A great variety of endangered wildlife species end up feeding the illegal market for Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) thanks to poor enforcement in stopping the trade, say experts and activists.

"The Chinese market is like a 'black hole' sucking in wildlife products from neighbouring countries," said Peter Pueschel, head of global Wildlife Trade Programme at the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), in an e-mail interview with IPS.

India, China's neighbour to the south, is most at risk with its vast biodiversity and poorly enforced laws.

According to the wildlife crime database maintained by the Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI), 846 tigers, 3,140 leopards and 585 freshwater otter (skins) were poached between 1994 and Aug. 31, 2008 and another 320 elephants were poached between 2000 and 2008 in India.

"Although many species used in TCM are now protected by national and international laws, illegal trade and poaching have increased to crisis levels as TCM's popularity has expanded over the last two decades," says Samir Sinha of the Indian chapter of the TRAFFIC, the Britain-based wildlife trade monitoring network.

"The problem is widespread, and mostly boils down to lack of political support," says Belinda Wright of the WPSI.

Elephants, tigers, leopards, mongoose, black bears, rhinos, snakes, butterflies, gorillas, otters, musk deer, antelopes, reptiles and products such as caterpillar fungus and porcupine quills form the bulk of the raw material for the TCM industry that, according to Interpol, is worth 20 billion dollars per year.

"We believe there is organised wildlife trade but it is difficult to identify," said Xu Hongfa, director of TRAFFIC – China in e-mail responses to queries from IPS.

According to most wildlife experts the illegal trade is helped along by the fact that Chinese authorities do little to curb the TCM industry because it is regarded as a part of East Asian culture. But Beijing can and does vigorously protect certain species such as the Giant Panda which has iconic status.

"Poaching the Giant Panda will result in severe punishment. According to Chinese law, anyone found poaching one Giant Panda will get at least a ten-year term of imprisonment,'' Xu said. ‘'Chinese government has taken action to improve the TCM market management but it is not very successful,'' he admitted.

"During a five-day period in June 2008, EIA (Environment Investigation Agency) investigators observed five traders who have been documented selling Asian big cat skins in previous years,'' said Debbie Banks of the London-based EIA, adding that Chinese authorities failed to act on information passed on to them.

"We pass sufficient information to enforcement authorities so that they take appropriate action. It is apparent that the authorities have failed in effective enforcement against persistent offenders,'' Banks said. ''It would not be appropriate for us to publish their details,'' she added.

Pueschel referred to a stock of 110 tonnes of ivory that disappeared from Chinese government custody in July 2008. "The main point here is that these incidents have not been taken seriously. It remains totally unclear where this ivory has gone. Nevertheless China has been designated an ivory importing country ("trading partner") supported by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) secretariat."

In May 2006 a consignment of 3,900 kg of ivory tusks was found concealed in a container of timber logs seized by customs officials in Hong Kong, revealing the ingenious methods used by wildlife racketeers. "The 'standard sizes' of cut ivory pieces make it easier to hide them inside any kind of packaging material," says Pablo Tachil a wildlife investigator based in Bangalore.

According to Tachil, Burma has emerged as a major staging point for the wildlife trade because of its location close to India and Burma and the major markets of South-east Asia. ''Burma is also an ideal hideout for poachers and traders, because of weak policing," he said.

What troubles activists is the continued demand for wildlife products around the world.

The popularity of ivory objects, for example, has grown in spite of the clear danger it poses to elephant populations and this, says Pueschel, is partly due to commercial sites on the Internet like eBay facilitating rampant trade. ''We continue to campaign for their banning all wildlife trade.''

An IFAW report in 2007 revealed that at least 90 percent of all investigated ivory listings on eBay were legally suspect. While eBay claims that its site allows 'shoppers to see the positive social and environmental impact' of each purchase, including whether it 'supports animal species preservation', activists say nothing is done by way of monitoring.

The animal most at risk of ending up as raw material for TCM is the tiger because it has long been revered in China as a symbol of power and strength and the belief that its products have potent medicinal properties. Only a century ago there were eight kinds of tigers, with over 100,000 wild tigers in the world. Today only five tiger subspecies exist, with fewer than 5,000 wild tigers in the world.

For India, the good news is that such events as the complete decimation of the tiger population in the Sariska reserve of Rajasthan state between 2002 and 2005 has caught the imagination of the public and helped authorities to ensure that traffickers are caught and brought to book.

Also in India several high-profile individuals have been caught in recent years and booked for poaching resulting in pro-wildlife wide publicity. These include the well-known film actors, Sanjay Dutt and Salman Khan and India's former cricket captain, Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi.

In June 2008, two Czech nationals were convicted for trying to smuggle out 'Delias sanaca', an endangered butterfly species listed under Schedule I of the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act in the Singalila National Park near Darjeeling. And by September one of them was handed down a fine of Rs 60,000 (1,300 US dollars) and three years of simple imprisonment.

Such exemplary cases go a long way in helping authorities to prevent wildlife crime,'' Utpal Kumar Nag, forest officer in Darjeeling, told IPS.