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Illegal trafficking of timber and other wildlife products is worth 12bn a yearConservation group WWF warns there is rising demand for rhino horn
It is used as a cancer medicine or 'hangover cure' in AsiaEven UK zoos are at risk from criminal gangs trying to steal rhino horn
01:50 GMT, 12 December 2012
Trafficking of wildlife and products such as timber and rhino horn is one of the world's biggest illegal trades, worth 12 billion a year, conservationists have warned.
Species such as rhinos, elephants and tigers are being poached in Africa and Asia, while antique collections, museums and even zoos in the UK are at risk from criminal gangs attempting to steal rhino horn, conservation group WWF said.
Exhibits of rhino heads at Haslemere Educational Museum, Surrey, and Norwich Castle Museum have both been targeted by thieves as criminals seek to cash in on increasing demand for rhino horn as a cancer medicine or 'hangover cure' in Asia.
The WWF has warned species such as rhinos are being poached in Africa and Asia, while antique collections, museums and even zoos in the UK are at risk from criminal gangs attempting to steal rhino horn
Across the world, illegal trade in wildlife including timber and unregulated and unreported fishing has become a lucrative business for criminal syndicates, with profits that can be used to finance civil conflicts and terrorism, a report for WWF found.
It is also pushing some species to the brink of extinction, hitting local communities in some of the poorest parts of the world and raising the threat of spreading infectious diseases.
The internet is also making it easier for criminals to trade in illegal products around the world, the research by Dalberg Global Development Advisors warned.
Rhino horn is now worth more than 37,000 a kilo, fetching more on the black market than diamonds and cocaine, leading to a surge of poaching in South Africa to record highs last year. It is particularly sought after in Vietnam.
Elephants are also being targeted for their ivory, with poaching across Africa at record levels in 2011.
The animals are being targeted in mass poaching incidents by criminal gangs armed with military issue machine guns, and there have been reports of Sudanese militias including the Janjaweed poaching ivory for profit.
Illegal ivory found by authorities in Kenya. Poaching across Africa was at record levels in 2011
Kenya Wildlife Service warders carry tusks that were intercepted from poachers in Marsabit where they were being transported to Ethiopia and then to Egypt
A recent incident in Central Africa saw 300 elephants killed by Sudanese poachers, and WWF's wildlife trade expert Heather Sohl warned the species could face localised extinctions if poaching continued at that level.
She said of the threats to animals such as elephants, rhinos and tigers: 'These are iconic species, they are being exploited and it's illegal and should be stopped.'
The report warned that species with high value to illegal traders had seen dramatic declines in recent years, including forest elephants in parts of the Congo basin, Asian elephant, Sumatran rhino and Javan rhino.
In the UK, auction houses saw huge prices paid for pieces from rhinos before the Government took action to prevent them being exported to Asia to meet demand for the animal's horn, and there has also been an increase in thefts.
'It's a high profit, low risk business,
the chances of them being caught in some of these countries is very low,
and if that happens there's a great deal of corruption in these
countries and they can offer a bribe and you don't see convictions.'
Expert Heather Sohl
'It's such a concern that enforcement authorities have spoken to all these antique collections, museums and even zoos to say they could be at risk here.
'There's a serious criminal network engaged in these types of theft in the UK and across the EU, and it is believed this is linked to the fact there is increased demand for rhino horn,' Ms Sohl said.
Rhino horn is just one part of a trade worth an estimated 19 billion US dollars (12 billion), making it the fourth biggest global illegal trade after narcotics, counterfeiting and human trafficking.
The report estimates that unreported and unregulated fisheries is worth 4.2 to 5.9 billion US dollars (2.6 to 3.7 billion), the illegal timber trade is worth 7 billion US dollars (4.4 billion) and other wildlife trafficking worth up to 7.8 billion US dollars (4.8 billion).
Among the reasons for the trade is demand for medicines, consumer goods and the desire to possess exotic pets, hunting trophies and rare plants and animals, the study suggested.
Illegal wildlife trade thrives in places with widespread corruption, weak law enforcement and where rangers, police officers and customs officials are not sufficiently trained or resourced with new tools such as DNA tracing technology.
Ms Sohl said: 'It's a high profit, low risk business, the chances of them being caught in some of these countries is very low, and if that happens there's a great deal of corruption in these countries and they can offer a bribe and you don't see convictions.'
WWF and its global wildlife trade programme Traffic want wildlife trafficking to be taken seriously by governments, with improvements to law enforcement, more severe penalties imposed on criminals, efforts to tackle corruption and long-term campaigns to reduce demand for products from consumers.
Ms Sohl added that in the UK funding for the National Wildlife Crime Unit was only secured until March 2013, and called for continued funding at the same level and long-term security for the unit to ensure it can develop expertise.