into account the broader conditions and trends that drive illegal wildlife trade (iii) implement and enforce laws and regulations (iv) address wider issues of governance v) make better use of non-regulatory approaches e.g. market based interventions and support for improvements in resource management (vi) target the specific audience for awareness and evaluating its impact and vii) increase policy action and attention to address the illegal trade on priority.

Interestingly the study also found that efforts to reduce poverty, increase income and diversify livelihoods amongst rural communities were believed to have relatively low impact on participation in harvesting wildlife. People involved in the trade were not necessarily poor and the poor who were involved did not necessarily drive the trade, whereas rising affluence and increasing disposable incomes in consumer countries were major drivers of demand and trade (TRAFFIC 2008). Political upheavals can also trigger poaching, e.g. trade in snow leopards increased following the breakup of the former USSR and associated economic crisis in the early 1990s (Koshkarev 1994; Loginov 1995).

The true volume of the illegal trade is hard to assess due to difficulties in monitoring a secretive activity. It is often estimated that customs seizures represent only about 10% of the actual trade in a species, suggesting that as many as 1000 snow leopards may have been illegally traded in the last 12 years (EIA 2012). However, there is no central database containing official data on seizures, trade or killing of snow leopards and the available information is patchy.

In Mongolia, customs authorities confiscated 67 skins over the 10 years 1993–2002. Since 2005, over 100 skins were found on sale in western China, especially in the city of Linxia (EIA 2012). Since the year 2000, 151 skins have been confiscated across the 12 range states. Li and Lu (2014) collected all reported cases of snow leopard poaching and trade in China 2000–2013. These investigators found that snow leopard parts were mainly traded in the major cities within their range provinces, but also began to emerge in a few coastal cities after 2010. They reported 43 cases during 2000-2013, involving at least 98 snow leopards, nine of which were imported from Mongolia Household interviews in the Sanjiangyuan Nature Reserve in Qinghai Province showed a minimum of 25 snow leopards since 2000 and estimated that 11 animals may be killed each year, accounting for about 1.2% of the estimated local snow leopard population. They found that while earlier, snow leopard products were mainly traded in the cities within the range provinces, since 2010, the market appears to have expanded to the wealthy coastal cities of China.

Secondary killing of snow leopards (‘by-catch’) also occurs. For example, snares set for musk deer in the Argut River basin of Russia’s Altai Republic to procure highly valued musk for trading across nearby borders also pose a severe threat to the area’s significantly depleted snow leopard population. In the last two years, field researchers have seized hundreds of snares laid densely along narrow ridges and migration routes, leaving snow leopards and other species few chances of escape (M. Paltsyn, in litt. 2013). In South Gobi in Mongolia, a radio-collared snow leopard was captured and killed by a herder in a snare supposedly set out for is wolves. In China, there are several cases of local herders using poison or traps to kill wolves, but unintentionally also killed snow leopards (Li et al. 2013).

Lack of enforcement and underfunding of the wildlife sector are chronic problems across snow leopard range. Some anti-poaching efforts have been supported by NGOs, for example NABU’s ‘Gruppa Bars’ in Kyrgyzstan and the community-based Irbis-1 and Ibis-2 anti-poaching teams supported by WWF and UNDP/GEF in Western Mongolia. These teams have uncovered 12 cases of illegal snow leopard hunting and trade since 2001, including confiscation of 4 snow leopard skins at one time, and seizure of 15 snow leopard skins illegally transported to Russia. Between 1997 and 2012, 18 cases of illegal snow leopard hunting and trade were uncovered, resulting in several successful prosecutions. In Tajikistan, a snow leopard skin was confiscated in the spring of the 2013 (the animal was killed as a result of a depredation attack and the affected herder tried to sell the skin for the equivalent of USD 800); shortly before a snow leopard skin was also found in a shop in Dushanbe offered for USD 15,000.

6.2. Trade regulation

At the global level, international trade in threatened wildlife species wildlife is regulated by CITES. Addressing and curbing the illegal snow leopard trade requires a series of actions taken at international, regional, and national levels. Fully implementing Resolutions and Decisions adopted by the Conference of the Parties to CITES in this regard is essential. All range countries except Tajikistan are parties to CITES though some do not implement the convention fully. The following CITES Resolutions and Decisions are relevant for compliance and enforcement issues related to snow leopards:

•           Resolution Conf. 8.4 (Rev. CoP15) on National laws for implementation of the Convention

•           Resolution Conf. 11.3 (Rev. CoP16) on Compliance and enforcement.

•           Resolution Conf. 12.5 (Rev. CoP16) on Conservation of and trade in tigers and other Appendix-I Asian big cat species

•           Decisions 16.33 to 16.35 on National laws for implementation of the Convention

•           Decision 16. 68 to 16.70 on Asian big cats

Under CITES Resolution Conf. 12.5 on Asian big cats, signatory countries are obliged to report on illegal trade issues concerning snow leopards, but none has yet done so. Lack of enforcement and underfunding of the wildlife sector are chronic problems across snow leopard range. There is also an inconsistent approach to investigation and enforcement of wildlife-related crime and the recognition of the connection between wildlife crime and international security. This is exacerbated by the fact that information currently collected is inadequate to conduct intelligence analysis and intelligence-led targeting or to identify tangible links between wildlife crime and other crime types.

In addition, INTERPOL has adopted a Resolution AG-2010-RES-03 on Sustainable Environmental Crime Programme   and the UN Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice (CCPCJ) has adopted a revised draft resolution (E/CN.15/2013/L.20/Rev) on Crime prevention and criminal justice responses to illicit trafficking in protected species of wild fauna and flora. The draft resolution was adopted by the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) on 25 July 2013.

Interpol’s Environmental Compliance and Enforcement Committee (ECEC) is working to design and develop strategies to enhance the effectiveness and efficiency of its national and international responses to environmental compliance and enforcement, including liaising with its Wildlife Crime Working Group. The key objectives are to explore mechanisms to expedite the exchange and maximize the storage of data, information and intelligence for the benefit of the global law enforcement community; to consider issues associated with communication and networking between governments, non-governmental organizations and the private sector; and to enhance collaboration surrounding transnational investigations and operational actions. The Interpol Wildlife Crime Working Group initiates and leads a number of projects to combat the poaching, trafficking, or possession of legally protected flora and fauna. Enhancing their outreach for curbing illegal trade in the big cats would increase the effectiveness of CITES on the ground.

Wildlife is being increasingly traded illegally by criminal networks that are often also linked with drug and weapons syndicates, and supported by corrupt officials and porous borders, according to a report recently issued by IFAW (2013). The report offers the following recommendations to government, multilateral institutions, intergovernmental agencies and NGOs:

  • Elevate wildlife crime to the level of other serious international organized crimes (an effort to do so is already underway at high government levels in the US)
  • Strengthen policies and legal frameworks, increase law enforcement capacity and develop effective judicial systems to better combat wildlife crime locally, nationally and internationally
  • Develop and implement regional wildlife enforcements strategies and networks
  • Address growing demand for and availability of wildlife products through targeted consumer awareness and demand-reduction initiatives in key consumer states.

The largest markets for illegal wildlife products, in order, are said to be China, the European Union and the USA (IFAW 2013). On May 1, 2013 The United Nations Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice agreed to a resolution calling on nations to “recognize wildlife and forest crimes as a serious form of organize crime and strengthen penalties against criminal syndicates and networks profiting from such illegal trade”.

6.3. Recommendations

CITES and related international action

  • Encourage Tajikistan to join the Convention as soon as possible
  • All snow leopard range states should report regularly to CITES under Resolution Conf. 12.5 (Rev COP.15) Conservation of and trade in tigers and other Appendix-I Asian big cat species including enforcement activities, either by Inf. Doc or verbal reports.
  • Reports to CITES should include information on snow leopard poaching and trade, including estimates of:

–          Numbers of snow leopards poached and entering trade, and the nature of the trade

–          The number of cases which investigated to, from source to destination

–          The number of arrests, seizures and convictions for snow leopard trade

–          Penalties imposed

  • All snow leopard range states submit information on the international illegal snow leopard trade to their INTERPOL National Central Bureaus.
  • Snow leopard range states use the Wildlife and Forest Crime Analytic Toolkit produced by the International Consortium on Combating Wildlife Crime (ICCWC) to produce a road map to combat illegal trade in snow leopard skins and parts and produce a strategic enforcement action plan.
  • Develop the work of the INTERPOL Wildlife Crime Working Group further to combat snow leopard trade

Strengthening national legislation

  • Range States address gaps in legislation, to ensure that snow leopards are fully protected by law, including CITES-implementing legislation (with assistance from the CITES Secretariat).
  • Legislation should specifically outlaw hunting, possession, sale and trade of snow leopards, including all their parts, derivatives and products
  • Snow leopard range states ensure that penalties are high enough to act as a deterrent. As a minimum, fines should be comparable to the retail value of snow leopards on international markets.
  • Governments of snow leopard range states should adopt clear policies regarding the disposal of seized snow leopard products to ensure that these do not re-enter trade. Seized specimens should be marked and registered and kept in safe storage, used for educational and/or scientific purposes, or destroyed.

Strengthening enforcement

  • Carry out regular monitoring of major markets and known trade centres, [notably reported markets and tourist shops in Linxia, Kashi, and Xining in China; Namak-Mandi and Kissa-Khawani markets in Peshawar, Pakistan; fur shops in Kabul, Afghanistan; some hotel shops in Kathmandu, Nepal; and the Dharchula border crossing between Nepal and China].
  • Range states consider the development of “whistle blower” or “informant network” programs that provide incentives to report illegal activities, such as the killing, possession or trade in protected animals such as snow leopards.
  • Maintain strong links between anti-poaching teams and all relevant agencies responsible for enforcing wildlife protection laws to facilitate the exchange of intelligence, increase the understanding of trade routes and dynamics and avoid duplication of efforts.
  • Establish and/or strengthen regional and international links and co-operation, in particular between neighbouring countries where smuggling of snow leopard products has been reported. Where appropriate, undercover investigations should be considered as a means of successful enforcement and collection of intelligence.
  • Establish specialised anti-poaching teams to counter the illegal killing of and trade in snow leopards. These should be well trained and effectively equipped and should work with local communities, establishing contacts and keeping them informed of the team’s role and activities.
  • Ensure these teams work closely with other wildlife enforcement units or consider the creation of multi-agency anti-poaching and enforcement teams (e.g. border guards, customs, PA staff, police) as different agencies have different mandates and legal responsibilities related to investigation, confiscation of materials, or apprehending suspects.
  • Governments should consider training and hiring former wildlife poachers as rangers to provide them with an alternative income and to access their knowledge on wildlife, hunting and trade routes.
  • Develop, where appropriate with the assistance of NGOs, practical identification manuals to aid enforcement personnel in the detection and accurate identification of snow leopard body parts.

Awareness raising

  • Initiate targeted public awareness campaigns to reduce demand for snow leopard parts and derivatives in all range states among the public, and government officials, especially those responsible for law enforcement. Develop awareness-raising and education materials to inform potential consumers about the conservation status of snow leopards, the threats faced by the species and relevant legislation for their protection. Targeted information, such as “buyer-beware” brochures (transport of snow leopard pelts can break multiple laws, in both country of origin and country of destination), leaflets, posters and web-based information should be provided to potential consumers of snow leopard products, including tourists, sport hunters, business travellers, military personnel and international aid personnel working in snow leopard range states. Information should be made available through the general media, specialized magazines and the internet. Co-operation from bodies as a whole should be sought, for example from the armed forces and those engaged in the legal fur trade.

 International cooperation

  •  Compliance with national reporting requirements on illegal trade (CITES/TRAFFIC)
  •  Recording of information on illegal snow leopard trade to INTERPOL National Central Bureaus (INTERPOL)
  •  Use of the Wildlife and Forest Crime Analytic Toolkit produced by the International Consortium on Combating Wildlife Crime (ICCWC) to develop a road map to combat illegal trade in snow leopard skins and parts and produce a strategic enforcement action plan (INTERPOL / ICCWC)
  •  Reviewing and strengthening national legislation on wildlife protection and trade (IUCN Commission on Environmental Law)
  •  Multilateral cooperation on illegal cross-border trade and customs training (INTERPOL, SEAWEN and other wildlife enforcement networks).


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