Wrapped in plastic bags marked with case numbers, the remains of elephants, bears, mountain lions, polar foxes and crocodiles are neatly stored on grey metal shelves at Frankfurt Airport’s International Postal Centre. “Confiscated,” reads a sign in German, in the fenced-in corner of the nondescript warehouse. It’s an unworthy last resting place for some of the world’s most enigmatic animals – or at least the parts of them that have been turned into rugs, decorative statues, jackets and wallets.

Under usual circumstances, December isn’t a good time to visit the centre. This is peak season for international mail, the most hectic time of year, when delivery services and logistics companies handle twice the usual volume due to Christmas deliveries. But in between shifts, during a few minutes of peace and quiet when the conveyor belts have been halted and X-ray scanners switched off, Marcus Redanz devotes some time to showing me a selection of the wildlife and related products his team has detected in packages bound for German addresses.

“If I’m a criminal, then it would make sense to try and smuggle wildlife now,” says the customs inspector.

The vast increase in deliveries over the Christmas period represents a prime opportunity for wildlife smugglers, who anticipate fewer interceptions while delivery services, post offices and inspectors such as Redanz are overwhelmed.

If we are among the last generations to share the planet with wild tigers and elephants, it will be largely due to their commercial value. Criminal networks have turned the trade in protected and endangered species into the world’s fourth largest black market, worth an estimated US$23 billion each year. And it would be a mistake to assume that the trade flows only in one direction, from Africa to Asia.

There’s been an increase in contraband sent in the mail from Asia to Europe, says Redanz. Last year, his team seized a polar fox jacket sent from China, for example, and spiders, lizards and geckos from countries such as Thailand are occasional arrivals.

Europe’s roles as trafficking transit hub, source and destination are all more pronounced than is generally acknowledged. In 2016, the European Union accepted that it “has an important role to play in tackling this traffic” and that “lack of awareness and political engagement are also major obstacles to combating trafficking effectively.”

Law enforcement and customs agents across the world have ramped up their efforts to combat the trade, but sophisticated smuggling syndicates are taking advantage of the international shipping industry, which is at its most stretched during the Christmas rush. In the weeks before and after December 25, the number of parcels passing through airports such as Frankfurt more than doubles, figures from several mail services show.

Wedged between a shiny glass Deutsche Post building and the passenger arrival and departure halls, the International Postal Centre is the largest in Germany and among the largest in Europe. Redanz estimates that, on an average day, he and his 90 colleagues inspect 10,000 to 12,000 parcels, in the process enforcing duties and taxes that add in to the 6 billion euros the central Frankfurt customs office takes in a year. Last year, his team detected 5,550 individual trafficked animals and plants, as well as products made of or containing parts, concealed in international deliveries.

Deutsche Post planned to hire an additional 10,000 seasonal workers this year to handle the massive increase in Christmas deliveries, most of them due to e-commerce, while the country’s private delivery service DPDgroup is deploying an additional 12,000 trucks. Similarly, the American logistics firm United Parcel Service (UPS) says that between Thanksgiving (the fourth Thursday in November) and Christmas, it handles an average of 31 million parcels a day, twice the norm. Last year, it hired an additional 95,000 workers to cope.

Deploying seasonal staff isn’t an option for most customs departments, however, as their agents have had to go through at least two years of training, including with regard to local and international laws. Sometimes, however, volunteers from other departments do help out in Frankfurt, according to a customs service press officer, but the team is still stretched thin.

“If you see what’s going on in the international parcel industry today, and how it has grown, it’s just enormous,” says Harold Gerretsen, an inspector with the Nederlandse Voedsel-en Warenautoriteit, the Dutch food and consumer product safety authority, which is responsible for detecting violations of CITES, the international treaty to protect endangered species, and works closely with Dutch customs.

Schiphol airport, in Amsterdam, and the port of Rotterdam, Europe’s largest, have been identified as hots pots for wildlife trafficking by the European Parliament.

“Everything is ordered online now, and especially now, with Christmas, it’s even more. There must be so many parcels that slip through, without anyone noticing,” says Gerretsen, over his third coffee of this November morning, at the beginning of the peak season.

About 8.2 million incoming and outgoing containers passed through Rotterdam in 2017, 800,000 more than in the previous year. The port was the world’s busiest until 2004, but despite the staggering growth in containers and volume, today, it doesn’t even make the top 10. Hong Kong, Singapore and Shanghai have, along with other ports in Asia, dwarfed Rotterdam, standing testament to how rapidly the Asian market and the international shipping industry have grown.

Gerretsen has conducted countless inspections in Rotterdam over the years, especially in the 90s, when Chinese traditional medicine ingredients were often found in cargo containers. In the 80s, while working as a customs officer, he came across a container from Vietnam that held an Indian elephant and a brown bear, both still alive.

Since the 90s, he’s focused on wildlife trafficking, following international syndicates specialising in the exotic bird trade halfway across the world, to South America and the Middle East.

“This job has taken me to countries I’d have never thought I’d visit,” he says.

At least 136 countries recorded wildlife trafficking seizures between 2009 to 2017, involving more than 7,000 species, ranging from tiny lizards and other reptiles to the eggs of rare birds and tigers and lions destined for petting zoos, according to Routes (Reducing Opportunities for Unlawful Transport of Endangered Species), a USAID-led partnership aimed at combating wildlife trafficking that includes logistics companies, government agencies, law enforcement, wildlife NGOs such as Traffic and other groups.

Gerretsen says that although containers full of trafficked wildlife continue to be intercepted, big hauls are becoming rarer. Instead, smaller shipments sent through delivery services are growing.

“The best way to smuggle is to go with the flow, wherever the stream is biggest,” he says. “If you have millions of parcels every year, how much can you possibly inspect?” The fast growth in the number of parcel deliveries in an online-retail world makes it impossible for inspectors to keep up, and not just over Christmas.

Redanz says his department, for example, grew by three officers in 2018 – an increase of roughly 3 per cent. Cross-border retail, meanwhile, has been growing by an average of 25 per cent per year globally – twice as fast as domestic retail, according to DHL, the world’s largest international delivery service.

Estimated success rates in intercepting trafficked wildlife vary widely. The most often quoted figure is 10 per cent. If that were accurate, nine out of 10 shipments would be making it past park rangers, local law enforcement, security checks at ports and airports, and customs agents. But many experts believe that 10 per cent is wishful thinking.

“That number, that’s bollocks,” says Daan van Uhm, a professor in criminology at the University of Utrecht, in the Netherlands, who specialises in wildlife trafficking in Europe. “I believe it’s much lower.”

Van Uhm says that he was drawn to the problem because nobody else, law enforcement agents included, seemed to be paying attention. “It wasn’t seen as a job for real men, because” he says, exaggerating for emphasis, “within the MAN man world, animals aren’t a hot topic.”

But public awareness, social norms and values have shifted, making wildlife trafficking a serious crime. Actors such as Jackie Chan, Li Bingbing and Leonardo DiCaprio, basketball star Yao Ming, model Gisele Bündchen and Britain’s Prince William have all campaigned against poaching. Rangers in Africa and Asia risk their lives to protect wild animals; last year, about 50 were killed by poachers.

And yet, despite the attention and the dedication of some, the risk of getting caught trafficking is still very low, van Uhm says.

“In the illegal underworld, it doesn’t matter if you are talking about cocaine or wildlife trafficking: it’s the smaller packages that work,” he says. And that’s not just because of the massive increase in deliveries. Smaller packages also help mitigate overall losses to an operation, and are less likely to lead to an investigation that could expose an entire network.

“If it gets followed up at all, [the recipient] can also just say it wasn’t for them, that they’ve never ordered it. At most, they’ll get a small fine, but there won’t be a big investigation,” van Uhm says.

Ethnic Chinese, who first settled in the Netherlands more than 100 years ago, are particular fond of small deliveries, which help meet the demand for traditional medicine, a trade van Uhm has researched extensively. When a rhino is poached in a national park in South Africa, when a pangolin is trapped in a snare in the tropical forests of Laos or when a tiger is shot in Malaysia, parts of the animal will probably be used to treat ailments that range from rheumatism, fever, lack of lactation, arthritis, eczema and epilepsy to ulcers and pimples. There is little to no scientific evidence to back such treatments, but in large part due to this trade, China is by far the most common destination for trafficked wildlife, Routes finds.

In the Netherlands, about 40 per cent of a total of 1,634 wildlife seizures in 2013 and 2014 were linked to Chinese medicine, according to a European Parliament report.

This summer, a case in the Czech Republic implicated Europe further in the international wildlife trade. When customs agents began discovering tiger bones in the possession of ethnic Vietnamese criminals en route for Vietnam, and products made from tiger bones in a predominantly Vietnamese market in Prague, they grew suspicious. In a three-year investigation that cost tens of thousands of euros, investigators uncovered farms on which tigers were being bred, killed and cut up.

“The difficulty with cases like this: first, you have a big language barrier, so you need to get a translator, someone you can trust. And then, it also takes a lot of time, a lot of people, and it’s very, very expensive to do,” says Pavla Rihova, a lead inspector in the case.

Think of a man, around 30 years old, ethnically Asian, transiting at a European airport on his way to China. Perhaps he’s queuing at a coffee shop, or lounging in a chair in the departure lounge. What would it take for you to notice him? He would blend in with the 160,000 passengers that, on average, passed through Schiphol each day in December last year.

But for trained customs and law enforcement officials, risk-assessment observations add up. Not everything can be inspected, so customs and law enforcement officers at ports, airports and postal centres prioritise highest-risk packages and individuals. Often, this includes some degree of racial profiling.

This young traveller from China – a real person – would have raised several flags: he was travelling alone; he had checked in a heavy box; he was arriving on a flight from South Africa, which, together with Mozambique, accounts for nearly 50 per cent of all air-traffic rhino horn seizures; he held a Chinese passport and was returning to the market of greatest demand for trafficked wildlife.

Agents don’t usually inspect packages in transit, but the risk analysis of this man’s luggage would have been high. They opened the box he had checked in and found inside the horns of five rhinos, which are usually killed when the horns are removed, and 450 blank South African visas, according to Dutch court documents viewed by Post Magazine.

The court sentenced the man to 12 months in prison, reasoning that the five horns alone would have been worth up to 500,000 euros and because such individuals are key links in the criminal chain of wildlife trafficking, which is decimating vulnerable and endangered species.

This Christmas, he will be released, free to travel again. But whether hereturns to trafficking wildlife or not, his network is probably still operating: the poachers, the forgers who create hundreds of fake visas, the buyers and other middlemen who would have been involved in such a large haul.

All of those interviewed for this story believe that wildlife trafficking is on the increase, especially in connection to China, despite the fact that Beijing this year banned the import of ivory.

Traffic says that customs and law enforcement agents need the support of the international shipping industry in helping to spot suspicious parcels and packages, and of check-in and other ground staff at airports to help flag individuals and their baggage.

“That they are using the same routes we are using, whether that’s mail or passenger travel, can actually be a big opportunity,” says Michelle Owen, who leads the Routes-Traffic partnership, which is creating a framework under which to provide training to customs agents, and is working with airlines and the delivery industry to find ways to address the issue.

Having just returned from an inspection in a well-to-do neighbourhood between Rotterdam and Amsterdam, where a man is breeding and selling rare hyacinth macaws, which are indigenous to Brazil, Gerretson contemplates his work over the final coffee of the day.

“There’s so much to do, and I really think it’s just getting more and more,” he says.

He and his colleague have wanted to inspect this trader for several years, concerned that he might be selling macaws poached from the wild alongside those he breeds, but until now their resources haven’t allowed for it.

“I’m a realist, I know how things are going” Gerretsen says. “But when I see how much [traffickers] are doing to mislead us, and how scared they are, I know we are doing a good job.”

Reporting for this investigation was funded by a grant from Internews’ Earth Journalism Network