A recent investigative publication has revealed that accredited diplomats from Far East countries such as North Korea are continually getting involved in the trafficking of wildlife products.
Published by a Swiss anti-organised crime watchdog, the report says officials attached to the North Korea embassies in southern Africa have been taking advantage of their immunities to ferry illegal ivory, rhino horn and other banned wildlife goods, and may have passed through ports in Kenya and Ethiopia.
The report, Crime, Conservation and Criminal Networks in Illicit Rhino Horn Trade by the Global Initiative against Transnational Organised Crime, lists a number of loopholes that traffickers are using to dodge security checks at ports.
And, it appears, "diplomatic bags", which are legally immune from scrutiny, are the mode of choice.
“For diplomats with a criminal bent, the privileges that they enjoy in terms of the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations present a tantalising opportunity to commit a perfect crime,” says Julian Rademeyer, an investigative journalist who authored the report, referring to the treaty that grants immunities and privileges to diplomats.
“Less well known is the involvement of North Korean diplomatic missions in the illicit rhino horn and ivory trade,” the report says.
Usually, items shipped to or from embassies are not subjected to scrutiny at ports of entry. And these diplomats should not be subjected to checks or their premises or cars checked without their consent.
Drawing on interviews with officials in governments, conservationists and law enforcement agencies across southern Africa, Europe and Asia, the investigation found that diplomats and security officials themselves have been involved in poaching, smuggling and organised crime.
In May last year, a North Korean diplomat identified as Pak Chol-Jun was arrested in Mozambique with 4.5 kilos of rhino horn and $100,000 in cash. The diplomat was later released on paying a fine but the report says the incident was not isolated.
“North Korean embassy officials have been implicated in 16 of the 29 cases involving diplomats that we have identified in a variety of sources dating from 1986. It is likely that many more cases of diplomatic involvement in the illicit trade have gone undetected and unreported,” the report adds.
For North Koreans, the habit may be a result of their government's policy that every ministry must remain self-sufficient. The report says this policy has often pushed the North Koreans into illegal businesses such as trafficking in ivory or drugs.
A Vietnamese embassy official in South Africa was also once arrested with rhino horn in his car. But authorities let him leave the country after his country recalled him.
The findings, which form the second instalment of a two-part investigation funded by the Norwegian foreign ministry, adds to the continuing alarm that poaching could eliminate endangered species before long.
The World Wildlife Fund, a global non-governmental organisation involved in conservation, says the population of rhinos in Africa has been dropping every year and deaths (from poaching) could overtake the birth rate.
The Global Initiative says 6,000 rhinos have been poached since 2006. There are about 25,000 rhinos left on the continent, mostly in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Kenya, Tanzania and Botswana.
But these numbers could be wiped out, at least according to the latest trends. In 2015, 1,342 rhinos were poached, compared with 262 seven years earlier, according to the organisation based in Geneva, Switzerland.
Kenya, which hosts 4.4 per cent of the rhino population in Africa, saw 35 rhinos poached in 2014, 24 less than the figure in 2013.
Last year, 11 rhinos were poached. This reduction was probably influenced by the passage of new anti-poaching laws that increased the penalty in 2014.
In April this year, Kenya burned 105 tons of ivory and rhino horn in a ceremony President Uhuru Kenyatta argued should tell the world of Kenya’s intent to eradicate poaching.
Though the report doesn’t say the poachers in the southern Africa are the same as in eastern Africa, it gives a detailed linkage between those recruited to poach and those who influence the smooth smuggling of the same products.
For example, investigators for the report found that commercial airlines operating on the southern Africa-eastern Africa route and from the region to the Middle East had been used by syndicates to smuggle goods from Mozambique to Nairobi or Addis Ababa and on to Hong Kong, Thailand and Vietnam.
The report says the use of diplomatic bags adds to the challenge of border protection weaknesses, bureaucracy, corruption and inconsistent laws that allow criminal networks a chance to flourish.
For example, International Police (Interpol), the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) and the World Customs Organisation are supposed to provide checks.
But some countries are not members of these organisations. North Korea, for instance, is not a member of CITES and that means it is not bound by the rules on trade in endangered rhinos.
When researchers asked the North Korean embassy in Pretoria for a response, an official first denied the diplomat worked there before turning hostile, the report says. (Daily Nation)