Weaknesses and loopholes in maritime supply chains are often exploited by traffickers to smuggle illegal wildlife and timber products to feed growing demand, predominantly in Asian markets. Together, WWF and TRAFFIC are supporting the shipping sector to detect illegalities passing through global waters.

Legal wildlife trade is a complex business, supplying local and international demand for wildlife products across numerous industries. However, a growing, parallel illegal business is taking advantage of weaknesses in maritime supply chains to illegally transport wildlife products from source to destination markets.

“It's estimated that by volume, 72–90% of wildlife products are trafficked by sea. Around 90% of international trade in goods by volume are carried by sea, so you can see how detecting illegal wildlife trade can be like looking for a needle in a haystack.” – Livia Esterhazy, Chair of WWF's Asia Pacific Growth Strategy (APGS) and CEO of WWF-New Zealand

"Wildlife smugglers are growing bolder by secreting illicit cargo into commercial supply chains. To tackle this and respond proactively to the Illegal Wildlife Trade (IWT), we needed practical, handy detection guides to assist freight forwarders and ocean liners to detect suspicious shipments even without opening the cargo containers," Esterhazy added.

Often traffickers adapt their modus operandi to avoid detection in the smuggling of illegal products. This can vary depending on the wildlife commodity type, their origin, and target consumers, but frequently involves facilitating corruption throughout the maritime transport infrastructure.

Bribes are commonplace in the illegal wildlife trade, taking place at source, transit, and export stages. At times, these bribes persuade employees to help falsify documentation. One type of documentation critical to regulate the legal trade and ensure it does not threaten the species' survival is the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) permits and certificates for Appendix listed species.

“The smuggling of CITES-protected species is an extremely lucrative trade for criminal networks and could have major ramifications for the species’ survival in the wild. This compendium targets supporting the shipping sector to better identify potential signs of tampering or non-compliance of CITES permits.” – Monica Zavagli, TRAFFIC Programme Manager for Transport Sector Engagement

“By definition, illegally traded wildlife does not undergo hygiene, sanitary, and phytosanitary controls; as a result, illegal wildlife trade carries risks to public health and can contribute to the spread of zoonotic diseases and invasive species around the globe,” added Zavagli.

To address these issues, WWF and TRAFFIC, have worked with multiple partners to produce ‘The Red Flag Compendium for Wildlife and Timber Trafficking in Containerised Cargo’ details the warning signs of corruption, smuggling, other related crimes and outlines red flags and additional tools to identify prolifically trafficked CITES-listed species, including big cats, specific marine life, large mammal species such as rhino, elephant, and timber.

This compendium includes information on at-risk routes as well as typical indicators of illicit activities such as questionable paperwork and discrepancies in information like value, weight, and appearance. Irregular behaviour, such as consignments split across multiple shipments, last-minute requests for shipment clearance and abnormal or sudden changes in routes or destinations may be signs of illegal action.

By highlighting the potential risks in this compendium, shipping companies can implement greater safeguarding measures to protect their employees, business and nature. This information is critical to protecting the integrity of maritime supply chains from operational, economic, security and zoonotic health risks.

“We know traffickers use existing transport infrastructure to move their illicit goods throughout the world and have developed sophisticated networks to facilitate this movement by exploiting weaknesses and loopholes and by facilitating corruption on a massive scale. Maritime supply chains are very complex but through our cross-sector collaborations within United for Wildlife (UfW), we are working with partners across the globe to disrupt these networks and address this threat.” – Lord Hague, Chair of United for Wildlife