The following is taken from testimony provided by Dr. Jimmiel Mandima in a virtual hearing of the International Conservation Caucus Foundation (ICCF) held on April 15th, 2020, entitled “Wildlife Trade, Origins of COVID-19, and Preventing Future Pandemics".
As the world faces the continuing crisis caused by COVID-19, it is incumbent upon us to address the causes of this novel coronavirus and examine ways that we can work together to protect against future zoonotic pandemics. Law enforcement plays an absolutely critical role in protecting against future pandemics. COVID-19 and other major illnesses that have spilled over from wildlife populations, have been triggered by imbalances in ecosystem health which are largely driven by human development and consumption habits, and ultimately resulting in increasing levels of wildlife trade. To be clear, while COVID-19 originated in wildlife, it spread into the human population because of human activities. These activities need to be addressed holistically through cross-sectoral integrated planning and coordinated solutions that use the One Health approach, which recognizes the connection between the health of people, animals, and the environment, in order to avoid future pandemics.
There is incredible will in communities on the ground to continue to conserve wildlife and habitats even in the face of overwhelming stressors. This fact is not often given the credit it deserves. Rangers are under tremendous stress, many of whom are working far away from their families for months at a time. In the absence of tourism however, IFAW is seeing collaboration across public and private sectors, with reports that some parks are increasing ranger deployment to prevent more wildlife crime. However, with as much as 99% of tourism revenue lost for the foreseeable future, conservation successes will also be lost—unless we can provide short term stimulus or emergency funding that allows communities to survive without reverting to illegal or counterproductive activities.
Data are still being gathered on the effects of COVID-19 in conservation areas around the world. For example, we know that the closure of tourism means fewer people are around to scare off poachers, which leads to a rise in poaching activities. Work stoppage, loss of jobs and closure of the informal trade sector also means people may have to subsist through illegal offtake.
Where tourism has been heavily impacted by COVID-19, increased incidents of cyanide poisonings have killed five elephants in parts of Hwange National Park and a Community Wildlife Estate close to Victoria Falls UNESCO World Heritage Site in Zimbabwe. This was likely originally driven by job loss and economic stressors. The use of cyanide is sadly no new phenomenon, but often results in secondary poisoning of other predators including lions, as cyanide is unselective. And, such poisoning raises obvious concerns for the community at large.
It is abundantly clear that wildlife and other natural resources are intertwined with livelihoods in communities across the globe. Natural resources are key engines for a healthy society and economic development, while building resilient communities, where the rural economy is diverse enough to provide the right balance for sustainability is key to protecting wild animals and habitats. Desperate local communities that truly value wildlife as a source of pride and identify with it for culture, tradition, religion and other sustainable livelihoods needs, end up extracting resources wantonly. Meanwhile criminal syndicates entice them and get them to be complicity to poaching.
It is within this context that the importance of safeguarding wildlife and other natural resources is so critical, making law enforcement so vital at all levels. Supporting the men and women in protected areas is fundamental, complementing ranger training and support with technologies that facilitate identifying and prosecuting wildlife poaching and trafficking, and other illegal activities that degrade the environment. Currently, IFAW partners with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to do exactly that in areas such as the Malawi-Zambia border.
In 2015, Malawi’s Department of National Parks and Wildlife asked for IFAW’s help in stopping a poaching problem occurring the Kasungu National Park. We helped to set up the department’s first intelligence and investigations unit to handle wildlife trafficking, ultimately creating a national task force that would extend beyond poaching to stop the trafficking and selling of animal parts as well. 189 alleged poachers were arrested by the investigations unit in the first 20 months alone.
IFAW’s success in training and supporting rangers in the Malawi-Zambia transboundary landscape would not be possible without U.S. conservation leadership, in particular, the USAID and State Department Wildlife Trafficking Programs. These programs to combat wildlife trafficking focus on fighting poaching, improving global enforcement and prosecution, disrupting networks, and reducing consumer demand for wildlife products. Not only are they critical both to domestic and international conservation efforts and to US security, they are also key to stopping criminal wildlife trade that could result in future zoonotic spillover events.
Another important U.S. program in the fight against the illegal wildlife trade is the Office of Law Enforcement (OLE) within the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). The OLE is on the front lines of wildlife crime, inspecting wildlife shipments, conducting investigations, and enforcing federal wildlife laws to protect fish, wildlife, plants, and ecosystems. The OLE combats poaching and wildlife trafficking, breaking up international criminal rings that not only harm wildlife, but may also engage in other illicit activities.
Among other things, the small yet mighty force at OLE sends experienced FWS attachés to strategic regions where they combat wildlife trafficking by supporting and advising foreign partners. Wildlife law enforcement attachés are experienced criminal investigators who specialize in wildlife and natural resource investigations. They support wildlife investigations within a host country and region by providing training and capacity building, and they advise on leveraging U.S. assets in the host region to combat wildlife trafficking. Currently there are eleven FWS attachés at American embassies all across the world.
Attachés have provided extensive support to local authorities engaged in wildlife trafficking investigations and vital access to FWS resources such as the National Fish and Wildlife Forensic Laboratory and the Digital Evidence Recovery and Technical Support Unit. Several transnational organized crime investigations involving the trafficking of elephant ivory, rhino horn and reptiles between Africa and Asia have been initiated as a direct result of attaché intervention, and have assisted extensively in fostering intelligence sharing and investigative support between affected nations. By helping to shut down trafficking syndicates within source countries, such program is an important front-line defense against zoonotic illnesses that might otherwise be transmitted across borders in trafficked wildlife.
Enforcement is an immensely critical element, however, it cannot exist in a vacuum. We must also take steps to address the root causes of wildlife crime, including poverty and food insecurity and demand for illegal products. And we must look beyond the illegal trade in wildlife if we truly want to protect against zoonotic pandemics: habitat destruction and biodiversity loss, two key drivers of zoonotic spillover. This is a pivotal moment in human history – our world has been shut down by the exploitation of wildlife. Our response must be holistic, transformational, and comprehensive.
-Jimmiel Mandima, Deputy Vice President of Conservation