Global environmental crime is an incredibly prolific business, deemed by the United Nations to be worth as much as $213bn annually.
Wildlife trade, alone worth $23bn, relies heavily on elephant ivory, one of the most expensive and in-demand items.
Across Africa, as much as 5 to 7% of the elephant population is being slaughtered annually. Between 2009 and 2014, this resulted in 170 tons of ivory, sourced from almost 230,000 elephants, being trafficked by criminal networks. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) warned that in 2010 the "threshold of sustainability" had been crossed, meaning that poaching figures outstripped birth rates.
Far from relying on disparate opportunists scattered around the world, the market for ivory products is supplied by a transnational criminal enterprise with ties into wider networks of fraud, corruption and even terrorism.
"All trends point to an expanding and increasingly sophisticated trade," according to the Out of Africa report, published by authors Varun Vira, Thomas Ewing and Jackson Miller, in collaboration with non-profit C4ADS and the Born Free Foundation.
A substantial increase in airport interceptions in recent years can be seen as both bad and good news. On the one hand, the trade is as prolific as ever, but the number of seizures also indicates an amplified effort from airport authorities around the world to tackle wildlife criminal activity.
Tracing the airborne ivory trade
"It's a concern for everyone, including the transport modes that are being used to carry these goods, and we will do what we can together with other organisations to combat the problem," says Gordon Wright, head of cargo border management at the International Air Transport Association (IATA).
Tracing the trade from its origin to the end marketplace is an important step in better understanding what role airports play in tackling ivory smuggling. The report specifies that the international ivory trade begins at Africa's largest ports and airports, with traffickers nesting their activities within the legal transportation system. Furthermore, airborne traffic accounts for the majority of trafficking incidents by number, but a minority of trafficked ivory by volume.
C4ADS's geospatial analysis of flight routes out of Africa managed to single out three main airports which handle 36% of the continent's international traffic, namely Nairobi's Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, Addis Ababa's Bole International Airport and Johannesburg's OR Tambo airport.
The primary route of concern starts in East Africa, with the vast majority of ivory shipments coming from countries such as Kenya, Mozambique and Tanzania, which is at "the epicentre of the current poaching crisis". The shipments are headed for a prolific marketplace in China, Thailand and Vietnam, with China itself absorbing over 90% of the ivory exports.
"When you look at Eastern Africa, that's where the source is, but the response has to be international because there's a demand for those goods from other countries, particularly in the Far East," Wright says.
"Often the countries in East Africa do not have all the necessary resources and training at their disposal in order to effectively combat this problem. In addition to that, you also need the market countries for ivory or rhino horn to take steps to remove this from the marketplaces and stem the demand of these goods."
Traffickers along the route between Africa and East Asia often take advantage of poor screening and high levels of corruption at airports. Following his arrest in Guangzhou, a Chinese national linked with a wildlife trafficking network was quoted in the report as saying: "Nigeria probably has the world's most relaxed custom regulations. You don't even need to be present to check your luggage."
The crucial role of customs screening
Although some wildlife products can be spotted in cargo or passenger bags, Wright highlights that it is the job of customs authorities, not airport security, to identify and seize contraband items.
"It's important not to mix the security screening undertaken at airports with what customs does," he explains. "The screening equipment in the airport is there to detect explosives and it's paramount to security. However, customs actually screens for prohibitions and restrictions; ivory falls within that domain.
"But if you have a proper risk management engine to stop illicit wildlife trading, then you are in a much better position than some of the countries today, who have very limited risk management systems and awareness programmes."
Improving their detection capabilities is a multi-pronged approach for the hotbeds of elephant poaching and ivory trafficking. On the one hand, training and awareness programs for airport and airline staff, as well as for passengers, can help better identify any suspicious behaviour which could be linked to smuggling. Secondly, up-to-date screening technologies are paramount in detecting and seizing by-products.
"In addition to that, we will work with World Customs Organisation to see if we could do some airport assessments just to ensure that airport, airline staff and customs have all the tools at their disposal to detect and report wildlife smuggling," Wright says.
Airborne freight, which once accounted for a sizable share of trafficking incidents, has seen a sharp decrease in the lead-up to 2013, after which it made a short resurgence. Nowadays, "flight remains the primary means available to small-scale traffickers such as tourists, migrant workers, and traders," according to the report.
As such, the answer could lie in improved passenger screening technology, believes Jonathan James, head of business development at Digital Barriers.
"What we're talking about is next generation people screening technology, in this case for contraband detection at customs border control applications," he says. "So the solution that Digital Barriers has been deploying around the world with customs agencies is a small, compact, lightweight camera technology that screens people in real time and at a distance, as they are walking through various locations."
"They key thing to take away initially is that this is passive technology, which is very different to the so-called body-scanner technology you see at security screening areas."
Their ThruVis scanners have so far been deployed in northern Europe and the Americas, as well as at some of the busiest customs agencies in South East and Central Asia.
"ThruVis is screening for concealed, anomalous objects on the person, whether it's metal, ceramic, plastic, paper currency and ivory- even a bag full of tropic fish," James says.
"We've done numerous tests with a wide range of concealed wildlife-type objects at certain customs agencies where wildlife materials are particularly sensitive, and we had excellent results."
Bringing the "evil trade" to its end
More recently, IATA, alongside Airports Council International, the African Airlines Association and a number of individual airlines, joined the 'United for Wildlife' initiative, created by the Royal Foundation of The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry, together pledging their commitment to reducing the illegal trafficking of wildlife.
This new programme comes a year into IATA's cooperation with the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITIES).
As an international agreement between governments, CITIES is uniquely positioned to regulate wildlife trade in Africa. After identifying the countries of top concern in the region, CITIES requested the governments in question to submit individual National Ivory Action Plans detailing their targeted action in tackling this crime.
Many of the 19 parties have already deployed various initiatives at their airports. For example Ethiopia, identified as a key ivory trafficking hub, focused on operations at its Bole International Airport (BIA). Its action plan involves identifying gaps in the airports system, equipment and capacity, with a focus on cargo systems and transit luggage inspection.
It also delivered special training for 60 customs staff, distributed a wildlife identification manual and looked into introducing a sniffer dog unit. By the end of April 2016, anti-trafficking messaging will be increased at BIA as well as on in-flight communications on Ethiopian Airlines flights.
Many of the other parties have deployed similar tactics in their attempt to improve their detection rates for wildlife crime.
James thinks it would reap dividends if technology was taken up in a more widespread fashion.
"I can understand that specific details of technologies have not been revealed simply for good operational reasons, because it is a very dynamic threat and the bad people could modify their behaviour accordingly if details of the technology were released. But it's absolutely true that it should be more widely deployed," he says.
As with any multi-billion dollar crime network, clamping down on the ivory trade is a difficult endeavour to say the least, and airports are just one of the actors, albeit a very important one, in the global crusade against it.
Speaking at the signing of the United for Wildlife declaration, IATA director general and CEO Tony Tyler recognized just that. "All of this activity fits into a bigger picture of collaboration amongst industry and both national and global institutions," he said. "Aviation is a force for good in our world. You can count on us to play a responsible role in helping authorities put an end to this evil trade."