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From endangered species to commodities: report reveals scale of wildlife crime

  • The report was produced by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime using data on thousands of species and seizures from more than 120 countries.
  • It found that trafficking is faciliated by widespread corruption at many levels of government and society, and that crimes are generally not restricted to certain countries.
  • To better fight wildlife crime, officials urge a stepping-up of enforcement and monitoring, as well as increased transnational cooperation.

Wildlife trafficking is a global problem, revealed the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in their first-ever World Wildlife Crime Report. Released late last month, the report finds, among other things, that more ivory has been seized than cocaine, and that broad corruption is facilitating illegal trade in plants and animals.

Developed by and part of UNODC’s ongoing Global Programme on Wildlife and Forest Crime, the report uses data provided by partner organizations under the International Consortium on Combating Wildlife Crime like the CITES Secretariat and the World Customs Organization, and included an analysis of 164,000 wildlife crime related seizures from 120 different countries.

“Based on the latest and best available data, and building on UNODC’s established expertise in researching and analysing multifarious aspects of transnational organized crime, this report comes at a decisive time, when the international community has clearly recognized the urgency of saving our planet’s flora and fauna from the predations of organized criminals,” Yury Fedotov, Executive Director of UNODC said during his remarks at the report’s launch.

Image courtesy of UNODC, World Wildlife Crime Report: Trafficking in protected species, 2016.
Image courtesy of UNODC, World Wildlife Crime Report: Trafficking in protected species, 2016.
Image courtesy of UNODC, World Wildlife Crime Report: Trafficking in protected species, 2016.
Image courtesy of UNODC, World Wildlife Crime Report: Trafficking in protected species, 2016.

Iconic species like tigers are now hanging on by a thread, he said, adding that populations of African elephants and rhinos, too, are under constant pressure from poaching. “But the threat of wildlife crime does not stop with these majestic animals….it also includes thousands and thousands of lesser-known animals, as well as marine and plant life, that are under serious pressure, and that cannot survive without our attention and help,” he said.

A global issue

Highlighting the sheer diversity and scale of this trade, nearly 7,000 species were included in the World WISE database of seizures analyzed by experts. Despite that, the report found not a single species represented more than 6 percent of the total seizures, neither is a single country the source of more than 15 percent of the seized shipments. In other words, these crimes are not restricted to certain countries, but are a global phenomenon.

“One of the critical messages to emerge from this research is that wildlife and forest crime is not limited to certain countries or regions. It is not a trade involving exotic goods from foreign lands being shipped to faraway markets,” Fedotov said. “All countries play a role as either source, transit or destination countries, and we share a responsibility to act.”

The report also showcases how gaps in legislation, law enforcement and the criminal justice system can cause serious problems. Traffickers and criminal syndicates, Fedotov said, will always look to exploit loopholes and the system wherever they can.

The amount of illegal ivory seized worldwide in recent years was more than the amount of cocaine seized globally. According to the Elephant Trade Information System [ETIS], an average of about 30 metric tons of ivory was intercepted every year between 2009 and 2013. The report fortifies what conservationists have been worried about for a long time – the commodification of endangered species.

An African elephant calf (Loxodonta africana) surveys visitors in Namibia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler
An African elephant calf (Loxodonta africana) surveys visitors in Namibia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler
Image courtesy of UNODC, World Wildlife Crime Report: Trafficking in protected species, 2016.
Image courtesy of UNODC, World Wildlife Crime Report: Trafficking in protected species, 2016.

Linking ivory to cocaine further signifies how vast and profitable this trade is — with one major caveat. “Unlike cocaine or heroin, there is an absolute limit on the amount of ivory that can be produced, so there is a danger of a vicious cycle ensuing where each elephant poached increases scarcity, and thus the incentives for poaching another,” the report reads.

A massive enterprise

Released this week by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and INTERPOL, another report titled Rise of Environmental Crime estimates global environmental crime to be worth as high as $258 billion –26 percent higher than previous estimations. Environmental crime encompasses illegal wildlife trade, forest crimes, exploitation of minerals, illegal fisheries, trafficking of hazardous waste and carbon credit fraud.

The UNEP/INTERPOL report finds environmental crime is the world’s fourth largest criminal enterprise following drug smuggling, counterfeiting and human trafficking, but that international agencies spent only $20 to $30 million combatting it. For perspective, the report states that a single fishing vessel targeting Patagonian toothfish was estimated to have taken in $200 to $300 million in illegal harvests.

“It’s not just an environmental problem, it’s a threat to our societies,” Achim Steiner, Executive Director of UNEP told Al Jazeera. “First, it’s stealing from nations; secondly the proceeds finance conflicts and divisions in society. It’s a way of undermining our economies, let alone killing vital biodiversity and pushing some species to the point of extinction. It is something that the whole world has to work together on, it’s part of the phenomenon of globalisation,” he said. “We’re dealing with environmental crime, which is about much more than the poacher – it’s about criminal syndicates that are one day smuggling people, the next day weapons, the next day drugs.”

Compounding the problem, not all illegally-obtained wildlife products (e.g., through poaching) are sold illegally. The UNODC report finds that when illegally traded wildlife is introduced into legal commercial channels, criminals have access to a much larger source of demand than they would have had on the black market alone. And just as with other sensitive products like firearms or pharmaceuticals, protected species can be legally traded internationally if accompanied by the right paperwork. The report says permits for around 900,000 legal shipments of protected wildlife products are issued annually and studies show that forged or fraudulent permits, sometimes acquired through corruption, have been used to traffic wildlife.

Pangolins – or scaly anteaters – are considered a sought-after delicacy in China. The report found more than 100,000 illegally trafficked pangolins were seized between 2007 and 2013. All species are threatened, and several are endangered. Photo of an endangered Indian pangolin (Manis crassicaudata) by Sandip Kumar via Wikimedia Commons (CC 3.0).
Image courtesy of UNODC, World Wildlife Crime Report: Trafficking in protected species, 2016.
Image courtesy of UNODC, World Wildlife Crime Report: Trafficking in protected species, 2016.

Corruption is one of the major drivers of the illegal wildlife trade, the report confirms. It uses the example of live apes, saying the illegal trade of such large, valuable animals would not be possible without fraudlent paperwork from corrupt officials. The report also asserts the rhino horn trade is facilitated by “pseudo-trophy hunters” operating via exploited hunting permits.

“The World Wildlife Crime Report shows the extensive involvement of transnational organized criminal groups in these highly destructive crimes and the pervasive impact of corruption, demonstrating that combating wildlife crime warrants even greater attention and resources at all levels,” said John Scanlon, Secretary-General of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

In fact, the report further substantiates the recent raid on a Buddhist monastery in Thailand and subsequent revelations of wildlife trafficking. “Case studies suggest that some wildlife farms, captive-breeding operations, or even zoos may play a role in laundering illegally acquired wildlife,” the report says. It references World WISE database numbers that list 380 tiger skin seizures occurred between 2005 and 2014. Given that there may be only 3,000 tigers left in the wild, the report estimates the ecological impact of those skins is far greater than their $4 million value.

Closing the gaps

Fedotov said the report’s findings help identify key policy implications that could help address gaps in current responses to wildlife crime. Outside the CITES system, he said, most national laws do not criminalize possession of wildlife that was illegally harvested or traded from abroad. One of the authors of the study, Theodore Leggett, told The Guardian, that laws could be proposed on national, international or regional levels to address this by, “effectively saying: ’If it is illegal in your country, it is illegal in my country’.”

Rosewood is a catch-all term for multiple species of trees that are particularly sought-after for furniture production. Because of this demand, several species have been protected under CITES. Illegal logging is one of the most destructive environmental crimes since it can destroy habitat along with targeted trees. Photo of rosewood logs in Madagascar by Rhett A. Butler.


Image courtesy of UNODC, World Wildlife Crime Report: Trafficking in protected species, 2016.
Image courtesy of UNODC, World Wildlife Crime Report: Trafficking in protected species, 2016.

In addition, Fedotov said, range countries must be supported in developing sustainable livelihoods for communities and to better protect their natural heritage. He also recommends strengthening customs security at ports and national borders, as data show most trafficking interceptions occurr there, as well as increasing the use of wildlife forensic science to ensure the proper identification of species. Fedotov urges the estalishment of new protected areas to overcome the ongoing problem of habiat loss, as well as addressing the major facilitators of wildlife crime and corruption must be addressed through the supply chain. He called on governments to use the UN Convention on Corruption and the UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime to fight these crimes, and for the global demand for illegal wildlife products to be reduced.

“If we want to get serious about wildlife and forest crime, we must shore up our collective responses and close these gaps,” Fedotov said. “All these efforts must be coordinated for optimal strategic effect and maximum impact.”

For many, wildlife trafficking isn’t just concerning the plants and animals themselves, but is a larger issue that stands to affect the world as a whole.

“Each year, thousands of wild animals are illegally killed, often by organized criminal networks motivated by profit and greed. I call on governments and people everywhere to support the new United Nations campaign, Wild for Life, which aims to mobilize the world to end this destructive trade. Preserving wildlife is crucial for the well-being of people and planet alike,” said UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

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