Smarter ways of searching for a needle in a haystack; disrupting the shipping of illegal wildlife and counterfeit goods

Fighting the shipping of illegal wildlife products

2016 was the year shipping acknowledged its role as a facilitator of crime, admittedly an unwitting facilitator, but a facilitator none the less.

The key moments were the Declaration of the United for Wildlife International Taskforce on the Transportation of Illegal Wildlife Products, signed in March, and the Declaration of Intent to Prevent the Maritime Transport of Counterfeit Goods, signed in December.

The illegal trade in animals, ivory and other body parts, as well as in timber and plants, is a global criminal activity only slightly less lucrative than the trafficking of arms, drugs and people. It is being perpetrated on “an industrial scale” and it is on the rise despite almost every government in the world pledging to act to stamp it out.

The difficulties of suppressing poaching and other forms of wildlife depredation are manifold and well known. Nevertheless, the idea of targeting the supply chain is gaining traction and it is hoped that by disrupting the logistical link between supplier and customer the trade can be impeded.

Smugglers exploit the fact that tracking contraband shipments is very difficult, especially seaborne cargoes.

According to United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime about 90% of all
international trade is carried by ships in more than 500 million containers. Of those
500 million containers, less than 2% are inspected to verify their contents.

In March last year, 40 Chief Executives, Chairmen and other leaders from the shipping and airline industries, as well as port operators, customs agencies and conservation charities signed up to the Declaration of the United for Wildlife International Taskforce on the Transportation of Illegal Wildlife Products, or the Buckingham Palace Declaration as it’s become more commonly known.

The Buckingham Palace Declaration commits its signatories to developing information sharing systems that facilitate transport sector companies receiving information about “high risk routes and methods of transportation”, as well as providing those companies with secure channels through which information can be reported to law enforcement agencies. It is also hoped that transport companies will refuse to accept or ship suspicious cargoes in future.

Translating the commitments from off the page and into practise is where the really hard work begins. Amongst the challenges that face the maritime signatories to the Declaration will be developing ways to differentiate between what are legitimate shipping behaviours and what illicit ones look like; how to piece together and analyse networks of companies and individuals acting illegally;  as well as being able to identify “cover cargoes” and crack down on fraudulently-created documentation.

Recent events in Southeast-Asia illustrate how shipping companies, especially large operators with sophisticated data management tools, can alert authorities to suspicious trading patterns.

Before 2013 ivory smuggling through Singapore was almost unknown but after
several large-scale ivory seizures, Singapore became what the UN’s wildlife
trade monitor calls a “country of primary concern”.

The background is that customs officials in mainland China and Hong Kong – where ivory cargoes often end up – were targeting containers from African ports. The smugglers responded by diverting cargoes to Singapore and Malaysia’s Port Klang. The tactic was to reload the cargoes onto other ships and send them to China with new paperwork listing new ports of origin. Once alerted, the Chinese authorities were able to refocus their searches.

By signing the Buckingham Palace Declaration shipping has signalled that it wants to be part of the solution. Signe Bruun Jensen, Global Head of Sustainability at Maersk Line – the world’s largest container shipping line and signatory to the Declaration – said the company’s approach would be to work with the World Customs Organisation. It would gather data about the illegal transport of wildlife and animal parts to build a better picture of how illegal goods were transported and, crucially, the ports through which they passed. The objective would be to provide police and customs with the information to make targeted screening a real possibility.

At this point the aims and detection methods needed to identify illegal cargoes dovetail  with another major initiative which shipping has just signed up to – the Declaration of Intent to Prevent the Maritime Transport of Counterfeit Goods.

This second initiative of 2016, marks the first time the global shipping industry and brand owners have made a public, albeit non-binding, commitment to work together to stop the transport of counterfeit goods.

“Closer collaboration with vessel owners and freight forwarders is key to preventing abuses and achieving sustainable results,” said Matteo Mattei, brand integrity manager at Philip Morris International.

One of the projects outlined in the declaration is the production of industry-specific, counterfeiting-specific, ‘know your customer’ materials. It is just as important for shipping companies to know who gave them a shipment as to know what’s in the container.

Players in the supply chain, brand owners and customs authorities are committed to collecting and sharing information to increase the transparency and to better identify those customers who have initiated illegal shipments.

The fight against wildlife trafficking and other illegal goods needs an army of combatants drawn from commerce as well as law enforcement and politics.

The shipping industry is waking up to the fact that it has a central and meaningful role to play in this fight if it is to be part of the solution and not part of the problem.


This paper is intended as a general summary of issues in the stated field. It is not a substitute for authoritative advice on a specific matter. It is provided for information only and free of charge. Every reasonable effort has been made to make it accurate and up to date but no responsibility for its accuracy or correctness, or for any consequences of reliance on it, is assumed by Gray Page.

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