As Animal Poaching Surges, Organized Crime Plays Bigger Role

Rhino horn and elephant ivory trafficking may be the soft underbelly of international criminal syndicates, says law enforcement veteran.

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In Mozambique’s Maputo Elephant Reserve, progress in the floodplain can be slow. A new report says that Mozambique has lost nearly half its elephants to poaching in the past five years.

Mozambique lost 48 percent of its elephants from poaching in the past five years—a decline from 20,000 to 10,300—the Wildlife Conservation Society reported on Tuesday.

Earlier this month, authorities confiscated 65 rhino horns and 1.2 tons of elephant ivory from a private residence on the outskirts of Maputo, Mozambique's capital. It was the largest illegal wildlife bust in the country’s history.

Six days later, the largest seizure of illegal ivory anywhere in more than a decade was made in Singapore. The shipment, which included 4 rhino horns and 22 teeth from big cats—was en route from Kenya to Vietnam.

Seizures like these are indicative of the ongoing devastation of rhinos, elephants, and other wildlife in Africa to satisfy demand, mainly in China and other Asian countries, for animal parts.

Some of these groups are making so much money they literally don’t know what to do with it.

To address the scourge of rhino poaching in South Africa—last year 1,215 were killed for their horns—the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime sponsored a, “Wildlife in Crisis” conference last week in Cape Town.

John Sellar, who attended, spent 14 years as head of law enforcement for the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), the global treaty charged with regulating wildlife trade and ensuring that it doesn’t threaten the survival of species. He conducted 234 missions to 66 countries, assessing enforcement in the field and designing strategies to tackle wildlife trafficking.

Now retired, Sellar stays engaged as a consultant in the areas of anti-smuggling, fraud, and organized crime.

In an interview with National Geographic during the conference, he says  that organized crime networks have taken control of rhino horn and ivory smuggling and that the only way to stop the crisis is through law enforcement.

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Suitcases of contraband ivory seized from Chinese smugglers at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, Nairobi, Kenya, on July 21, 2011. Criminal syndicates traffic huge amounts of illegal ivory into Asia with little risk of arrest.

Do you think there has been a surge in wildlife crimes recently?

Undoubtedly it has got worse. That’s because, essentially, organized crime networks and groups have identified the massive profits to be made, and so they’re taking over control.

Back in 1999, I led a team that visited 14 different countries, looking at tiger poaching and illegal trade in tiger, and in our report we flagged that organized crime was moving into this.

Myself and one or two other counterparts have since been trying to bang the drum and wake people up to this. And yet it’s only in the last three or four years that people recognize that organized crime is involved. It really frustrates me when I see people producing reports and claiming, “Oh, look what we just discovered.”

You were head of CITES law enforcement for 14 years. Is CITES doing enough?  

CITES is a trade treaty—it wasn’t designed to respond to organized crime. CITES meetings aren’t the right forum to sit and discuss organized crime responses; the right people aren’t in the room.  

You wouldn’t appoint someone from the pharmaceutical industry to head a task force combating narcotic trafficking. So why assign a CITES administrator to lead the war against fauna- and flora- related criminal activity?

If we agree, as I think we should and must, that organized crime now plays a major role in wildlife trafficking, then surely the issue for discussion is not illicit trade, it’s crime?”

We’re making it too easy for them. This is high profit, low risk.

What do criminal syndicates have in common?

There are umpteen similarities. The way you exploit poor people, either in cities or rural communities, to harvest things or to prepare things; the way you recruit couriers to ship it; the way you use sophisticated smuggling techniques to move it across borders, or bribe shipping companies and bribe customs officials or border officials. You bribe park rangers, you bribe policemen.

Also, what a lot of people don’t appreciate is that some of these groups––some of these networks––are making so much money that they literally don’t know what to do with it. I’ve seen photos and footage from raids conducted against narcotics traffickers, when they go into the houses and into rooms that are literally stacked floor-to-ceiling with cash.

So the wildlife crime organizations are the same people trafficking narcotics and other illegal contraband?

Very much so! I’m convinced that if we put more effort into it, we might find that wildlife trafficking is something of a soft underbelly of some of these groups. I don’t believe they’re covering their tracks so carefully with this, as they might with regards to narcotics, because in many cases, we’re making it too easy for them. This is high profit, low risk.

What needs to be done to get on top of organized wildlife crime?

We need to be looking at the heads––the leaders of the law enforcement community. Because it is they that need to be designing, adopting, and implementing the strategies required to deal with organized crime.

I’m not sure they’re taking it seriously enough, and part of the problem is that we’re not reaching out to the law enforcement community. They need to be engaged and convinced of the vital role they have to play. You don’t need to convince a national crime agency of the importance of drug trafficking.

But wildlife crime is just as lucrative, and so we need to get this onto people’s radar so they’re willing to respond in forceful ways and donate resources to it.

The World Customs Organization has only one individual looking at wildlife crime.

INTERPOL, which coordinates police activity between 190 member states and combats transnational crime, recently got involved in enforcement in Kenya.

For a large part of my time in Geneva, I was the only international official looking into this field. Which is why I got called by some of the media, “The UN’s Lone Ranger.” But it was several years before INTERPOL appointed someone, and that was one individual paid by donor funds. INTERPOL now has almost 30 individuals working in its Environmental Crime Program.

What isn’t widely appreciated is that donors fund almost the entire program. If that tap was shut off, that’s it—INTERPOL wouldn’t be involved in environmental crime. Hardly any people on its staff are part of its core budget.

The United National Office on Drugs and Crime has only recently got involved. The World Customs Organization has only one individual looking at wildlife crime. Only one individual for the whole world!

Is the situation hopeless?

The harsh reality is that wildlife crime remains a low priority for most mainstream law enforcement agencies. And it’s likely to remain so unless we prompt some changes.

I’m not saying international law enforcement is the silver bullet when it comes to stopping wildlife crime. However, if you mean it when you call out: “Stop the trafficking,” then it’s time to put more resources where they’re needed.

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