Nature organisations expose criminal network in illegal wildlife trade in the Netherlands and EU

Criminals are using our country to conduct large-scale prohibited trade in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) containing endangered animals and plants. This emerged from an investigation handed over to the Netherlands Food and Consumer Product Safety Authority (NVWA). According to their findings, the Netherlands is a transit country for body parts of endangered animals such as the pangolin (pangolin) and rhinoceros. Based on this information, the NVWA Intelligence and Investigation Division launched a criminal investigation and arrested a person from South Holland. The investigation is still ongoing.

Header photo: Britta Jaschinksi / IUCN NL

Illegal wildlife trade is a very lucrative and growing form of organised crime. Yet this form of crime remains mostly under-reported. That is why IUCN NL, Bears in Mind, the SPOTS foundation and Earth League International (ELI) conducted research into this illegal trade in the Netherlands and the EU. The focus of the investigation was on the trade in endangered species used as ingredients in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). A specific part of TCM uses body parts of endangered wild animals as ingredients. This puts several endangered species, including the rhinoceros, pangolin and tiger, under even more pressure.

Netherlands hub for trafficking of illegal ingredients for TCM

The investigation conducted by ELI shows that the Netherlands is an important transit and destination market for TCM products containing illegal body parts of animal species. The Dutch criminal network that emerged from the investigation is suspected of illegally importing the body parts of endangered animal species from China, using the body parts to make illegal TCM products and then distributing these illegal TCM products within the Netherlands and to other EU countries.

These illegal TCM products contain banned ingredients such as pangolin scales. The illegal TCM products are often transported together with legal products, making it more difficult for investigators to identify them. The investigation further reveals that this criminal network is also involved in other forms of serious crime such as money laundering and drug trafficking.

ELI is an international authority in investigating the criminal networks behind the illegal wildlife trade. ELI investigated the criminal networks behind the illegal trade in ingredients for TCM during 2022 and analysed the modus operandi, transport methods and routes of the traffickers. This analysis was then shared with the NVWA, on the basis of which it opened the criminal investigation. The investigation is ongoing.

Traditional Chinese medicine

Several reports indicate that a significant part of the illegal trade in wild endangered animals is driven by demand from traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). Although only a small percentage of TCM uses these animal ingredients, it does cause further pressure on specific animal species. Pangolin scales, rhinoceros horn and tiger body parts are still widely traded illegally despite these species being critically endangered. Meanwhile, other species are being diverted to replace them. The tiger, for instance, has traditionally been an animal favoured within a specific part of TCM. As this animal is almost non-existent in the wild and therefore very difficult to hunt, other felines are now being diverted to replace it. Leopards, lions, snow leopards and jaguars are regularly found as ingredients in TCM products.

Take wildlife crime seriously

IUCN NL, Bears in Mind, SPOTS Foundation and ELI hope that their research will make it clear to the Dutch authorities and politicians that the illegal wildlife trade must be taken seriously. ‘The investigation reveals that behind the trade in illegal animal trade there are large-scale, international criminal networks that also engage in other serious crime. The Netherlands can play an important role in fighting wildlife crime and breaking up these criminal networks. With its transit routes such as Schiphol Airport and the Port of Rotterdam, the Netherlands is an important link in the illegal trade,’ said an expert from IUCN NL.

Belt and Road Initiative

ELI’s research also revealed that illegal products are exported to the EU by train from China. This train route is part of China’s so-called Belt and Road Initiative, which builds new infrastructure around the world, including train links. Building infrastructures in countries with high biodiversity also facilitates illegal trade in endangered animals.

This illegal trade not only leads to a decline in biodiversity and further pressure on already endangered species, but also to zoonotic risks during transport and storage of the (body parts) of wild animals. It is therefore essential that the Netherlands speaks out against the use of wild, endangered animals in TCM. In addition, a global approach is very important, in which the World Health Organisation (WHO) has an essential role to play.

Political action is necessary

According to the four organisations, it is of utmost importance that politicians step up their efforts to pay structural attention to wildlife crime. This includes specific attention to the role TCM plays within this form of crime. The wildlife organisations therefore urge politicians to allocate more resources to fighting wildlife crime and to launch an awareness campaign. This is because consumers are often unaware of the possible illegal ingredients contained in their products.

Read more