Protected rhinos roam and feed in an enclosed precinct at the Kahya Ndlovu Lodge in Hoedspruit, in the Limpopo province of South Africa, Sept. 25, 2016.
Protected rhinos roam and feed in an enclosed precinct at the Kahya Ndlovu Lodge in Hoedspruit, in the Limpopo province of South Africa, Sept. 25, 2016.

PRETORIA, SOUTH AFRICA - North Korea’s government has relied for decades on illicit trade to fill its coffers, but a new report notes what appears to be a recent rise in Pyongyang’s trafficking of illegal wildlife from African nations.

The report, by the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime, warns that the trade is putting further pressure on Africa’s endangered rhino and elephant populations.

North Korea is finding itself increasingly squeezed by international sanctions imposed to try to stop the nation’s nuclear weapon and ballistic missile programs. It has long found creative ways to bring in cash, often through smuggling under the cover of diplomacy.

WATCH: Report: North Korea's Illicit Trade Network Hits Africa's Vulnerable Wildlife

But one source of illicit income hits an especially vulnerable group, Africa’s elephants and rhinos, which are targeted by poachers trying to satisfy the Asian market’s demand for ivory and rhino horn products.

In 2015, South Africa expelled a North Korean diplomat arrested in Mozambique with 4.5 kilograms of rhino horn and $100,000 in cash. It was not an isolated incident.

According to the new report by South African researcher Julian Rademeyer, 18 out of 31 diplomats arrested for smuggling ivory and rhino horn during the past three decades have been North Korean.

“I find it very hard to believe that they are operating completely alone, that they are not being sanctioned by some way by the regime or at or at least by their superiors. North Korean embassies by their nature are very strictly controlled. People cannot move very easily and freely.”

Trade ties, good deals

At least 11 African nations have trade relations to North Korea, in part because the nation frequently offers good deals in order to prevent economic isolation.

Researcher Zachary Donnenfeld of the Pretoria-based Institute for Security Studies says many African nations are reluctant to cut those ties.

“If a country like North Korea comes along and offers a relatively good deal on refined petroleum, for instance, which is one of their main exports to Africa, it is understandable that African governments may not ask a lot of questions about where that petroleum comes from on the face of all these massive pressures on service delivery.”

Vienna Convention

Rademeyer says laws exist to stop illegal trade by diplomats, but the will is often absent.

“Governments do not want to become involved in diplomatic incidents. Governments with close ties to North Korea don’t particularly want to inflame tensions. But the Vienna Convention does allow for cases where there is evidence, or there is a compelling case to made that illegal items are being smuggled, to search those bags, and take action.”

VOA contacted the North Korean embassy in Pretoria seeking a response to the allegations in the report, but embassy officials did not respond to multiple inquiries.