Ruse and guile on the silver screen

What does the Dutch government do against the illegal trade in protected flora and fauna? Fraud Film Festival attendants received extensive information on the fight against wildlife crime.

Recently, the two-day Fraud Film Festival (FFF) was held for the seventh consecutive year. Customs was one of the sponsors of this special event this time around. Henriëtte Bongers – Director of Customs Schiphol Cargo – explains why. “This is a great stage to make a wide audience aware of everything our service does for society.”

For a short time in early November, art deco theatre Tuschinski in Amsterdam was all about ruse and guile – and the fight against it. Visitors could go and watch a wide range of documentaries and feature films focusing on all sorts of fraud. “We don’t often stop to consider it, but fraud is ubiquitous: in sports, in the art sector, on the Internet..,” Bongers says. “Many of these forms of fraud receive special attention these two days. In that sense, the programme shown here is an eye opener – also to me.”

Wildlife crime
Seven years ago, Bongers was employed by the Fiscal Intelligence and Investigation Service (FIOD) – one of the driving forces behind the FFF from the outset. “I was present at the first iteration in my capacity as Anti-Money Laundering programme director. I still have contact with some of the persons organising the festival and they this year asked me whether Customs might be interested in contributing. We certainly were.”

Customs chose to join up with the Netherlands Food and Consumer Product Safety Authority (NVWA) to serve as dual sponsors. Bongers: “We jointly selected a documentary to be shown: Racing Extinction. This is a captivating film about the global consequences of the illegal trade in protected flora and fauna. We both play a part in tackling this trade: the NVWA being an investigative service and we acting as a supervisor. So this was a great topic for us both to put the spotlight on. What’s more, this is a theme that emphasises the broad social mandate of Customs. The extensive media coverage on cocaine hauls sometimes makes it seem that we’re mostly combating drug trade. But, of course, we do so much more.”

The film selected perfectly showed the various aspects of wildlife crime, Bongers believes. “For example, the camera followed nature conservationists who campaigned very passionately against, for example, shark-fin poaching and whose actions invited a lot of attention and initiated real change. But the film also showed an impoverished community on an Asian island that had no other source of livelihood than hunting rays that are threatened with extinction. These portraits do make you think. I noticed the audience was impressed.”

Getting people to ponder was something Bongers herself also tried to accomplish during the festival. “After the showing of the film, I, the Director of the NVWA, and an adviser of the World Wide Fund for Nature made up a panel. This allowed me to get talking to the audience and to tell everyone present about our work, how we organise it, and the sorts of issues we encounter. I could for example tell that, since 2018, we have made over 500 flora and fauna-related discoveries, mostly at Schiphol Airport, both in passenger baggage and cargo. I could state that we mostly discover protected plants, followed by birds, reptiles, and tropical timber. I could explain that we have go-to persons in the region: customs staff with a great deal of knowledge about the topic. And also that we work very closely with the NVWA, along the lines of the GP-specialist model: we make up the frontline, they the second-line specialists.”

“I also explained that the smuggling of exotic plants and animals is a highly lucrative business, which makes it difficult to put a halt to,” Bongers continues. “When looking at the global sources of criminal turnover, narcotics take up the top spot, followed by arms, human trafficking, and then by wildlife crime. So this trade involves a great deal of money, which many people do not realise.”

Lacking awareness
That said, Bongers explained the festivalgoers, it’s not only organised crime that is active in taking prohibited flora and fauna across the border. “Normal citizens also sometimes do so, often due to lacking awareness. Travellers often take an orchid home from their holiday, for example. They are completely unaware of the fact that some of those plants are included on the CITES list – an overview of species that cannot be freely traded. This is also due to the fact that some orchids are easily available in supermarkets. There are more examples I could give. Ever since the start of the Covid-19 crisis, Customs has been intercepting a great many more postal and courier packages with medication – or substances supposed to be medicine – that contain illegal plant extracts. Many people think such items containing those substances help protect against being infected with Covid-19 and order them online. They have no idea that importing such products into the EU is banned.”

“This is why Customs is so very active in raising public awareness about what is and is not allowed,” Bongers concludes. “We play radio and television ads on Internet purchases and illegal holiday souvenirs, promote the Customs Travel App, and run campaigns at the airport. We do not simply wish to act as a back-end supervisor, but also as a front-end service provider, informing citizens and companies about legislation and thus making it easier for them to comply with it. We also used the film festival for this purpose and, hopefully, in so doing we can contribute to a better and safer world.”

* CITES is the abbreviation of ‘Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora’. This has given rise to various lists and annexes including all animals and plants that may not be traded, or only traded under strict conditions.

 For more about the Fraud Film Festival, click here.

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