Roissy-Charles-de-Gaulle airport, a hub for wildlife trafficking

A dead animal, cut into small pieces distributed in several bags, gradually takes shape in the hands of customs officers, busy around an iron table normally used for checking luggage. After a few minutes of a macabre puzzle, appears the body of a crocodile found in the suitcases of a suspect from Kinshasa, capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

In early May, customs officers at Roissy-Charles-de-Gaulle airport carried out a random check on a flight from Kinshasa (Democratic Republic of Congo). | Pierre Terraz

The scene, which may seem surreal, is rather usual at terminal T2 at Roissy-Charles-de-Gaulle airport (Val-d’Oise). It is that the illegal wildlife trade, valued at nearly 23 billion euros per year, is one of the most lucrative trades in the world, just behind those of arms and drugs. A substantial profit that attracts small merchants, as well as the best-established criminal organizations in the world.

“The seizures range from meat, intended for catering, to the trafficking of live exotic animals, to the trade in “derived” products such as pangolin scales which are used in traditional medicine.explains Pascal Huet, customs inspector. There is therefore no typical profile of the trafficker: it goes from simple personal consumption to the criminal network, through the small self-employed person who manages his business alone on the markets.

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Thus, in one morning of checks on four flights, coming from Ho Chi Minh City (Vietnam), Douala (Cameroon), Dakar (Senegal) and Addis Ababa (Ethiopia), the customs officers of the T2 terminal of the airport of Roissy will seize no less than 260 kilos of goods. “A small number”, confides in reality the team leader of the terminal. The latter claims to seize more than 500 kilos of wildlife almost every day, on flights from West Africa and Southeast Asia for almost exclusivity.

Cultural Habits and “Traffic Regulars”

If the European Union is a hub for this traffic, France, more particularly, plays a central role in the phenomenon. Because France is not only a country of destination but also of transit, and even of origin for this illegal trade.

In February 2023 alone, the French customs service seized 302 kilos of glass eels, during a major operation in the Paris region. These eel fry, endangered worldwide and fished illegally off our shores, sell for several thousand euros per kilo on the black market abroad, mainly in Asia. Moreover, “Our overseas territories, which have more than 1,889 globally threatened species, are also a reservoir conducive to the trafficking and export of wild animals”specifies Florian Kirchner, in charge of the “cash” program within the French Committee for international union for conservation of nature (IUCN).

Our historical and always privileged relations with French-speaking Africa also explain the French involvement in the circulation of wild species. Evidenced by the number of international connections with this continent that pass through French airports today.

Not to mention that the illegal import and consumption of perishable foodstuffs, such as bushmeat, cassava, larvae or even certain fish, are above all cultural habits for many inhabitants of France, who do not see the practice as an evil. In total, in 2022, 36 tonnes of illegal perishables were thus seized at Roissy (including more than 10 tonnes of bushmeat). A drop of water compared to what really transits. “We manage to intercept less than 10% of the goods”say the customs officers.

Dried larvae intended for human consumption or for sale are seized by customs officers at terminal T2 at Roissy-Charles-de-Gaulle airport (Val-d’Oise). | Pierre Terraz

For the latter, the problem would also be structural. The legislation for travelers departing from the African continent authorizes them to carry two suitcases of 23 kilos per person free of charge, i.e. more than 40 kilos in total. When flights depart, there are many passengers who agree to board illicit products then recovered in France, which allows them to finance their plane ticket in whole or in part. “There is no international policy of coordination between customs officers from African and European countries”deplores the head of the customs services for the surveillance of Roissy T2.

Awareness of health and legal risks is also lagging behind. Leaflets on the protection of wild species threatened with extinction are systematically distributed to passengers when they are checked with goods. “Without much conviction about their effectiveness”deplores a customs officer.

A major fish trafficker, already arrested in 2021 at customs at Roissy’s T2 terminal and on file since, was arrested by customs officers in possession of tens of kilos of fish. He will be imprisoned following the check, pending legal proceedings. | Pierre Terraz

In reality, traffickers are rarely bothered and the penalties remain much lower compared to other forms of trafficking. In theory, the illegal trade in protected animal or plant species, committed in an organized gang, can be punished by seven years’ imprisonment and a fine of 750,000 euros –sentences have been toughened in recent years– against thirty years of criminal imprisonment for illicit production or manufacture of narcotics in an organized gang.

But in practice, the penalties applied correspond rather to fines, the amounts of which amount to a few hundred euros –“rarely paid”, sweeps a customs officer – even a reprieve in the event of multiple recidivism. The game is therefore worth the candle when you know, for example, that an orangutan can sell for more than 4,000 euros per unit. “We often meet the same people, always free… Regulars of the terminal whom we know well, to the point that the controls have become “pseudo-random””confesses Pascal Huet, the customs inspector.

Health and environmental risks

What worries finally, beyond the scale of a traffic which seems unstoppable for the customs officers, it is the risks for the biodiversity which result from it. “Plants are the most dangerous, because they carry higher phytosanitary risks and are disseminators of important diseases in nature, such as taxifolia [une algue invasive et toxique pour la faune, qui a notamment colonisé les fonds marins de la Méditerranée, ndlr]. They can contaminate and disrupt an entire ecosystem if they are thrown into public space., insists Audrey Noiret, Secretary General at the Interregional Customs Directorate. Today, one million animal and plant species are threatened with extinction, in particular victims of this globalized exploitation.

The conditions for importing consumables of animal origin, outside of any secure circuit provided for this purpose, also make them particularly dangerous for consumption. Thus, we find in the luggage pestilential pieces of meat filled with worms, which customs officers sometimes even have trouble recognizing whether they come from protected species or not, as the condition leaves something to be desired.

The journey being made in luggage sometimes left for several hours in the sun, without any sanitary measures… “This flesh comes from pangolins, primates, bats or even snakes, and will be intended for consumption regardless of its conservation”stresses however Florian Kirchner, of the IUCN.

Pieces of bushmeat intended for human consumption or for sale, filled with worms and giving off a pestilential smell, were seized by customs officers at terminal T2 at Roissy Charles-de-Gaulle airport. | Pierre Terraz

In this context, customs officers are only entitled to one medical examination per year, although they are on the front line in the face of the health risks incurred. In recent years, with the development of organized networks, their security has also raised questions. In December 2019, the team leader of the Roissy T2 terminal was beaten up by a group of men at his home, in front of his wife, after suffering a wave of harassment of all kinds. He is sure, this aggression is linked to his activity as a customs officer.

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