The illegal trade in wildlife is not only driving many endangered species to extinction, but is also posing a threat to national security, according to a new report.
The report, commissioned by WWF and entitled ‘Fighting Illicit Wildlife Trafficking: A Consultation with Governments’, estimates that illicit trade in wildlife is worth at least US$ 19 billion a year. This makes it the largest illegal global trade after narcotics, counterfeiting and human trafficking.
This trade not only poses a threat to wildlife, but also strengthens criminal networks, undermines national security, and threatens ecosystems and global health by increasing the potential for disease transmission and the spread of invasive species.
“Wildlife crime has escalated alarmingly in the past decade,” said Jim Leape, Director General of WWF International. “It is driven by global crime syndicates, and so we need a concentrated global response.”
He added that, “It is communities, often the world’s poorest, that lose the most from this illicit trade, while criminal gangs and corrupt officials profit. Frontline rangers are losing their lives and families that depend on natural resources are losing their livelihoods.”
According to the report, around 100 million tonnes of fish, 1.5 million live birds and 440,000 tonnes of medicinal plants are traded illegally each year. An estimated 30,000 elephants a year are being slaughtered for their tusks, while the number of rhinos poached in South Africa between 2007 and 2011 rose by 3,000% and the price of rhino horn has risen to a staggering US$ 60,000 per kilogram.
Unfortunately, current efforts to stop this illegal trafficking are woefully inadequate, and much of the trade is being run by powerful and sophisticated criminal networks with a broad international reach. The profits are being used to purchase weapons, fund civil conflicts and finance terrorist-related activities, putting national security and government stability at risk.
An example of this was seen earlier this year, when rebel groups from Chad and Sudan entered northern Cameroon and slaughtered 450 elephants for the purpose of selling their ivory to buy weapons for local conflicts.
High profits, low risk
The report says that criminal groups perceive the illegal trade as being low risk due to the absence of effective law enforcement, prosecution or other penalties. Consumer demand is also rising with the increasing ease of buying illegal wildlife products over the internet, and the potential profits for criminals can be very high.
“The demand for illegal wildlife products has risen in step with economic growth in consumer countries, and with the ‘easy money’ and high profits to be made from trafficking, organized criminals have seized the opportunity to profit,” said Steven Broad, Executive Director of TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network.
Although the illegal wildlife trade is often seen by governments as an exclusively environmental problem, conservationists argue that it needs to be treated as a matter of national urgency.
Last month, the U.S. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, upgraded wildlife trafficking from a conservation issue to a national security threat. “It is one thing to be worried about the traditional poachers who come in and kill and take a few animals, a few tusks, a few horns, or other animal parts,” she said. “It’s something else when you’ve got helicopters, night vision goggles, automatic weapons, which pose a threat to human life as well as wildlife.”
Cooperation and accountability
The WWF report says that a systematic approach is needed to fight the illicit trade in wildlife. As well as greater international cooperation, more resources are needed, together with a tougher response from authorities, and the use of modern intelligence and investigative techniques to identify and prosecute the criminals involved. It will also be important to raise greater awareness of the issues among consumers.
Finally, countries need to be held publicly accountable for their response to the illegal trade. A number of reporting initiatives have already been set up to highlight those countries failing in their international commitments, including the WWF Wildlife Crime Scorecard and Elephant Trade Information System.
Read more on this story at WWF and BBC News, and read the WWF report – Fighting Illicit Wildlife Trafficking: A Consultation with Governments.
Find out more about wildlife crime at TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network.
Find out more about endangered species on ARKive.
Liz Shaw, ARKive Text Author