Wildlife crime

What is wildlife crime?

‘Wildlife’ means all fauna and flora. ‘Fauna’ are animals and birds, such as tigers and falcons, but also include fish. ‘Flora’ are plants, such as orchids or cacti, but also include timber and non-timber forest products, some of which are illegally traded at very significant levels.

'Crime', as far as ICCWC is concerned, refers to acts committed contrary to national laws and regulations intended to protect natural resources and to administer their management and use. This may start with the illicit exploitation of natural resources, such as the poaching of an elephant, uprooting of a rare orchid, unauthorized logging of trees, or unlicensed netting of sturgeons. It may also include subsequent acts, such as the processing of fauna and flora into products, their transportation, offer for sale, sale, possession, etc. It also includes the concealment and laundering of the financial benefits made out of these crimes. Some of these crimes will take place solely in the country of origin, whilst others will also occur in the country of destination, where live fauna or flora specimens, or their parts and derivatives, are finally consumed.

At the international level, crime also involves violations of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which regulates exports, imports and re-exports of wildlife. Countries of transit may also be affected. Wildlife crime is, therefore, no different from many other forms of illegal activities. Indeed, it shares many of the characteristics of other transnational crime types, such as illegal trade in narcotics. However, to a significant degree, wildlife crime has yet to be viewed, and accordingly responded to, as ‘mainstream’ crime.

Wildlife crime is serious

Assessing the scale of wildlife crime is very difficult. This is partly because wildlife crime remains outside ‘mainstream’ crime and, so, it is not recorded in the way that drug-trafficking, murder, rape or burglaries are. Wildlife crime is also, in many respects, a victim-less crime. There are many indicators, and considerable evidence, demonstrating the involvement of organized criminal networks in the harvesting, processing, smuggling and trade of wildlife and wildlife products through sophisticated techniques spanning across national boundaries and continents. Fraud, counterfeiting, money-laundering, violence and corruption are often found in combination with various forms of wildlife crime.

Besides generating significant losses in assets and revenues for many developing countries, the theft of and illegal trade in natural resources potentially threatens the livelihood of rural communities, impacts upon food security, and risks damaging whole ecosystems. The cross-border smuggling of live animals and plants carries with it risks to human health through the spread of disease, some of which (such as the Ebola virus) are literally life-threatening. Diseases, such as bird flu, can also be spread to food chains, leading to mass euthanasia of livestock herds. The introduction of alien species to habitats can ruin the natural biodiversity of countries or regions. The ease with which some wildlife contraband is smuggled across borders, often in significant quantities, demonstrates very real threats to national security and the bio-security of States.

What are the challenges to effective law enforcement?

National wildlife law enforcement agencies, especially those in developing countries, face many challenges. These include: inadequate legislation; lack of equipment; limited training opportunities; difficulty accessing modern enforcement tools like intelligence-gathering and analysis and forensic science support; poor governance; and a limited appreciation among prosecutors and the judiciary of the seriousness of wildlife crime. Special investigative techniques and powerful tools, such as ‘follow the money’, are not mobilized to go after criminal organizations engaging in wildlife crime. Wildlife law enforcement officers often lack parity with their counterparts in Customs and Police services and are ill-prepared to respond to the organized nature of those who seek to steal natural resources.

Historically, efforts to support these officers, and their institutions and countries, have been poorly structured, uncoordinated and delivered only in a sporadic or short-term manner, often without having a full understanding of the nature or scope of the problem.

Poorly targeted and misdirected wildlife law enforcement can place undue burdens on poor rural people and local communities and can inadvertently weaken badly needed support for law enforcement and for compliance with the needs for sound natural resource management. As with other forms of crime, wildlife law enforcement needs to be conducted in accordance with national requirements for due process and with respect for human rights, public safety, and the rights of the accused.