Wildlife: The natural resource of choice for some insurgent groups
A recent article I co-authored explains how many criminal networks now derive regular and substantial profits from the illegal trafficking of wildlife and their products to fund their activities.
According to my co-author, Dr. Leo Douglas of the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation, American Museum of Natural History (AMNM), “the trade’s attractiveness is largely due to strong international demand, its relative lack of social stigma, small risk of arrest, and the woefully light penalties given to those few brought before the courts.”
Douglas notes that high-value wildlife are particularly attractive to criminal entities because their large-scale killing and theft can be done quickly and inexpensively compared to the extraction of other high-value resources such as oil, gas, and most precious metals.
“Wildlife products are classic ‘lootable resources,’ a subset of high-value natural resources that are relatively easy to steal, but particularly challenging to monitor from a crime-management perspective,” he says.
Some of our findings come directly from IFAW’s recent report Criminal Nature: The Global Security Implications of the Illegal Wildlife Trade, including the projected yearly profits of this trade: an estimated $20 billion a year.
Criminologists have found that wildlife now serves a specialized role as “a form of currency” for armed insurgent groups. Because wildlife commodities become the basis for the trade of drugs, ammunition, and humans, and a substitute for cash, the illegal wildlife trade has grown into a highly efficient form of money-laundering. Such exchanges appear particularly common among larger, more sophisticated criminal networks and insurgent groups working across international borders.
The illicit trade in wildlife is not only a serious global environmental crime with profoundly negative impacts for endangered species protection, ecosystem stability, and biodiversity conservation, but it is also a real and increasing threat to national and global security.
Rebel groups, insurgencies, and armed extremist groups are now also actively seeking out, capturing, and appropriating the profits of eco-tourism enterprises. For example, seizing on the profitability of high-value gorilla tourism, Congolese rebels murdered wildlife officers and captured licensed ecotourism operations so they could establish their own to fulfill their economic ends. Similarly in Nepal, Maoist rebels have captured protected areas and begun unlicensed eco-tourism and trophy-hunting businesses to attract high-paying tourists.
Global demand for some species exceeds biological capacity, resulting in local extirpation or total extinctions of some species and sub-species. For example, several rhino species or sub-species now face extinction. Other species at risk include sun bears, clouded leopards, forest elephants, gorillas, tigers, orangutans, pangolins, as well as several more.
To stem this threat, conservationists must actively link their knowledge about threatened wildlife to the international development, security concerns, and local community economic development concerns with which the wildlife trade has become inextricably conjoined.
In the past two years, IFAW has cooperated with the international police organization, INTERPOL, on Operation WORTHY, Operation WENDI, Operation WILDCAT, and Project WEB to seize ivory, rhino horns, weapons and other animal derivatives and bring wildlife criminals to justice. IFAW also recently signed INTERPOL’s Environmental Crime Programme’s first-ever Memorandum of Understanding with a non-governmental organization to fight wildlife crime, paving the way for future joint activities to enhance wildlife law enforcement and better protect wild animals from illegal wildlife trade.
We are witnessing unprecedented attacks on wildlife and legitimate ecotourism operations by emboldened criminal syndicates. Tackling wildlife crime can and must become a priority—not just for the sake of national security and long-term economic sustainability but for the welfare of animals and the conservation of our planet’s biodiversity and interconnected web of life.
To learn more about IFAW efforts to stem the tide of wildlife trafficking, visit our campaign page.