Building Worldwide Expertise to Detect and Seize Illegally Traded Wildlife

The effective monitoring and control of transboundary movements is a key component of wildlife protection. In most countries, this task falls upon Customs which is at the forefront of efforts to counter wildlife trafficking and ensure that trade in wild plants and animals is practiced legally by implementing the provisions of the Convention on International Trade Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) as well as relevant national legislation.

Representing 179 Customs administrations around the globe, the World Customs Organization (WCO) has long been involved in combating illegal wildlife trade raising awareness of the issue among frontline Customs officers, organizing training to improve their targeting and identification capabilities, leading international enforcement operations aimed at wildlife smuggling, and developing practical guidance in the form of various training resources.

Benefitting from the strong support of CITES Secretariat and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), it was only natural for WCO to join CITES Secretariat, the International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL), the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and the World Bank in creating the International Consortium on Combating Wildlife Crime (ICCWC) in 2010. Although specialized staff from the five organizations have worked together in the past, since the launch of ICCWC, their collaboration has become more structured bringing together the expertise of each agency to support national authorities in their efforts to tackle wildlife crime.

Given the escalating levels of poaching and illegal trade—particularly in elephant ivory and rhinoceros horn—and strong evidence of the increased involvement of organized crime groups in wildlife trafficking, much more work lies ahead for WCO and its partners. This article touches upon some of the actions undertaken by Customs administrations to stop illegal wildlife trade at borders and also highlights some of the many challenges that Customs faces while trying to defeat criminals.

Identified Vulnerabilities

One of the challenges all Customs and law enforcement officers face is the sheer volume of international traffic. In 2012, world container port throughput amounted to 601.8 million twenty-foot equivalent container units (TEUs)—the standard measure used in container trading. Seaports can process from several hundred to 50,000 containers daily. Air cargo volumes are also substantial and increasing with fore- casts for 2014 predicting 38 million tonnes of air freight and around 1.3 billion international air passengers.

Another challenge facing Customs officials is the ever-changing methods that criminals use to smuggle wildlife products. Organized and well-connected criminal gangs blend illegal consignments with the huge volume of legitimate trade. New means of concealment are invented all the time, including ways to camouflage illegal products. For instance, rhino horn or ivory may be cut and painted to make it more difficult to detect. Other methods include blending non-protected species with protected ones or using fraudulent documents.

Evidence suggests that many Customs administrations, especially in African range States, suffer from a lack of awareness, training, effective enforcement, proper equipment and inter-agency cooperation. Corruption has also hindered enforcement efforts. To augment its knowledge about wildlife trafficking, and ultimately improve the performance of Customs enforcement, WCO gathered information on the global Customs community’s perceptions and capacities to fight illicit trade by conducting a survey in September 2013. The survey’s core findings show that:

  • There is a need to increase awareness amongst some Customs administrations about the pervasive problem of wildlife smuggling. In general, countries place wild life smuggling below more traditional priorities, such as tax evasion, drug trafficking, illicit tobacco trade, the sale of counterfeit goods or illegal weapons shipments.
  • Many Customs administrations lack the authority to conduct CITES investigations or impose fines; cases and specimens are handed over to other agencies. Customs administrations in Europe are more likely to have the power to investigate and impose fines than in any other region.
  • There is a need to increase cooperation between competent authorities and Customs administrations.
  • Measures should be developed to improve the availability of CITES-violation detection statistics and to increase usage of WCO Customs Enforcement Network (CEN). CEN is a database of Customs seizure records worldwide, which allows for the tracking and analysis of the latest trends and patterns linked to illicit trade.

Renewed Commitment

Given the heightened global focus upon illegal wildlife trade, at the June 2014 sessions of WCO Council, the Organization’s highest decision-making body, Directors General of Customs, representing WCO 179 Members, adopted the Declaration on the Illegal Wildlife Trade that reinforces the commitment of the global Customs community to fight this type of crime, as part of its efforts to combat all forms of illicit trade.

The Declaration contains 10 steps which will contribute to a stronger and more coordinated enforcement response. Chief among these is building closer cooperation at the national and international level between Customs and other regulatory and enforcement agencies, as well as with NGOs and the private sector using:

  • The full range of detection and investigative techniques, including risk profiling, intelligence sharing, controlled deliveries, forensic techniques, detector dogs and other non-intrusive equipment.
  • The full extent of the law to secure an appropriate level of punishment that would act as an effective deterrent.
  • Global standards and best practices developed to address the problem of corruption and the promotion of integrity.

Training and Awareness-Raising

Bearing in mind shrinking travel times and an increasing volume of trade, it is clear that control agencies are unable to efficiently exercise their functions upon the arrival of every ship and aircraft. Therefore, thorough physical inspections practised by some Customs administrations are inefficient and burdensome for supply chain actors, travellers and control agencies.

Fighting wildlife crime at the border requires the application of the same techniques as with other crimes. Controlling cargo and transboundary traffic should be based upon intelligence analysis and risk profiling. Allowing for effective enforcement necessitates a certain level of well- functioning Customs structures.

When it comes to wildlife, capacity-building activities are aimed at increasing CITES profile in Customs administrations and other enforcement agencies. Training programmes target the lack of knowledge, provide access to information about protected wildlife and emphasize the importance of strengthening controls—including export controls—and CITES enforcement.

Since many Customs administrations lack information and intelligence on wildlife trafficking, and their networking with other agencies or organizations that could share needed information is limited, WCO wildlife programme pays special attention to intelligence training and stakeholder engagement, with a view to brokering better information sharing partnerships and strengthening Customs’ overall intelligence analysis capability, which in some countries is just becoming established or is poorly resourced.

For capacity-building to be successful and achieve expected results, a foundation of political will and integrity must already exist. WCO Integrity Programme addresses these issues, that is why the Organization’s wildlife programme will integrate elements of the Integrity Programme into its educational materials and training activities.

Information and Communication TOOL

In order to facilitate access to information for enforcement officers and to keep Customs officials around the world informed about emerging trends associated with illegal trade in environmentally sensitive goods, WCO has created a web-based platform called ‘ENVIRONET’. Risk indicators for CITES-listed species, alerts, and trend analyses, as well as information from other organizations are published on the platform to support frontline Customs officers in their daily work.

ENVIRONET also enables the sharing of information between various bodies dealing with wildlife crime, including Customs, police, wildlife rangers and game park managers. About 280 accounts have been activated so far, bringing together a wide range of key actors in the domain of wildlife protection from around the world.

When it comes to quick identification of a species that may be endangered, cooperation is critical. Frontline Customs officers have very little time to detain a suspicious consignment in order to ascertain whether a species, its parts or derived products are in fact protected by law. Indeed, more than 35,000 species of animals and plants are protected by CITES. It requires some expertise to distinguish a handicraft made out of elephant ivory from one made out of regular animal bones. When in doubt, ENVIRONET enables officers to seek assistance from experts around the globe to facilitate rapid decision-making on the ground.

Promoting Controlled Deliveries

A controlled delivery allows illegal consignments to pass out of, through, or into the territory of one or more countries, with the knowledge of and under the supervision of the competent authorities. The objective is to identify persons connected to criminal activities and to bring them to justice. The technique has rarely been used to combat wildlife crime, although it is widely used—and with good results—to combat other crimes, such as the illegal trade in drugs and tobacco or in hazardous chemicals.

WCO is promoting the use of controlled deliveries for wildlife law enforcement. Under the auspices of ICCWC, it organized a workshop in December 2011 for Customs and police officers, as well as prosecutors from over 20 countries considerably affected by large scale wildlife trafficking. The technique is also promoted under the framework of WCO wildlife capacity-building programme.

Handling and Securing Evidence

The judiciary plays a vital role in responding to illegal wildlife trade. Customs authorities need to work closely with investigators and prosecutors to bring offenders before the courts, rather than relying on confiscations or limited administrative penalties. WCO wildlife capacity-building programme includes training and guidance on how to handle, secure and protect evidence. All agencies engaged in wildlife protection are invited to WCO training sessions and are sensitized to this issue.

WCO also trains frontline officers to properly report detailed information on seizures and provides examples of detailed seizure forms and custody-related receipts in order to encourage Customs to maintain accurate records of seizures and offences. Collecting more data will shed light on illegal wildlife trade and increase the pool of evidence necessary for the analysis of evolving trends, and, consequently, for the development of appropriate measures to combat wildlife crime.

Enforcement Operations

Enforcement operations are key WCO activities in all Customs areas, including wildlife. They are aimed at developing legal and operational capacities, following a holistic approach which combines awareness-raising, as well as classroom and hands-on training. In addition, they provide a snapshot of the trends and patterns used by smugglers.

Last but not least, the results of enforcement operations give Customs a sense of the scale of the trade in illegal wildlife. The figures are alarming! For example, in January 2014, the 28 African, Asian and North American countries that participated in Operation COBRA II seized 36 rhino horns, three metric tonnes of elephant ivory, 10,000 turtles, and 1,000 skins of protected species, as well as 10,000 European eels and more than 200 metric tonnes of rosewood logs. The Operation was supported by ICCWC partners.

Another recent operation illustrates the scale of the illegal timber trade. Peruvian Customs, after having gathered information on illegal activities taking place on its territory, initiated Operation AMAZONAS in cooperation with Brazil, China, the Dominican Republic and Mexico with the support of WCO and INTERPOL. So far, over 6.5 million board-feet (equivalent to 15,454 cubic meters) of suspected illegal timber have been confiscated in Peru. Investigations are still ongoing.

Let’s conclude on a more optimistic note. On 5 February 2014, two women were arrested at Heathrow airport after United Kingdom Border Force officers found 13 endangered San Salvador rock iguanas in their luggage. The women were jailed for a year. As for the iguanas, after being given care by experts in the United Kingdom, they were repatriated on 8 July to the Bahamas. The United Kingdom Border Force has been promoting the story through national and international media as a means of informing consumers and curbing the demand for these animals.