In wildlife trafficking, organized crime still a step ahead

Gibbon rescued from wildlife trade in Cambodia and placed in a rescue center. (© Conservation International/Photo by Emilie Verdon)

Gibbon rescued from wildlife trade in Cambodia and placed in a rescue center. (© Conservation International/photo by Emilie Verdon)

Editor’s note: Wildlife trafficking threatens species, economies and global security — and it is a lucrative enterprise for organized crime networks. While international efforts to curb trafficking are beginning to see progress, cracking down on these increasingly sophisticated gangs will require more political will, community outreach and boots on the ground, says Keith Roberts, Conservation International’s new executive director of wildlife trafficking.

In the following interview, Roberts weighs in on trends in the field, the mixed role of ecotourism and what regular people can do to fight the problem. Read the first half of this interview. 

Question: How are we doing in the fight against wildlife trafficking driven by organized crime?

Answer: The organized crime syndicates recognize how nicely wildlife trafficking complements their other illegal activities like weapons trafficking, counterfeit products and drugs; in fact, there are documented links between the illegal wildlife trade and terrorist groups like the Lord’s Resistance Army and Al-Shabaab. Law enforcement and conservation agencies rarely have the resources to match those that the criminal syndicates bring and are often left playing catch-up.

Fueling this is the lack of political will and leadership to address the situation. The countries that are showing strong political leadership and support for tackling wildlife trafficking, that’s where you start to see a reduction the crime levels. We have to realize this is an international problem and that multi-country, regional collaboration and initiatives mobilized around specific strategies for implementation are required.

Q: What are some common misconceptions about wildlife trafficking?

A: First, that it’s an activity carried out solely by communities living in and around protected areas due to extreme poverty. While poverty is certainly one of the drivers of wildlife trafficking, the majority of the people involved are part of the organized crime syndicate, and it is this criminal element that takes advantage of the poor socioeconomic situations that abound in these communities.

Second, that we should legalize trade of wildlife products to cut off profits. It’s an economic game at the end of the day, and if one removes the economic incentive for the organized criminal syndicates, there should be a downturn in poaching, right? Unfortunately, legal trade is open to abuse and corruption at all levels.

And finally, that throwing vast sums of cash at the problem will magically solve it. What we need are smaller amounts that target strategically selected projects that form part of the larger sub-national, national and regional initiatives — this will yield significantly better results.


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Q: What steps do you favor to combat wildlife trafficking, then?

A: There are three actions that I favor that, together, would make life rather uncomfortable and unprofitable for the syndicate members that too often are beyond the law. One: Get the communities to have a vested interest in the environment, thus empowering them to be the first line of defense. Two: Create disruption amongst the higher trafficking tiers by standing strong on corruption (through strong judicial decisions against the wealthy and connected, national and international support for asset seizure and a strong intelligence framework). Three: Make sure we have well-supported and trained rangers — nothing can beat good solid, motivated and trusted boots on the ground.

Q: In your 20-plus years in this field, what are some trends have you noticed?

A: Thankfully, collaboration amongst governments and conservation NGOs is improving, and there’s a more concerted effort being made to communicate who is doing what, what works and what doesn’t. Going it alone is failing and we’re finally realizing that. For example, the passage of the Global Anti-Poaching Act by the U.S. House of Representatives (which awaits passage in the Senate) and increased appropriations to combat wildlife trafficking indicate the U.S. government’s desire to increase its role in fighting this global issue that is directly connected to American national and economic security.

From the demand side, until recently there’s been a general lack of understanding and awareness in relation to the market drivers and demand for wildlife products. Fortunately, a lot of work is being done in the consumer countries — particularly in Asia — to address this, and from what I’m hearing it’s having a positive impact on demand reduction for certain wildlife species products such as shark fins.

Perhaps most exciting is the shift from programs from reactive to proactive: A large percentage of our efforts in the past have essentially involved “fire-fighting” the problems as they arise — a short-term solution at best. There are efforts now to build capacity amongst the partners that work all along the criminal chain to address the issues at every level, from communities to the highest levels of government.

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Q: One trend that has increased in recent years is ecotourism, including safaris in Africa. How has this impacted wildlife trafficking?

This is tricky: The role of tourism in helping governments value wildlife and protected areas is very site specific. On the one hand, yes, it certainly has helped, and it does make the governments aware of the importance of conservation. In Botswana, for example, the government put huge amounts of effort into ensuring the long-term conservation of their protected areas and the value of nature. Botswana has stopped hunting in these areas, but up until recently, there was both consumptive and non-consumptive utilization — that is, both photographic tourism and hunting tourism. So, if done correctly, this type of ecotourism can bring a huge amount of revenue to the government and to surrounding communities.

However, in other countries…I’m going to take Tanzania as an example here, having worked there for a long time. It has probably one of the greatest potentials in Africa, both from the hunting and from the photographic side. But hunting is marred by corruption and unethical activities — the country has seen a major decrease in biodiversity value in its protected areas because of poor hunting practices and the associated corruption. On the photographic side, that brings in huge amounts of money — think Serengeti National Park, Ngorongoro Crater, Mt. Kilimanjaro National Park — all the iconic parks that sit in Tanzania that are world renowned, generated millions of dollars every year. How much of that money ends up on the ground at the end of the day?

Baboon and patas monkey heads sold at the Fetish Market in Lomé, Togo

Baboon and patas monkey heads for sale at a market in Lomé, Togo. (© Conservation International/photo by Russell A. Mittermeier)

Q: What can the average person do to help the fight against wildlife trafficking? Are there signs of hope? 

A: First and foremost: awareness. Make yourself aware as to what the challenges are and what can be done, and then use that awareness to help governments and NGOs to implement cost-effective, targeted, proven strategies.

There’s no quick fix for wildlife trafficking. It’s a global problem. But yes, I remain optimistic that there is hope. I think with a multi-pronged strategy involving strong partnerships and political will, we can first slow, and then stop wildlife trafficking.

Keith Roberts is Conservation International’s first executive director of wildlife trafficking. For more than 22 years, he has worked across Africa and Thailand leading and training anti-poaching units; acting as a technical advisor to several national committees on wildlife law enforcement policies and strategies; and providing strategic guidance and information to governments and organized crime agencies on how to address wildlife trafficking.

Sophie Bertazzo is a staff writer for Conservation International.

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