By John M. Sellar OBE
July 23rd, 2020
The criminal exploitation of our planet’s species is bringing many of them close to extinction. This is occurring to numerous animals and plants, either as entire species or in geographically-restricted populations. In recent years, tigers have been eradicated from their historical territories
in several countries of Southeast Asia, whilst massive swathes
of South America’s rainforests have been illegally logged and transported to markets around the globe.
The profits being made from what is often termed illegal wildlife trade (IWT) are estimated at anywhere between USD 7 and 23 billion each year
, depending upon one’s definition of ‘wildlife’. If timber and fish are included, then the higher of the two figures is likely to be accurate.
Although IWT has been recognised as an organised crime type
, focussing solely on criminal gains alone is inappropriate – many of those who direct wildlife crime and trafficking exploit the rural poor and urban disadvantaged, as poachers, harvesters and smugglers (especially in developing countries), whilst others, for instance those controlling illegal commercial-level pelagic fishing, engage in modern-day slavery
to crew their vessels. Aside from its negative impact upon species and habitats, IWT is also suggested
to have perhaps played a role in the outbreak of the zoonotic disease we now call COVID-19.
Despite the fact that such criminality has been growing steadily since the early 1990s, and ever-increasingly involving transnational organised crime groups and networks (OCGs), it is only relatively recently that the scale and seriousness has been acknowledged by national, regional and international policy and decision-makers. In the past few years, countless diplomatic and political conferences and other events have been convened with the goal of raising awareness and generating action. The United Nations General Assembly, for instance, has adopted resolutions
identifying measures to tackle wildlife trafficking. It appears, however, that not enough is being done to meaningfully slow the seemingly-constant rape and pillage of natural resources.
Two major reports have been published this summer, which are very worthy of attention. The first
is the result of research by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF). The principal finding is of a serious lack of appreciation of the illicit financial flows associated with IWT and the associated money-laundering and corruption. The report contains numerous case studies and makes many recommendations. That FATF undertook this work is commendable and very welcome.
Even a decade ago, the concept that the FATF might expend its time and resources on animals and plants would have been close to unimaginable. Many observers would, at that time, have thought FATF was entering the realm of bunny-hugging, as opposed to addressing the world of financial crime.
reflects the work of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and is the latest ‘World Wildlife Crime Report’. Since there is currently very limited centralised collation of all wildlife crime and trafficking data, this report has chosen to focus on specific species, including rosewood timber, African elephant tusks and rhinoceros horns, pangolin scales, live reptiles, big cats and European glass eels. It reinforces the fact that wildlife crime and trafficking is highly profitable for OCGs and is having devastating impacts upon animal, plant and human species.
The UNODC report, diplomatically, outlines various “policy implications”, as opposed to making specific recommendations. For example, although it refers to the some high-level undertakings to combat IWT made by numerous governments in recent years, it notes that “[s]uch commitments raise expectations for action…” without then going on to expressly say that those expectations have, to a significant degree, not been fulfilled – something the rest of the report makes blatantly clear they have not. The policy implications section of the report is more than three times larger than what appeared in the previous 2016 report
The FATF and UNODC reports have, deservedly, attracted considerable media attention. Journalists and commentators have, understandably, highlighted what each document describes in relation to the serious and organised nature of wildlife crime and trafficking and how IWT threatens several species with utter annihilation. However, those who have been prompted to summarise and publicise each report have, arguably, missed two very significant aspects.