In a study published in the peer-reviewed journal "Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences ", the researchers calls the massive loss of wildlife a “biological annihilation” that represents a “frightening assault on the foundations of human civilization". A “biological annihilation” of wildlife in recent decades means a “sixth mass extinction” in Earth’s history is under way and is more severe than previously feared. According to the research up to 50% of all individual animals have been lost in recent decades only. The scientists have found that billions of populations of mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians have been lost all over the planet. As per a report released by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), around 1 million animal and plant species are now threatened with extinction, many within decades, more than ever before in human history. After habitat loss, illegal wildlife trade is the second biggest cause for this impending sixth mass extinction.
As per World Bank’s report titled “Illegal Logging, Fishing and Wildlife Trade: The Cost and How to Combat IT” released in October, 2019, the illegal wildlife trade including illegal logging and illegal fishing is worth USD 73-216 billion annually. This is the fourth largest transnational organized crime after drugs, counterfeit products and arms trafficking. Illegal Wildlife Trade involves a range of criminal activities like trafficking, forgery of documents, bribing of concerned officials and use of shell companies to launder the proceeds of Illegal Wildlife Trade (IWT).
Sheer volume of this global menace highlights the need of capacity building of Wildlife Enforcement Agencies. Wildlife Enforcement consists of three main components: Wildlife Field Enforcement Officers, Prosecution and Judiciary. Capacity building of all these three components is imperative to tackle this global menace. Since IWT is a transnational organized crime, co-operation among enforcement agencies of source, transit and destination countries is prerequisite to dismantle the entire supply chain. IWT is considered to be “low risk & high profit business” simply because the gaps in the Wildlife Enforcement Machinery. By capacity building of enforcement agencies this can be made “high risk & low profit business”. Due to lack of transnational enforcement cooperation, in most of the cases only mules/carriers/ground level poachers are caught by the enforcement agencies and the financiers/wildlife mafias remain uncaught and keep doing IWT through other mules/carriers/ground level poachers.
Besides, IWT is hardly seen as a financial crime and financial investigation is another aspect where capacity building of Wildlife Enforcement Agencies is need of the hour. As per FATF (Financial Action Task Force) report titled “Money Laundering and the Illegal Wildlife Trade” released in June, 2020, “the illegal wildlife trade (IWT) is a major transnational organised crime, which generates billions of criminal proceeds each year. IWT fuels corruption, threatens biodiversity, and can have a significant negative impact on public health and the economy. To move, hide and launder their proceeds, wildlife traffickers exploit weaknesses in the financial and non-financial sectors, enabling further wildlife crimes and damaging financial integrity.”
Online illegal wildlife trade (cyber wildlife crime) is another challenge being faced by law enforcement agencies. Express parcel services, expanding air transport and increasing internet penetration has provided a global market for wildlife traffickers on a click of mouse. Darknet and cryptocurrency (with anonymity and end to end encryption) as a mode of payment has further exacerbated the difficulty of enforcement agencies in tackling this menace. Unlike crimes against humans, in cases of wildlife crime there is hardly any eye witness. Even the trafficked live animals (such as exotic pets) can’t give evidence on their own against their traffickers. Here the role of forensics : digital and wildlife forensics becomes all the more important.
In view of the above facts following steps are desirable for capacity building of the enforcement agencies to effectively tackle the menace of transnational wildlife crime:
- Firstly, wildlife crime should be seen as a serious crime and should be dealt with in the same manner as the crimes against the humans are dealt with. For this, enforcement officials including officials of judiciary need to be properly sensitized about the significance of Wildlife Law Enforcement, negative impact of wildlife poaching/ illegal wildlife trade on the environment, biodiversity, economy and humanity at large. The ongoing COVID-19 Pandemic is the glaring example of the economic and human cost the world is paying because of wildlife trade as it is believed that COVID-19 is a zoonotic disease which came from horseshoe bats to humans through an intermediary (probably pangolin) from a wet market in China. 1.5 million (and counting) people have lost their lives globally due to COVID-19. Before COVID-19, the global economy stood at $88 trillion. In June, the International Monetary Fund's (IMF) World Economic Outlook projected global growth at -4.9% in 2020 which comes around $4.5 trillion loss to global GDP.
- All the enforcement officials should be properly trained about their local wildlife protection laws including customs laws & CITES which regulates the international trade of endangered species of fauna and flora. Besides, all the border guarding agencies officials, customs officials, forest and police officials should be properly trained in identification of wild animals, their parts, articles and derivatives. Enforcement officials posted at International Airports dealing with pax and international cargo/parcels should be trained as to how various smuggled wildlife, their parts, articles and derivatives look like when passed through X-Ray Scanners. Similarly, enforcement officials posted at sea ports or inland container depots should be trained to identify wildlife contraband concealed in containers when passed through container scanners. K-9 Squads (Sniffer dogs) trained in detection of wildlife contraband may effectively supplement the work of wildlife enforcement agencies.
- Intelligence and scientific & professional investigation is another area where capacity building of law enforcement agencies is required. Intelligence can be both human intelligence and technical intelligence. Wildlife law enforcement should strive to build a good network of informants from the people living in fringe areas of wildlife protected areas, wildlife volunteers, NGOs working in the field of wildlife conservation, various stakeholders working at exit points like customs brokers, airline staff, freight forwarders, security forces etc. Similarly, if the country law permits, technical surveillance tool must be utilized to dismantle the organized syndicates. In many Asian and African countries, investigation of wildlife crimes are not up to mark. Wildlife crime scene investigation, drawing of samples from the scene of crime, chain of custody of samples, forensics of samples, preservation of samples, scientific interrogation of the accused , establishing linkages in the supply chain, presenting of case in the court of law with evidences beyond reasonable doubt to ensure the conviction of the accused are some of the areas where enforcement agencies need further capacity building. Capacity building in the field of digital forensics is another area which provides digital evidences (from the digital footprints left by the accused on computers, mobiles, social media, internet etc.) to further strengthen the case against the wildlife traffickers. In case of transnational wildlife crime transnational enforcement cooperation is must. In this regard, countries should cooperate with each other under the aegis of “United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime."
- To tackle the menace of “Online Illegal Wildlife Trafficking”, “Coalition to End Wildlife Trafficking Online” came into existence in 2018. This Coalition brings together the Tech/Internet giants from across the world to reduce the wildlife trafficking online. It’s goal is to reduce the illegal wildlife trade online by 80% by 2020. Ever since its establishment, partner I.T. Companies have actively assisted wildlife in eliminating illegal trade online. Here comes the significance of capacity building of enforcement agencies in OSINT (Open Source Intelligence) and Digital Investigation. The wildlife enforcement agencies should be duly trained to do cyber patrolling to detect the Online Illegal Wildlife Trafficking, identify the traffickers with the help from internet/website/social media intermediaries, gather the digital evidence of crime and intercept the traffickers. Darknet (which operates with multiple servers located in different jurisdictions) and cryptocurrency as a mode of payment makes it extremely difficult for enforcement agencies to identify the buyers and sellers of wildlife contraband on darknet platform as they use TOR (the Onion Routers) like software which provides anonymity and end to end encryption. Further, on these online platforms, sellers, buyers and suppliers may operate from different jurisdictions which necessitates the transnational enforcement cooperation as was done in the case of shutting down of Darknet marketplaces like Alphabay, SilkRoad, Hansa, Dream Market etc.
- Global/multilateral organizations/networks like UNODC, Interpol, WCO, Europol, SAWEN (South Asia Wildlife Enforcement Network) , ASEAN-WEN (ASEAN-Wildlife Enforcement Network) etc. can play a very crucial role in combatting transnational wildlife trafficking by sharing information/intelligence with concerned countries. National wildlife enforcement agencies should work in coordination with such global organizations. World Customs Organization (WCO) and Interpol co-ordinated international anti-wildlife trafficking operations like Operation Thunder 2020 (14 September - 11 October 2020) is an example of transnational cooperation in this filed which resulted in more than 2,000 seizures of wildlife and forestry products. In total, 699 offenders were apprehended and at least one INTERPOL Red Notice has already been requested based on information gained during the operation. Further arrests and prosecutions are anticipated as ongoing global investigations progress. 103 countries participated in this operation (as per Interpol Website). The International Consortium on Combating Wildlife Crime (ICCWC) which consists of five organizations namely the Secretariat of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), the International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL), the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the World Bank and the World Customs Organization is a global collaboration to fight wildlife and forest crimes . ICCWC’s mission is to strengthen criminal justice systems and provide coordinated support to wildlife enforcement agencies at national, regional and international level to combat wildlife and forest crime.
- Taking transport sector on board to fight the menace of Illegal Wildlife Trade is another important capacity building exercise for enforcement agencies. Buckingham Palace Declaration published in March, 2016 is a major breakthrough. This declaration was signed by all major Shipping lines, Courier Companies and Airlines. This declaration aims at securing information sharing systems for the transport industry to receive credible information about high risk routes and methods of transportation, developing a secure system for passing information about suspected illegal wildlife trade from the transport sector to relevant customs and law enforcement authorities and notifying relevant law enforcement authorities of cargoes suspected of containing illegal wildlife and their products and refuse to accept or ship such cargoes.
- Similarly taking financial sector on board is imperative for enforcement agencies to fight this menace and to unearth and confiscate the proceeds of crime generated from illegal wildlife trade. Collaboration among financial sector and Financial Intelligence Unit (FIU) can prioritise the financial flow combatting the financial flows associated with Illegal Wildlife Trade. As per FATF Report on Money Laundering and Illegal Wildlife Trade , Enforcement agencies and financial sector should view the proceeds generated by IWT as a global threat, rather than as a problem only for those jurisdictions where wildlife is illegally harvested, transited, or sold. Wildlife traffickers frequently misuse the legitimate wildlife trade as well as other import-export type businesses as a front to move and hide illegal proceeds from wildlife crimes. Further, as per the said report following the money allows countries to identify the wider network of syndicate leaders and financiers involved and to reduce the profitability of this crime (and thus reduce the supply of poached or trafficked wildlife) over the longer term. The said report further highlights that criminals are relying on “established” methods to launder proceeds from IWT, including the placement and layering of funds through the formal financial sector. This shows the important role that financial institutions can play in detecting suspicious activity. In particular, countries reported that criminals involved in IWT are placing and layering funds through cash deposits (under the guise of loans or payments), e-banking platforms (e.g., electronic payment services that are tied to a credit card or bank account), licensed money value transfer systems (MVTS), and third-party wire transfers through banks. In order to conceal the sender and the receiver of the funds, and to avoid the country-specific threshold reporting by financial institutions, syndicates are relying on money mule accounts and low-value payments. The financial sectors can provide valuable inputs to law enforcement agencies in the form of Suspicious Transaction Reports (STR) Cash Transaction Reports (CTR) and Cross Border Wire Transfer (CBWT) etc. Further, wildlife crime should be made a predicate offence under Anti-Money Laundering Legislations so that financial assets earned through IWT may be confiscated. United for Wildlife’s Financial Taskforce is another private-public partnership for combatting the menace of IWT. This taskforce was established in 2018 via a Declaration signed at Mansion House in London. The Declaration commits signatories to use financial intelligence and resources to support law enforcement efforts to pursue the illegal wildlife trade’s greatest beneficiaries. There are now 42 signatories to the Declaration including Standard Bank, Barclays, Banco Santander Group, the City of London, Deutsche Bank, HSBC Bank, and JP Morgan Chase. The United for Wildlife Taskforce Information Sharing System underpins much of the action by the taskforce.
- Convergence of crime is another area where various enforcement agencies with different mandates should work in synergy and cooperate with each other particularly in information sharing and launching joint operations as many a time same syndicates are found operating in illegal wildlife trade, drugs trafficking , human trafficking and other illicit economic activities.
- “Strategy for Demand Reduction” should be an integral part of any enforcement policy as illegal wildlife trade is mostly demand driven. Enforcement agencies should also aim at “Behavioural Change” on the part of consumers through various public awareness/outreach programmes with pictorial, audio-visual material highlighting the negative impacts of illegal wildlife trade on our environment, biodiversity, health and economy. This awareness programme should also aim at busting several myths pertaining to “black magic”, “bringing in goodluck/fortunes” and “medicinal properties” associated with wildlife which is an accelerating factor for wildlife crimes. Traditional medicines with ingredients of wildlife parts and derivatives are a big industry in certain part of the world. Many iconic species like rhinos, tigers, jaguars, lions, leopards and less iconic species like monitor lizards, spiny tail lizards, pangolins etc. are poached in alarming numbers with false perception of their parts having medicinal values. There were reports in media that bear bile was being prescribed as a cure to COVID-19 in certain parts of the world without any scientific basis. Similarly, many wildlife species are killed to be consumed as delicacy in certain parts of the world. For example, huge demand of Shark fin soups in certain part of the world is resulting in killing of tens of thousands of sharks every year.
- Captive breeding facilities/private zoos/private game park/pre-CITES or pre-ban wildlife stocks (for example, ivory stocks/rhino horns/tiger bones/pangolin scales etc.) should be kept under close watch by wildlife enforcement agencies. These facilities/stocks are often used as a cover to launder the wild animals/their parts by the traffickers.
- Harnessing the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) to make common people work as “Citizen Investigators” to assist enforcement agencies is another tool of capacity building. For example, Association of Southeast Asian Nations Wildlife Enforcement Network, USAID and Freeland launched 'WildScan" designed to combat wildlife trafficking. The application is designed to help front-line enforcement agencies, wildlife conservation officers, and the general public correctly identify, report and handle marine, freshwater and terrestrial animals caught in illegal wildlife trade. WildScan places critical information on endangered species at the fingertips of those who need it most and provides a tool to report wildlife crime. WildScan contains a comprehensive species library with more than 250 endangered animals commonly smuggled into and throughout Southeast Asia, a global hotspot for wildlife trafficking.
To conclude, IWT is a transnational organized crime. Illegal wildlife may be sourced in one country, transited through some other country and consumed in some third country. Therefore, transnational wildlife enforcement cooperation is must to dismantle the entire supply chain. Capacity building programs for transnational wildlife enforcement officials conducted by global enforcement agencies like Interpol, WCO, UNODC etc. are need of the hour to make them work in unison instead of work in silos.