New UN Report Puts Staggering Dollar Figures on Environmental Crime Revenues

Crimes from illegal fishing to ivory dealing yield tens of billions of dollars annually.

A global industry in so-called environmental crime—which includes everything from selling elephant ivory to illegal fishing to illicit logging and more—is worth between $70 billion and $213 billion a year and largely finances criminal, militia, and terrorist groups, according to a report released Tuesday by the United Nations and INTERPOL.

"There has been a substantial upgrade in the scale from past reports," said Christian Nellemann, head of the Rapid Response Unit at the United Nations Environment Assembly. "One of the primary reasons, particularly with regard to timber and loss of wildlife habitats, is that the methods used by organized crime were not so well known just a few years ago."

The new report, called "The Environmental Crime Crisis," says that between 20,000 and 25,000 African elephants are killed every year, with an estimated $165 million to $188 million in ivory going to Asia. (Related: "Beloved African Elephant Killed for Ivory—'Monumental' Loss.")

The trade in rhinoceros horn, meanwhile, has an estimated value of between $63.8 million and $192 million. Although fewer than 50 rhinos were poached in 2007, that number rose to over 1,000 in 2013.

But Nellemann, who served as editor in chief of the report, says illegal timber trading is likely growing even more rapidly, with "forest crime" estimated to be worth between $30 billion and $100 billion annually and representing as much as 30 percent of the global timber trade.

Researchers used different sources to calculate the worth of various types of crime, including trials, statistics from the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization, INTERPOL arrests and seizures, and information provided to the UN Security Council about revenue from terror groups that used the profit.

Investigators also physically counted trucks carrying timber.

"The official export for one country in Africa is maybe one or two loads per year," Nellemann said in an interview. Yet "we have photos of hundreds of trucks passing borders."

Approximately 90 percent of wood consumed in Africa is used for fuel and charcoal. Illegal charcoal is also being exported to several Middle Eastern nations like Egypt, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Oman.

Exports from Somalia alone are estimated at $360 million to $384 million per year, with up to $56 million supporting al Shabaab (the group responsible for the Westgate Shopping Mall attack in Kenya last year), according to the new report.

Most member state delegates to the United Nations Environment Assembly hadn't reviewed the data, but some expressed surprise at the new numbers, given the recent efforts to curb environmental crime in recent years.

Sri Parwati Murwani Budi Susanti, Indonesia's assistant deputy minister of environment, was adamant that her government—along with those of other member nations—was working hard to combat illegal trade in plants and animals, but said the report showed that "we still have so much more to do."

Budi Susanti said the international community needs to focus on certification programs.

"We have regulations, but we need to inform the consumers," she said. "If buyers won't buy the products that aren't sustainable, there won't be demand."

But Nellemann said that consumer awareness "is not enough."

"It might be the long-term solution," he said. "But in the shorter [term], you need to allocate resources to provide protection on the front line and stop criminal networks from increasing."