Citizen reporting across the planet

Many governments in more industrialized countries have online and telephone reporting options for environmental and wildlife crimes, as well as special brigades to police them, such as the Carabinieri Forestali in Italy. South Africa’s Department of Environmental Affairs receives about 750 complaints per year through its hotline, a spokesperson told Mongabay.

However, in many countries with corrupt institutions and weak law enforcement, NGOs and civil society groups run the hotlines. In Cambodia, for example, a local team supported by the Wildlife Alliance, a New York-based conservation group, responds to calls about illegal logging and pet trading. Residents and tourists in Southeast Asia can also report on the illegal wildlife trade through the Wildlife Witness phone app.

Multilateral agencies such as Interpol have made an increasing effort to coordinate enforcement efforts across countries, most notably with the founding of the International Consortium on Combating Wildlife Crime in 2010.

Much of the fight against illegal wildlife trafficking now takes place online. TRAFFIC, a U.K.-based NGO that monitors wildlife trade, helped form a coalition of tech companies dedicated to stopping the online wildlife trade that includes e-commerce firms eBay and Alibaba, social media platforms Facebook and Sina Weibo, and search engines Google and Baidu. TRAFFIC also trained citizen science volunteers to identify illegal online sales and report suspicious social media posts; they’ve reported more than 4,000 cases over the past four years, helping companies like Facebook to find posts and groups that should be removed, according to spokespeople from TRAFFIC and the international NGO WWF, which helped found TRAFFIC. In March, the coalition introduced an online form that allows anyone to report on suspicious activity.

An officer from a wildlife police taskforce confiscates illegal wildlife meat in Koh Kong province in Cambodia earlier this year. Wildlife Alliance, a New York-based conservation group, supports the taskforce and runs a hotline that allows the public to report on wildlife crime. This raid turned up meat from wild pigs, red muntjac and monitor lizards. Image by Wildlife Alliance / Andy Ball.

Lawyers on call in Madagascar

There is no government hotline for environmental crimes in Madagascar, but to reach AVG, people in the country need only dial 5-1-2. The calls are free from two of the three main telecom carriers; AVG is still negotiating with the third. The group marketed the line in newspaper and social media ads earlier this year, and calls have increased: there were 344 tips over a recent two-week period, about half of which seemed to provide credible information, Razakamanarina said. The most common subject is illegal logging, though callers cover a variety of other topics, including land grabbing, he said.

AVG lawyers provide advice to callers and follow up by doing their own investigative work, seeking to verify important claims. When they have solid evidence of a crime, they share it with relevant government ministries and law enforcement agencies.

The work is now funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), which launched its Madagascar conservation programs in September 2018 after closing related programs in 2009 due to political instability. AVG hired the four lawyers early this year and the funding will be in place until 2023, Razakamanarina said. AVG also used USAID funding to start a legal aid clinic for activists and concerned citizens in northeast Madagascar, where rosewood and other precious timber is subject to heavy illegal logging.

Razakamanarina said the hotline was a “big step” but that there’s still a long way to go to address Madagascar’s systemic corruption and governance issues that lead to environmental degradation. Though AVG can provide support, it will ultimately be up to Madagascar’s government to enforce the law and police or deter environmental crimes.

Many Malagasy newspapers covered the radiated tortoise bust last month. The suspect reportedly tried to sell two tortoises for a total of 55 million ariary (about $15,000). He’s now in prison awaiting trial. A court hearing scheduled for March 23 was postponed due to the coronavirus outbreak.

In a country where environmental activism is difficult and even dangerous, AVG prioritizes the safety of its staff. Its strategy is “to use credible information and always make VIPs and the international community aware of our actions,” Razakamanarina said. “[These] may be the reasons I am still alive and not in jail. I received threats many times.”

Headlines in Malagasy newspapers following the arrest of a clerk at the Ministry of Justice who allegedly attempted to sell two radiated tortoises in downtown Antananarivo in March. Images courtesy of Alliance Voahary Gasy.

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Article published by Rebecca Kessler
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