On Friday 10th July, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) released its second World Wildlife Crime Report. Back in 2015, the UN General Assembly tasked UNODC with undertaking regular reporting on the trends in illegal wildlife trade. The UNODC’s 2016 Report set a new standard for collated information, and I along with many others have been eagerly anticipating this update on trends and changes in wildlife crime.
As with all criminal enterprises, wildlife crime happens in the shadows and we are left with mere glimpses of what is happening through proxy indicators such as market price or seizure data. Indeed, the truly global nature of the illegal wildlife trade is clearly demonstrated by the report with some startling figures. The report highlights the fact that only 78 of 183 countries submitted Annual Illegal Trade Reports (AITRs) to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) between 2017 and 2020, and we call on all parties to improve on this record. Based on the available information, “no single species is responsible for more than 5% of the seizures, no single country was identified as the source of more than 9% of the total number of seized shipments, and that suspected traffickers of some 150 nationalities have been identified.” A problem of this scale clearly requires a collective global response. Given impetus by the COVID-19 pandemic, there have been numerous and vocal calls to reform institutions such as CITES or expand the UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime (UNTOC). There is definite room to improve the international legal framework that governs trade in wildlife, both legal and illegal, and IFAW is active in doing so, but we must also face the reality that such international tools are only as effective as the capacity of member states to implement them. We must recognize that many key states have the legislative or regulatory basis to effectively tackle wildlife criminals now. What they need are better resourced and supported law enforcement agencies, functioning criminal justice systems with empowered prosecutors and informed judges, and above all, the political will to reduce corruption and complicity wherever it is found.
On the specific case of seizure data, we welcome the report’s candidness in highlighting the limitations of relying on this information as well as its emphasis on the fact that seizures, where they are not the end result of investigative or intelligence work, must be the start of such processes. There are many incentives to highlighting short-term ‘wins’, but lasting impact will come from successful international investigations and partnerships between law enforcement agencies that allow information to flow between national jurisdictions. With our presence in source, transit, and destination countries, IFAW is committed to supporting this agenda.
It must also be said that we cannot stop wildlife crime through supply chain interventions only. As long as there is a high level of consumer demand for illegal wildlife products and wild animals, the market prices remain high, the criminals make good profits, and the amount of seizures do not go down. The true power to save species from extinction lies with the end users. IFAW’s systemic approach to wildlife trafficking includes strategies to curb wildlife consumerism.
Elephants and ivory remain a lightning rod in conservation circles and this report will contribute to more conversations with its conclusion that there is a consistent downward trend in both elephant poaching and the consumption and price of ivory products. Unsurprisingly, such a conclusion made headlines – but now is not the time for any relaxation or complacency with regard to efforts to both protect elephants in situ or reduce the demand for ivory products. The data (with all its recognized shortcomings) might suggest a reduction in poaching at a continental level among African range states, but this masks the fact that there can be considerable regional variation with some scientists claiming there is little evidence of reductions in West, Central, or Southern Africa. As the report itself acknowledges, the data does not include large seizures of ivory (and pangolin) that took place in 2019, which have increased dramatically in previous years. Understanding the reasons behind this is an imprecise science. Considerable progress has been made with regard to the closure of domestic markets in the US and China, and hopefully soon in the EU. Trafficking in ivory is a lucrative (US $400 million per year, according to this report) and long-standing activity and when coupled with habitat loss and other anthropogenic pressures means the future of Africa’s elephants remains deeply uncertain.
IFAW has been the NGO pioneer in actively working on the interfaces between wildlife crime and the internet for many years and we welcome the emphasis on this subject in the report. Our reports have consistently highlighted the growing volume and diversity of illegal wildlife products available through online marketplaces and social media platforms. We are working to address this by engaging with the private sector via the Coalition to End Wildlife Trafficking Online as well as training law enforcement officers and supporting INTERPOL with the publication of their practical guidelines on Wildlife Crime Linked to the Internet.
This report, coming as it does amidst the COVID-19 pandemic that has focused global attention on humanity’s relationship with nature, is a welcome addition to our understanding of the scope and scale of the illegal wildlife trade. The sheer scale of the illegal trade in wildlife means a comprehensive analysis of every sector or subject would be practically impossible both from a time and resource perspective. We welcome the detailed chapters on the illegal trade in Rosewood timber and European glass eels, but hope that future editions can bring even more of a focus on trafficking in marine species that warrant the attention of the global community. The limited case studies in the report are representative of the situation facing many thousands of similar species of plants and animals under threat from illegal (and legal) exploitation that lack the public awareness and subsequent political and resource focus of more well-known or ‘charismatic’ species.
The report has self-recognized challenges in data, particularly the lack of coverage in Latin America and some parts of Africa, and we must be cautious about how its findings are used. We cannot always reduce or simplify what is inherently complex. Above all, we must maintain and increase our collective efforts. Reports like this will be used by future generations to judge how we responded to this natural crisis of our own making. We will not be able to plead ignorance.
-Matt Morley, Program Director Wildlife Crime