Illegal wildlife trafficking and the illicit trade in wildlife products is big business with organized crime syndicates. This is not surprising since it is relatively low risk yet offers high rewards. According to a new report commissioned by the WWF, the illicit trade in wildlife generates more than US$ 19 billion every year and ranks as the fourth largest illegal global trade after drug trafficking, counterfeiting and human trafficking.
According to the report, titled: ‘Fighting Illicit Wildlife Trafficking – A consultation with governments‘, the illicit trade in wildlife not only drives threatened species to extinction, it also stimulates criminal activities and fosters criminal networks, which undermine national security of countries around the world. These subversive activities are increasingly becoming a greater risk to global health.
“Wildlife crime has escalated alarmingly in the past decade. It is driven by global crime syndicates, and so we need a concentrated global response,” says Jim Leape, Director General of WWF International. “It is communities, often the world’s poorest, that lose the most from this illicit trade, while criminal gangs and corrupt officials profit. Frontline rangers are losing their lives and families that depend on natural resources are losing their livelihoods.”
In most cases, the illicit trade in wildlife products is controlled by highly sophisticated criminal syndicates that operate a wide global network. According to the report, funds generated from the illegal sale of wildlife products are used to buy weapons that are used in terrorist activities, or the profits may be used to fund civil unrest and conflict.
The report reveals that rebel militias and organized crime networks are increasingly becoming active participants in wildlife poaching and trafficking, and using the profits generated to support their anti-government stance.
Because law enforcement is lacking, criminals avoid prosecution, or get off with lenient penalties that are hardly a deterrent considering the high financial rewards. Poached wildlife products can easily be sold on the internet, and because they are now so easily accessible, this is yet another factor that is driving consumer demand.
“The demand for illegal wildlife products has risen in step with economic growth in consumer countries, and with the ‘easy money’ and high profits to be made from trafficking, organized criminals have seized the opportunity to profit,” explains Steven Broad, Executive Director of TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network.
What Can Governments do to Combat Illegal Wildlife Trafficking
Governments typically view the illegal trade in wildlife as an environmental issue rather than an international criminal issue, but this mindset needs to change in order to win the battle.
“Governments need to address wildlife crime as a matter of urgency,” Leape said. “It is not just a matter of environmental protection, but also of national security. It is time to put a stop to this profound threat to the rule of law.”
Government officials interviewed suggest a more co-ordinated approach is needed to target crime syndicates and combat wildlife crime and illegal trafficking of wildlife. They recommend that more resources are made available to fight wildlife crime, including utilizing modern technology, surveillance and intelligence more effectively to ensure that wildlife criminals are brought to justice.
The report concludes that both governments and NGOs can play an important role in ensuring that countries are held accountable for upholding their international obligations and commitments in terms of wildlife protection. TRAFFIC recently implemented the Elephant Trade Information System, while the WWF has introduced the WWF Wildlife Crime Scorecard – both of these initiatives provide a reporting platform that will put countries that fail to uphold their obligations in the spotlight. Hopefully this will put more pressure on countries to be more proactive in their efforts to combat wildlife crime, and step up the fight against illegal wildlife trafficking.
Featured Image by Lucas Alexander / Wikimedia Commons