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Wildlife Smuggling: Why Does Wildlife Crime Reporting Suck? (PHOTOS)

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Special From National Geographic, By Bryan Christy

Did you read the story about the illegal trade in gorilla testicles? Have you seen the one about parrots poached in Brazil using glue? How about the news bulletin last week about the guy at LAX with Australian lizards strapped to his chest?

Generally there are two kinds of wildlife crime stories in the media: the weird news item showing a smuggler in flagrante (a stunned German tourist with a marmoset hidden in his beard) and the "in-depth" overseas report. I want to focus on the latter because too often these overseas reports kill endangered species.

After a description of a featured [mammal] [reptile] [bird] enjoying the best day of its life, chances are that any overseas report you've encountered went something like this:

Illegal trade in wildlife is a $10 billion a year industry, second only to trade in illegal drugs. Last summer [fall, winter, spring] I visited [foreign country] and found [mammal, reptile, bird] for sale. Here's a photo. Then I interviewed an NGO official who told me that [mammal, reptile, bird] is near extinction. So, I joined up with a ranger and went with him on patrol--notice the spectacular scenery--and sure enough the ranger caught somebody [picture] with a [mammal, reptile, bird]. Insert quote. Conclude with a personal reflection on man's inhumanity to [mammal, reptile, bird].

Starting with the first sentence, as above, these stories are factually wrong. And after that, they spiral into something that often reads like an eco-tourist's vacation diary.

Almost every news report on the illegal wildlife trade gives its value at between 6 billion and 20 billion dollars a year, and they invariably compare it to the markets for illegal drugs and guns. Google search "second only to drugs." Unfortunately, there is absolutely no basis for these numbers.

I first heard the six billion, second only to drugs description from a convicted smuggler who told me he had been hearing the same statistic for 20 years so if it was true he should be left alone since it meant he was in a zero-growth industry. Then I heard U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Agents use the statistic, and then NGO leaders. I grew suspicious when I asked an NGO official her source for the figure, and she responded, "Why do you want to know?"

In most cases, stories cite Interpol for the figures, or the State Department, or an NGO, which in turn cites Interpol.

I contacted Interpol to find out some details on the figures and got a response from Bill Clark, Interpol Secretary, who lives in Israel. Clark knew the statistic and its sourcing to Interpol. He said: "We have no idea where the media gets its numbers, but it's not from Interpol." In fact, he added, "Interpol has no reliable data on which to base an estimate."

The six-billion-dollar figure has been increased every few years to get the ten and twenty billion figures often reported. Clark said that a newspaper in Nairobi had recently published "$31bn annually!"

So what? We all know illegal wildlife trade is big and that illegal traders are bad, so (apart from accuracy) who cares if we spice up the numbers a little?

The primary international government institutions on wildlife crime are the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) and Interpol. Both have attempted to quantify illegal wildlife trade and both have failed. In 2007, the CITES Secretariat suggested that bad reporting by the media was partly to blame:

"16. The Secretariat regularly sees statements in the media and a variety of other fora where illicit trade in wildlife is claimed to be the second or third most significant criminal activity in the world, behind the trade in narcotics and firearms. It knows of no figures that can justify such claims and believes this may be a gross exaggeration. Whilst some forms of illicit wildlife trade and wildlife crime are undoubtedly serious, rank alongside other major forms of transnational organized crime and are deserving of high enforcement priority, the Secretariat believes that exaggeration does the cause of attracting greater attention and support from policy-makers and enforcement agency managers no good."

In other words, puffing wildlife smuggling to sell stories hurts efforts to fight crime.

Recall any wildlife smuggling story you've ever read or watched in the past 20 years. Now, substitute the word "cocaine" for whatever wildlife is featured in the story. Chances are you'll see a bizarre overemphasis on cocaine and how it grows and who sells it on street corners and little attention on major traffickers, their national and transnational syndicates, and the government regulators and prosecutors who failed to stop the trafficking. You will see no names beyond the lowest level traffickers. You would demand more in a narcotics trafficking story, and you would hope for more in a child trafficking story, but you won't see more in a wildlife crime story because too often wildlife crime stories are little more than eco-tourism pieces with sad endings.

In the past few years, the U.S. Justice Department's lead environmental crimes prosecutors have been making the pitch both here and abroad that investigators, prosecutors, and judges should pursue wildlife criminals as traditional criminals, charging them with smuggling, money laundering, etc. Reporting on wildlife crime likewise should treat the matter as a crime story not a wildlife story. More time should be spent on paper and money trails, less on jungle adventures. Choices count. With paltry government resources allocated to fighting international wildlife crime, journalists are often nature's best hope against smugglers. Weak reporting kills wildlife.

PHOTOS, courtesy of National Geographic, by Mark Leong.

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Bryan Christy is author of The Lizard King: The True Crimes and Passions of the World's Greatest Reptile Smugglers. His story on wildlife smuggling, "The Kingpin," appears in the January 2010 issue of National Geographic.

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