An Interview with INTERPOL's David Higgins
David Higgins has been the Manager of INTERPOL’s Environmental Crime Programme for the last three years. The affable Australian spoke with Adrian Hiel of the International Fund for Animal Welfare in the lead-up to the IFAW / INTERPOL training on the Prevention of Illegal Wildlife Trade in Botswana.
Before joining INTERPOL, the science graduate was a police officer in the wilds of Tasmania, a committed wildlife officer for five years, and an investigator for the Australian Department of the Environment
You can see him here (quietly) encountering gorillas in their natural habitat.
Adrian Hiel/IFAW: Why is wildlife trafficking a problem?
David Higgins/INTERPOL: A number of problems stem from wildlife trafficking. Criminals who exploit the law, any law, undermine civil society and the rule of law and that has major impact on how society operates.
From a biodiversity point of view, if you take out even one key species such as a tiger or elephant you lose a whole chain of environmentally interlocking processes and pieces.
Of course, there is big money in buying and selling wildlife. Thousands of animals are traded legally all over the world, which benefits a lot of people. But the illegal trade hurts that trade as well as the wild animals and plants governments are trying to protect in the first place. So honest traders earn less and there are fewer animals and intact ecosystems left, which is bad for everyone.
From INTERPOL’s point of view, if it is against the law it is against the law. We encourage countries to enforce the law to the best of their abilities because lawlessness affects the pride of a country and a clear economic benefit is being lost. It is about protecting biodiversity.
Consider the entire spectrum of conservation management as an arrow. The feathers on its notched end give it direction; the stem is management, policy and legislation; the arrowhead is compliance, monitoring and enforcement. The enforcement, catching the bad guys, is the point of the arrow. If it is not sharp it will not penetrate. Each part of the arrow interacts and is necessary for the whole to work. But we can’t forget the arrowhead, which is where law enforcement and prosecution happen.
AH: Who suffers because of wildlife trafficking?
DH: Society suffers because the rule of law is undermined. As individuals, we are all victims of wildlife crime. Criminals are stealing our wildlife, our biodiversity, our national mascots, the natural resources that attract tourists. Some people refer to wildlife trafficking as a victimless crime but it certainly isn’t. But because of this perception it doesn’t get enough nearly enough attention.
If your house is broken into you get upset and angry. You call loved ones for support and you want someone brought to justice for this outrage. You might not feel the impact of wildlife crime directly because you don’t have direct ownership, but if there are no more animals for you and future generations you can be sure your life will be much poorer for it.
AH: How long has Interpol been working on wildlife trafficking?
DH: Since IFAW showed leadership of the NGO sector back in 2006 by investing and stimulating INTERPOL’s engagement in this field. IFAW are the pioneers who caused the global community to take action. It was a first step but we have hundreds more to go – the financial situation to combat wildlife trafficking is dire.
AH/IFAW: What does INTERPOL do?
DH: INTERPOL represents 188 member countries and operates as a secure network with dedicated national offices for the exchange of criminal intelligence, central storage of databases, training and networking. It is a mechanism for the exchange of investigative requests so if one country needs something from another country they can ask through a secure, trustworthy channel regardless of whether there are any personal relationships.
AH: What does INTERPOL hope to achieve in general and with the Botswana training?
DH: We want to bring together the global enforcement community and include any agency with responsibility for, or interest in, enforcing environmental law around the world. We need to give them a common platform to combat this international problem that includes national wildlife law enforcement, customs officers, with the World Customs Organisation, and police officers. A real multi-disciplinary approach.
With the training in Botswana we are bringing together one police officer and one wildlife law enforcement officer from nine different countries so they can learn the same skills and tactics in investigations. It will build relationships between people and between the departments. By cementing those relationships and creating a shared knowledge base and shared response to wildlife crime we can better crack down on it.
AH: Why does INTERPOL work with IFAW?
DH: We work with organisations that believe in us and with the international leaders and visionaries in wildlife crime – that means IFAW.
AH: What are some of the biggest challenges you face personally in your role?
DH: One of the biggest challenges is managing my passion for the environment and animals. It drives me in much of what I do but in law enforcement you must remain impartial, your ethics and your professionalism keeps you properly balanced.
For more information on the International Fund for Animal Welfare effort to save animals in crisis around the world, visit http://ifaw.org