It’s Time to Treat Illegal Wildlife Trade Like a Serious Crime

©. Michal Huniewicz

A new report calls for international collaboration to fight the crime organizations behind illegal trading in wood and wildlife. The report was released today at the United Nations Environment Assembly in Nairobi, and ties together several different types of environmental crimes in addition to presenting a possible plan of action.

In the past three to five years, there’s been an increase in the scale of illegal wildlife trade, which has become sophisticated and dominated by organized crime. “You’re talking about an illegal economy that has mushroomed,” said Achim Steiner, Executive Director of the UN Environmental Programme.

It’s difficult to put an exact value on the clandestine trade in timber and animals, but estimates from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, the UN Environmental Programme and INTERPOL range from $70 to $213 billion U.S. dollars per year. Steiner said these numbers are very likely an underestimate.

The report surveys many different types of wildlife and environmental crimes, including poaching, illegal logging, illegal mining and conflict minerals, prohibited fishing activities, and dumping. A press conference held at the UN Environment Assembly also shined light onto the illegal sale of charcoal, which is a major contributor to illicit logging operations, often in areas that are officially protected. Christian Nellamann, lead author of the report and senior officer for the Rapid Response Unit at the UN Environmental Programme said that the scale of illegal charcoal trade has previously been underestimated.

Charcoal Ghana

A charcoal trader in Ghana. TreeAid/CC BY 2.0

The illegal trade of wildlife can have devastating effects on biodiversity. Tigers are classified as endangered by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), and poaching has exacerbated their population decline. An estimated 22,000 to 25,000 elephants are killed for ivory annually, out of a total population of 420,000 to 650,000. The population of forest elephants has declined even more sharply, about 62 percent from 2002 to 2011. Apes, rhinos and other species may be traded as well.

Environmental crime has serious impacts even beyond the damage that it does to the environment. It causes governments to lose revenue and finances violent conflicts. There are links between ivory trafficking and Al Shabaab, while illegal charcoal sales also have ties to armed militias in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mali and Sudan. Nellamann said that poachers will kill park rangers and even hack government websites to perpetuate their crime rings.

Both Steiner and Nellamann stated the need for more investment in existing enforcement efforts. “It’s not more high-tech equipment that we need,” said Nellamann. Instead he said that the best protections would come from more rangers, and more investment in their basic needs and training. Nellamann said that some of the training facilities lack amenities like beds and fuel for transportation.

A number of individual countries have passed laws to fight and contain illegal wildlife trade, but these efforts can only have a limited success given the global scale of the crimes. The report calls for an international collaboration with harsher penalties, similar to how drug and human traffickers are treated. John Scanlon, the secretary general of CITES, said a seizure of illegal goods can no longer be considered a success. Instead, it’s necessary for organizations to work together to take out the kingpins.