VIENNA, April 23 (Reuters) - Growing Asian demand for ivory and rhino horn as gifts and hangover cures - not for traditional medicine - is fuelling a poaching boom, international officials said on Tuesday, demanding stiffer penalties for traffickers.
Wildlife crime and illegal forestry has become the fourth- largest cross-border type of crime in the world behind the illicit trade in drugs, arms and human beings, a United Nations conference in Vienna heard.
The World Wildlife Fund estimates the category is worth $17 billion a year and includes the poaching of rhinoceros and elephants for their horns and tusks, hunting of large cat species for fur, and illegal harvesting of trees.
The UNODC, however, estimates a much larger value, with the trade in the Asia and the Pacific region alone having a total value of some $19.5 billion for the illegal trade in wildlife and wood-based products.
South Africa, home to the largest population of rhinos, is on pace to lose 812 of the animals this year. Poachers sell the horn to crime syndicates to feed swelling demand in Asia, where the horn is thought to cure cancer and have other health benefits.
Horns are sold to the newly affluent at pharmacies in places like Hanoi at prices higher than gold.
John Scanlon, director-general of the Geneva-based Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), told the conference that growing demand for ivory and rhino horn had triggered a startling increase in poaching.
"China and Southeast Asia are the biggest destinations of these illegal products, but not because of the traditional medical uses. Growing uses in Asia include the giving of ivory as a high-value gift, drinking of rhino horn wine, and rhino horn as an aphrodisiac, a cure for cancer, and hangovers."
"Traditional Chinese medical practitioners have actually discouraged its use for conservatory reasons," he said.
Yury Fedotov, head of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, called on member states to increase penalties for illegal traders.
While he acknowledged the need of increased enforcement on the part of exporting countries, Fedotov noted that it is the responsibility of states to punish those who import illicit materials as is done in the case of the narcotics trade.
"Wildlife and forest crimes must be treated as serious crimes with minimum punishments of four years or more so that full force of deterrence can be used against criminals," he said. "The harder task, however, will be to curb the demand." (Reporting by Derek Brooks; Editing by Jon Hemming)