According to Global Financial Integrity, a Washington watchdog group, wildlife crime is the 4th largest transnational crime in the world, worth an estimate US$ 17 billion annually, after narcotics, counterfeiting, and human trafficking (Transnational Crime In The Developing World, 2011).
Offences 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, areas 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, and traditional Asian medicines, trophies, wild bushmeat and even live animals for pets and zoos.
Especially ivory and rhino horn traffic increasingly involves organized crime syndicates, and in some cases rebel militia and terrorist groups, with a very heavy Human Toll.
Photo credit: Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA)
Forest crime, which is the illegal logging and the international trade in illegally logged timber, is also a very 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 orang-utans 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 research 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 was estimated that more than 100 million cubic meters of timber are harvested illegally each year. Some reports have estimated as much as US$17 billion dollars’ worth of illegal trade flows only from the East Asia Pacific region.
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 a lot to these problems by importing timber without ensuring that they are legally sourced. This situation is finally slowly changing, with legislation in Europe, the U.S. and Australia, barring the import of illegal timber and wood products.
Find more information about Forest Crime here. Photo credit: Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA)
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’s 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).
Photo credit: Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA)/WPSI