How Wildlife and Forest Crime Undermines Development and Ravages Global Biodiversity

In September 2013, poachers in Zimbabwe poured deadly cyanide into a watering hole frequented by a large elephant herd. The results were catastrophic for the local wildlife. Over 300 elephants, lions, vultures, painted dogs and hyenas were killed. The tragedy in Zimbabwe is a dismally familiar story. Throughout the world, wildlife is trapped, gunned down, poisoned, and slaughtered, while forests are stripped of their trees. The pace of this destruction is driving some species to the brink of oblivion.

Approximately 22,000 wild elephants are estimated to be killed every year in Africa. The last wild rhinos have already disappeared from Viet Nam and Mozambique, and the world’s tiger population, estimated at 3,000 animals, now hangs by a thread. Many countries in South-East Asia and the Pacific have lost huge portions of their rich forests due to illegal logging activities.

Put simply, the killing of wildlife and destruction of forests has become industrial in its scope and scale. Helicopters and automatic weapons have replaced trucks and rifles. Forest crime now uses modern technology and a tangled web of bribery and corruption to move illegal timber across regions. These unlawful activities are driven by relentless greed.

Wildlife crime yields enormous profits for the criminal networks, ranking alongside trafficking in drugs, arms and people. No continent is immune. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), wildlife crime is worth US $8-10 billion every year, while trafficking in timber from South-East Asia to the European Union and the rest of the Asian continent is valued at around US $3.5 billion annually. UNODC estimates that 30-40 per cent of wood-based exports originating in the Asia-Pacific region are illegal. The sale of elephant ivory, rhino horn and tiger parts in Asia alone was worth an estimated US $75 million in 2010. Numerous smaller wild species are also harvested for medicines, food, decorative products and the pet trade.

The plight of the rhino reveals the devastating impact of poaching on an endangered species. After years of illegal slaughter, there are only around 25,000 rhinos left in the wild. Prices paid for rhino horn in the country of origin are as little as 1 per cent of the final retail price, which may reach $20,000 to $30,000 per kilogram. Rhino poachers have specifically targeted South Africa, which is home to 90 per cent of Africa’s remaining rhino population. The number of poaching incidents in the country soared dramatically from 13 animals killed in 2007 up to nearly 1,000 in 2013.

Perhaps most cruelly of all, these species are trapped in a downward spiral of predation. The rarer the animal, the higher the price for its horn or pelt and the greater the intensity of poaching for its animal parts. And so it goes. Severe reductions in animal numbers are increasing the poacher’s profits. No animal can hope to survive such economics, as poachers race to the bottom of the species barrel as quickly as their greed propels them.

However, it is not just the animals that pay dearly. Wildlife and forest crimes exact a terrible price from developing countries and their communities. Fragile ecosystems are destroyed and biodiversity is reduced. These crimes have a considerable development dimension; they are often committed in countries where poorly resourced institutions cannot protect animals or regulate the removal of natural assets. Just as importantly, these crimes often exploit the needs of vulnerable communities, who may become involved due to their perilous economic situation.

Countries unable to manage their own natural wealth sufficiently may face poor governance, rampant corruption and instability. There is also confusion about the proceeds of criminal activity. Such money is never clean and often fails to benefit society. Rather than promote prosperity, criminal proceeds undermine legitimate businesses and weaken essential institutions such as criminal justice systems.

Faced by this growing crisis in our stewardship of the planet’s glorious biodiversity, the international community has adopted a number of conservation agreements. Most influential is the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). Under this convention, nations failing to protect their endangered species may be subject to international pressure and possible trade sanctions.

Civil society is also playing its part. While lobbying governments for decisive actions against environmental crime, organizations such as the World Wildlife Fund also raise public awareness. The actions of consumers remain pivotal as wildlife crime feeds on a lack of information and careless consumption. Governments, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), businesses and individuals can shine a powerful light on this issue, and in doing so, build knowledge where only ignorance existed.

UNODC response has been to examine both the supply and demand components of illegal operations. Our work underscores the need for conservation efforts to be strongly supported by an integrated law enforcement component focusing on disrupting the supply of wildlife crime. This is fully justified for safeguarding the Earth’s biosphere, an essential element of human security.

The backbone of this work is entrusted to the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime and the United Nations Convention against Corruption, which promote better coordination, good practices, information sharing and joint operations among police and Customs officers. Parallel to these actions is UNODC work enhancing criminal justice systems and drafting statutes that define illegal wildlife operations as a serious crime. Too often, there is little to deter poachers. Reconsidering existing legislation and introducing new laws enable UNODC to increase detection of criminal activities and ensure that the penalties for such crimes are prohibitive.

UNODC is also a member of the International Consortium on Combating Wildlife Crime (ICCWC). Working with other ICCWC partners, UNODC has produced an analytical tool that helps countries assess their preventive and judicial responses to wildlife and forest crime. This tool has been used in Bangladesh, Peru, Gabon and Nepal. Many other countries have also expressed an interest in its application.

Forensics is another key area. UNODC is currently developing good practices for DNA-based and other identification techniques for sourcing and ageing ivory. In 2014, UNODC will work with its partners on the necessary guidelines for forensic analysis of CITES Timber Species to determine the species, geographical source of protected timber and wood-based products. However, to truly impede the criminal networks we must target their profits circulating within the world’s banking systems. UNODC intends to bring money laundering experts together in Southern Africa and South-East Asia to share experiences and good practices on this key issue.

On the demand side, UNODC is working closely with nations where animal products are consumed and purchased to raise awareness about wildlife and forest crime.

It is especially important to reach out to young people who will comprise the next generation of potential consumers. UNODC work is also focused upon dispelling the many myths about wildlife commodities and providing scientific facts. Tourism industries can also be engaged in the fight to reduce the demand for wildlife and forest products.

To create an integrated approach to these many complex issues, UNODC has launched a new Global Programme for Combating Wildlife and Forest Crime. The programme will be implemented over the next four years and will raise awareness about the need to dramatically reduce the demand for wild fauna and flora.

There is still much work to do. To start, nations must, first of all, treat illegal wildlife and forest trade as a serious crime supported by severe penalties; address deficiencies in their legislation, as criminals cannot be allowed to escape the sanctions of the law; develop suitable training for law enforcement, prosecution services and the judiciary; ensure greater cooperation and coordination among countries. Criminals slipping across international borders to freedom must become a relic of the past.

Wildlife crime is destroying our fragile ecosystem. Some of our most cherished species are fast disappearing. What is lost today cannot be regained tomorrow. If we are to reverse this headlong flight towards extinction, law enforcement must play an aggressive role alongside conservation efforts. UNODC is doing everything in its power to ensure that this is achieved, and we plan on doing much more in the future. After all, the message is simple: the world’s animals and forests need our help. We have to act now to safeguard their future.