Time to end the scourge of wildlife crime

With the corona virus being linked to illegally sourced wildlife, record seizures of pangolin scales and evidence of how wildlife crime impacts climate change, John E Scanlon argues new action is urgently needed

Tuesday 03 March 2020 15:28
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Saving wildlife requires us to stop the industrial scale, organised, transnational wildlife crime that is shifting thousands of tonnes of contraband, worth billions of dollars, and leaving death, destruction and instability in its wake. The people behind these crimes are influenced by risk and profit, and to stop them they need to feel the long arm of the law.

Remarkably, there is no global legal agreement on wildlife crime, and by default we have turned to CITES, a trade-related conservation convention from the 1970’s, to serve as the de facto legal instrument for combating serious wildlife crimes.

The problem is that CITES wasn’t designed for this purpose. It was meant to regulate wildlife trade to avoid overexploitation of a species through international trade. It serves an important purpose in doing so but it wasn’t intended to fight crime.

CITES has its limitations. It only applies to species listed in its appendices, being 36,000 of the world’s 8 million species, and to the cross-border movement of specimens. It doesn’t require illegal trade to be criminalized, nor does it apply to poaching. However, in the absence of any alternative, over the past decade CITES was used to crank up the fight against illegal wildlife trade and with a degree of success. Yet, one serious underlying problem remains, and we are now paying a heavy price for it.

While these serious wildlife crimes can only be dealt with by police, prosecutors and the judiciary, not by conservationists, or by rangers acting alone, we have not fully embedded tackling them into the international criminal law framework. This failure reverberates throughout the system, right down to the local level; and we will not end serious wildlife crime if we stick with this half-way house approach.

It’s important to also note that we are not talking of local subsistence poaching, which is a separate and distinct issue to be resolved locally.

Rather, we have known for some time that serious wildlife crime is organised and transnational, is fuelled by corruption, and has a devastating impact on wildlife, local communities, national economies, security, public health and entire ecosystems. It is now increasingly obvious.

First and foremost, the public health implications, which are high in our consciousness today. Reports that the current corona virus could be linked to consuming illegally sourced wildlife follows on from other serious outbreaks, including HIV Aids, Ebola, SARS and MERS, all of which were linked to wildlife. The human and economic costs of such outbreaks are massive.

Pangolins may be a source of transmission of the corona virus. They were put on CITES Appendix I in 2016, often called CITES highest level of protection. Yet, from 2016-2019, we saw a record 206 tonnes of pangolin scales confiscated. CITES listing did not result in better protection of this extraordinary animal, rather illegal exploitation has surged, and it is today the world’s most heavily trafficked mammal.

The figure of up to USD20 billion has been used for many years to estimate the value of CITES listed species in illegal trade. Yet, a recent report from the World Bank puts this number at up to USD200 billion, when one includes all wildlife, including fish and timber not listed under CITES. And this raises the question of why do we only protect a species when it’s almost gone extinct?

This emergency ward approach to global conservation may have been sound in the 1970’s, when CITES was adopted, but the world has changed dramatically since then, as have the challenges we face with today’s globalised wildlife crime. In 2020, with the benefit of the UN IPBES Global Assessment on Biodiversity, we must look beyond CITES listed species and use the law to help countries stop the theft of all their wildlife, not just those species on the brink of extinction.

A World Bank report says that governments are losing between USD7-12 billion a year in tax revenue, and the impact on ecosystems is valued in the order of USD1-2 trillion a year, as the theft of wildlife diminishes ecosystems, including their ability to mitigate climate change. Recent scientific reports show that intact ecosystems are better at sequestering carbon than degraded ones.

The conservation community is good at conservation, and some gather good intelligence, but it is only the police and other enforcement officials that can tackle transnational, organised criminals. They need an unequivocal political message that organised, transnational wildlife crimes are viewed as serious crimes deserving their attention and deployment of their resources.

The time has come for a new global agreement on wildlife crime. One that is placed under the UN Convention against Transnational Organised Crime, as has been done for other serious crimes such as human trafficking. This was my message to a special event held at the House of Lords today to discuss how best to end wildlife crime.

What is needed is a new agreement that obliges countries to criminalise importing illegally sourced wildlife, as we already see in some country’s domestic laws, such as in the US under the Lacey Act, and to criminalise serious wildlife crimes. The UK can play a leadership role in making it happen.

The status quo won’t cut it; nor will incremental changes. It’s abundantly clear that we need to scale up the fight against the transnational, organised criminals who are stripping countries bare of their precious wildlife. To stop them we need to get police and prosecutors hot on their trail.

It is only by taking bold actions that we can end serious wildlife crime and now is the time to act.

Lord Randall hosted a special event in the House of Lords on 3 March, UN World Wildlife Day, on what was needed to end wildlife crime. The event was sponsored by ADM Capital Foundation and Born Free. John E Scanlon AO was the invited keynote speaker. He served as Secretary-General of CITES from 2010-2018.

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