When Victor Paulus set out to trap a lion, it was his 12th such expedition in as many years. As a result, he knew he would need anesthetic darts, nets, rope and heavy gloves. But the leathery, soft-spoken Belgian did not require jungle gear, because the lion lived in the basement of a home in Anderlecht, a run-down district of Brussels. The animal had been cute when its owner bought the male cub, but since maturing the beast began to inflict heavy damage on the house and even accidentally devoured the finger of a family friend.
“They never learn,” muttered Paulus in disgust.
“People buy them as cubs and imagine they are going to stay cuddly forever.” The lion and its owners were both victims of an unscrupulous, worldwide network of people who traffic in exotic animals and who use Belgium as a springboard for their trade because that country has not yet implemented animal protection laws. Dealers can now go through customs with anything from a wombat to a giraffe.
The animal traffic is typical of a type of exotic smuggling that is endemic to Belgium. The nation of 10 million people has for decades been an international clearing house for illicit merchandise. The seaport of Antwerp, Europe’s second largest, rivals Hong Kong for the title of the city with the widest-known reputation for piracy. As well, Belgium shares “soft” borders with four neighboring countries—France, West Germany, Holland and Luxembourg—all of which provide obscure crossing points that customs inspectors have not visited for half a century. In addition to animals, precious gems, video cassettes and equipment, luxury cars and other items are regularly smuggled through the country. But in the wild game trade at least, the authorities may finally be prepared to tighten controls.
To Paulus, the head of the Belgian branch of Wildpeace, an animal welfare movement, the animal trade is the most
vicious because it encourages thoughtless householders to acquire animals for their novelty or snob value, only to grow tired—or frightened—of them as they age. But the traffic becomes criminal when, as in nine cases out of 10, rare animals reaching Belgium are subsequently smuggled into other countries where they are exploited for commercial gain in private wildlife parks. “A
good number do not survive the voyage,” explained Paulus. “If asphyxia does not get them, thirst or cold will.” Anyone in Belgium who wants a mountain gorilla—only 250 remain in the world—can easily obtain one for $20,000 simply by making a phone call. The going rate for a rare white rhinoceros is $8,000, $1,500 for a chimpanzee, and a lion cub can be bought for as little as $600.
World trade in wildlife is governed by an 81-country pact drawn up in Washington, D.C., in 1973 to control trade in
wildlife species deemed to be in danger of extinction. Prodded by wildlife movements, Belgium agreed to the so-called Washington Convention in 1981 but so far has failed to implement its provisions. That laxity permits a few Belgian firms to strengthen their hold on an illicit world market in endangered species, a trade that environmentalists claim is worth more than $50 million a year. While dealers make their biggest profits from trafficking in primates and big cats—the value of a cheetah can increase by 2,000 per cent from the time the animal leaves Africa to the time when it arrives at a private zoo in Singapore—they also spin fortunes from the
trade in rare birds, fish, coral, reptiles, bats and even insects.
Many of Belgium’s top smugglers are now dropping their old lines of contraband to participate in the wild animal trade, encouraged by the reports of the quick fortunes that can be made in the traffic of animals. The unscrupulous entrepreneurs bring a lot of experience to the game, because Belgians not only have a strong streak of nonconformism, they also take great pride in dreaming up dodges to defy customs.
The markedly sophisticated turn that smuggling has recently taken, however, is alarming authorities. A few years ago darkened ships, their holds crammed with illicit arms, surreptitiously left Antwerp harbor at night bound for one of the world’s areas of turmoil. But now illegal traffic is conducted in daylight, and the dealers use dubious end-use customs certificates. Where diamonds from Sierra Leone and Zaire were once smuggled into Antwerp—the world’s biggest gem market—sewn into the lining of the coats of African carriers, the precious stones now miraculously acquire papers citing their origin as South Africa or the Soviet Union.
Officials estimate that at least 10 per cent of the $600 million to $800 million in arms that Belgian merchants sell each year ends up in the hands of people who were not destined to receive the
The illegal trade by Belgian firms in endangered species is considered to be worth more than $50 million a year
arms. Although Belgium, like other major arms suppliers in the West, insists on seeing end-use certificates before approving a sale, those are easily obtained by bribing an official at a Third World embassy in Brussels to place an order in his government’s name and then arrange for the Belgians to rubber-stamp the deal. When the arms leave they are listed as “lost in transportation.” Noted Michel Vincineau, in his book Belgium and the Arms Trade: “The Belgian government seems to have adopted the principle of declining all responsibility after the goods leave our shores.”
Belgian authorities largely turn a blind eye to arms trafficking: given the economic slump gripping the country, they see their prime responsibility to be that of protecting Belgian industry and jobs (Belgian arms manufacturers employ about 100,000 people) but they are markedly less easygoing in the area of drugs. Last year Belgian customs officers apprehended a record 7.5 million tonnes of hashish and 47 kilos of heroin entering the country by boat and airplane, and police declared those seizures to be merely the tip of the iceberg because they did not include drugs confiscated inside the country or those that escaped their notice.
Belgium’s contraband community is sensitive to fads and can be affected by turns in the economy. Diamond smuggling tapered off in the past two years because of the slump in the world gem market. (Specialists in Antwerp say that stones of dubious origin now account for only two or three per cent of gem stocks.) And business in stolen BMW and Mercedes cars is also declining because of a drop in demand by Nigeriaemdash;the main customer country. However, slackness in one area of Belgian contraband prompts smugglers to look to the trade’s growth sectors, like animal trafficking, in which there are handsome profits to be made.
But this year may be a turning point in what has been, until now, an extremely lucrative market. The Belgian government, prodded by growing public outrage over the treatment of wildlife, last month declared that it plans to begin implementing the Washington Convention shortly, depriving smugglers of their supply of animals. Still, Paulus and other animal welfare sympathizers fear that if the government imposes the ban, it may still be too late to curb the thriving market. According to Paulus, it would take more than threats to force his countrymen to abandon a rewarding game. “The roots run so deep that action at this stage might only succeed in pushing prices higher, to the delight of traders,” he said. “What you need is to wean Belgium away from its precious contraband ethos. But that,” he admits, “would take some doing.” lt;£gt;
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