05 October 2015

Belgium and international wildlife trade

Following a recent seizure at Brussels Airport, I thought it was a good idea to briefly review what we know about Belgium in the context of international wildlife trafficking.

The UNEP-WCMC Conservation Dashboard for Belgium, which contains CITES trade statistics derived from the CITES Trade Database, shows that the species most imported for commercial trade (live wild animals) in the country between 2007 and 2012 were Scleractinia (stony corals), Testudo horsfieldii (Afghan Tortoise) and Goniopora stokesi (Flowerpot coral). 

The 2011-2012 CITES Biennial Report, the most recent at the time of my research, indicated seizures of ivory, leather souvenirs (crocodile, snake and varanus among others) and dried seahorses, found weekly in luggage’s which are in transit from Africa to China. Also plant specimens were seized in postal, courier packages and personal luggage. Belgium also reported a high incidence of ivory traffic coming notably from former Belgian colonies and other African countries.

In the meantime, Belgium has submitted its 2013-2014 Biennial Report in which the above mentioned tendency is mantained, with an increased incidence of pangolin scales (manis spp). 

As part of my research, I visited  Brussels Airport and interviewed two Customs officers in charge, among others, of wildlife traffic offences.

They were kind enough to show me the results of some of their seizures, like for instance the rests of an elephant skull,

stuffed crocodiles,

and many figures made of ivory concealed in a muddy paste and labelled as "handcraft".

Among lizards concealed in plastic tubes, pangolin scales and jars full of dead seahorses, what surprised me the most was their big TM cupboard, full of so-called ‘medicinal products’ allegedly made with listed species such as tiger bone or hoodia.

The heart and soul of this fight against wildlife traffic at the airport is Pol Meuleneire, a devoted officer with years of experience who seems to know all possible ways of concealing illegal specimens. Pol was very helpful and provided me with all kind of details about the seizures.

Despite having to combine wildlife traffic with other kinds of illegal trade, he compiles and produces a newsletter informing of the latest seizures. A proof of his devotion. Some days ago, he circulated information about the last one: a piece of ivory concealed in a wooden and iron ax. Beneath the hand grip in wood, officials found a nice piece of ivory addressed to a private person.

Bedankt Pol and his colleague for their kindness and for their permission to publish the pictures. It is people like them, devoted and committed despite the constrains attached to their posts, who make the fight against wildlife traffic meaningful. Seeing how important Brussels Airport is as a transit and destination point and the tiny number of Customs officers involved, I believe Belgium could benefit from having a higher number of people exclusively dedicated to wildlife. 

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