In 2016, the value of wildlife crime, including illegal logging and fishing, was 26 per cent larger than previous estimates, at $91-258 billion today compared to $70-213 billion in 2014, according to a rapid response report published by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and INTERPOL. According to UNEP, it is the world’s fourth-largest criminal enterprise after drug smuggling, counterfeiting and human trafficking. The amount of money lost due to environmental crime is 10,000 times greater than the amount of money spent by international agencies on combatting it – just $20-30 million.
Offenses like poaching, trafficking in live or dead endangered animals, and illegal logging are complex phenomena where a variety of factors interact – cultural, social, economic and environmental – and often involve different actors. The causes and the consequences of wildlife crime vary among countries, regions, and local communities, but it always threatens the existence of many plant and animal species, hinders sustainable social and economic development, and has destabilizing effects on society.
WILDLIFE CRIME is now the most immediate threat to several species including elephants, rhinos, big cats like tigers and lions, apes, pangolins, reptiles and birds, among many others. This illegal trade is driven by demand for ivory, horn, bones, scales and other parts for carving, ornaments, luxury items, traditional Asian medicines, trophies, wild bushmeat and even live animals for pets and zoos.
In particular, ivory and rhino horn trafficking increasingly involves organized crime syndicates, and in some cases, rebel militia and terrorist groups, with a very heavy Human Toll.
Photo credit: Elephant Action League
FOREST CRIME, which is considered part of Wildlife Crime, is the illegal logging and the international trade in illegally logged timber, is also a devastating and complex issue. It degrades forests, destroys wildlife habitats, and threatens biodiversity. For example, illegal logging is threatening the survival of elephants in Central Africa and of populations of some of the world’s most endangered primates, including orangutans in Indonesia.
Illegal logging also has a significant Human Toll as it impedes sustainable development in some of the poorest countries of the world. It costs governments billions of dollars, promotes corruption, and funds armed conflict. Finally, forest loss also has implications for climate change.
A study by Chatham House (Lawson & MacFaul 2010) concluded that illegal harvesting represented 35-72% of logging in the Brazilian Amazon, 22-35% in Cameroon, 59-65% in Ghana, 40-61% in Indonesia, and 14-25% in Malaysia. Extrapolating from these figures, it is estimated that more than 100 million cubic meters of timber is harvested illegally each year. Some reports have estimated as much as US$17 billion dollars worth of illegal trade flows from the East Asia Pacific region alone.
The causes of illegal logging are various, including weak institutions and regulation, limited resources, and poor law enforcement and border controls. However, consumer countries contribute significantly to these problems by importing timber without ensuring that it is legally sourced. This situation is finally changing, albeit slowly, with legislation enacted in Europe, the U.S., and Australia, barring the import of illegal timber and wood products.
Photo credit: Elephant Action League
Unfortunately, for most countries, combating wildlife and forest crime is not a priority and it almost always remains overlooked and poorly understood.
Wildlife offences enrich international criminal groups and enable corruption to flourish. Fraud, counterfeiting, money laundering, and violence are often found in combination with various forms of wildlife crime. The risk involved is low compared to other kinds of trafficking, like drugs, but the profits are very high.
It is now clear that wildlife trafficking has wide national and international security implications, but governments tend to see the problem as just an environmental issue and the global fight against wildlife crime is failing.
As INTERPOL notes, the role of independent NGOs and activists remains crucial: “the next big step must be to bridge the divisions that separate law enforcement agencies from the public, the activists, the academics, and the policy makers. If we, the international community, are committed to the conservation of the world’s environment, biodiversity, and natural resources, all five elements must work together in harmony” (INTERPOL, Environmental Crime Programme, 2009).