The Imperative of Ending Wildlife Crime
April 7, 2020

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There is no international legal framework for cooperative global and national action to catch and punish serious wildlife criminals, nor is there an agreed definition of wildlife crime.


Reports that the current coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak originated from illegally sourced wildlife, including pangolin, has given a new sense of urgency to ending wildlife crime. Wildlife crime is not new, yet, remarkably, there is no global legal agreement addressing it. This is despite the devastating impact it has on wildlife, local communities, national economies, security, public health and entire ecosystems, and its links to HIV Aids, Ebola, SARS, MERS and now COVID -19.

We are not talking about subsistence poaching, which is a separate and distinct issue to be resolved locally, but rather, large-scale criminal activity organized transnationally and fueled by corruption. A recent World Bank report estimates the value of illegally traded species at US$200 billion, when all wildlife, including fish and timber not listed under CITES are included.

Saving wildlife, and, as we now see, ourselves, means stopping an illegal commerce that shifts thousands of tonnes of contraband, worth billions of dollars and leaves death, destruction, and instability in its wake. Ending wildlife crime requires a new level of international cooperation that assures criminals feel the long arm of the law. The time for bold action is now.

No longer a tenable solution

Currently and by default, we have turned to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (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 to deal with wildlife crime. It was meant to regulate wildlife trade to avoid over-exploitation of threatened species.

While a critically important trade convention, it was never designed to fight crime. CITES has its limitations. It only applies to species listed in its appendices – that is 36,000 of the world’s eight 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 has been leveraged to crank up the fight against illegal wildlife trade.

Even with its limitations, CITES has had some success in this regard. It led the creation of the International Consortium on Combating Wildlife Crime (ICCWC) in 2010[i], which was welcomed by CITES Parties in 2013. In parallel to the Consortium, the UN General Assembly passed a first-ever Resolution on Combating Illegal Wildlife Trade in 2015, and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNDOC) released the first-ever UN World Wildlife Crime Report in 2016. Over the years, CITES has seen the deeper engagement of police and customs agents, and action by key industry sectors, including finance, transport, and tourism.

Yet, a serious underlying problem remains, one for which we are now paying a heavy price. There is no international legal framework for cooperative global and national action to catch and punish serious wildlife criminals, nor is there an agreed definition of wildlife crime. This inhibits global enforcement efforts and jeopardizes the lives of park rangers, creates insecurity and undermines conservation schemes. It robs local communities of their resources and it elevates the risk of future disease outbreaks like COVID-19.

Transnational wildlife crimes deserve the attention of the criminal justice system and deployment of their resources.

Given the scale and seriousness of wildlife crime and its grave implications for countries, their ecosystems and species, and for humanity overall, it can and must be dealt with by police, prosecutors and the judiciary – not by individuals such as conservationists or park rangers acting alone. We need an unequivocal political message, supported by the right legal framework, that organized, transnational wildlife crimes deserve the attention of the criminal justice system and deployment of their resources.


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We must move with the times

The time has come for a new global agreement on wildlife crime.

This agreement can be housed under the UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime (UNCTOC), as has been done for other serious crimes such as human trafficking. Such an agreement should oblige countries to prohibit the import of any wildlife, supported by criminal sanctions, unless the importer can prove it was legally obtained.

This idea was put forward at the recent ‘End Wildlife Crime’ event at the House of Lords, which promoted a new agreement on wildlife crime that criminalizes the importation, distribution and consumption of illegally sourced wildlife. What is proposed is not unlike the approach taken in some countries, such as in the US under the Lacey Act, and what some countries have in place for certain timber imports.

Doing things differently requires us to take a fresh look at historic approaches to conservation and question their ongoing efficacy in a changing world. Making bold but necessary changes will prove difficult and stir up resistance. But the status quo won’t do; nor will incremental changes. It’s abundantly clear that we need to scale up the fight against the transnational, organized criminals who are stripping countries bare of their precious wildlife and creating havoc locally and globally. To stop them we need to get police and prosecutors hot on their trail.

Global responses to biodiversity loss must move with the times and if we can blend taking a hard line against transnational organized criminals, while opening up new opportunities for local communities in and around biodiverse-rich areas, then we will not only end wildlife crime but see wildlife, ecosystems and local communities thrive.

John E. Scanlon

Special Envoy, African Parks (Secretary-General of CITES 2010-2018)