In October and for the fourth time since 2014, many members of the global community working to combat the illegal wildlife trade met to talk, learn about and help resolve the problem. This time the meeting was in London.
It was focused on reducing risks from illegal trade in plants, animals and humans. Global and social media tracked updates and commitments as scientists, thought leaders, rangers, donors, governments, parastatals, non-government organisations, private entities, journalists, students and other concern citizens gathered to discuss the challenges associated with and opportunities to combat the illegal trade in wild flora and fauna around the world. Check out #endwildlifetrafficking, #conservationcriminology, or @IWT18 to see what I’m talking about.
I am a conservation social scientist who has worked on studying human-environment relationships in an international context for almost 15 years. My work is participatory and focused on humans; although I do not have a geographic area in which I specialise, I have had the good fortune to collaborate with many stakeholders across Africa in particular.
My view of the London conference and the side meetings I was able to attend is that key voices were heard and new commitments were made. It was not a perfect event in terms of representative panel composition, species and geographic diversity, or the messages and optics from some voices. Yet in many ways the meeting profiled the state of play and affirmed my tendency to have cautious optimism.
The problem of illegal trade in wild flora and fauna is not new. Trade in wildlife has been going on since the time of Marco Polo, and illegal trade has gone alongside the legal. What is new is the scope and scale of illegal trade in the last decade.
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime estimated illegal wildlife trade generates upwards of $23-billion for the illicit global economy on an annual basis; the illicit market continues to grow at a faster rate than the legal global economy. Legal trade in wildlife has also grown, from an estimated $60-billion annually in the 1990s to over $300-billion in 2009. That is a more than 400% increase.
Illegal wildlife trade unequivocally poses risks to the environment and people and these risks are globally distributed. Between 1999 and 2015 nearly 7,000 species accounted for 164 seizures affecting 120 countries. The crime undercuts sustainable development investments and the benefits humans derive from their environment such as sustainable use, culture and religious expression and intrinsic value.
Beyond threatening species with extinction, illegal wildlife trade undermines the rule of law, threatens national security, fuels corruption and other forms of criminality, is associated with violence and social conflict, degrades the resilience of legal trade and spreads zoonotic disease.
Resolving risks from illegal wildlife trade is a high policy priority. For example the African Union has a strategy with seven strategic pillars: Political commitment, regional and international co-operation, enforcement and compliance, training and capacity development, awareness and advocacy, knowledge, information and technology, and governance.
This strategy, with other strategies such as the Southern African Development Community Anti-poaching and Law Enforcement Strategy, the US Strategy to Combat Wildlife Trafficking and the European Union Strategy for Africa recognise there are distinct source, transit and destination geographies that can be considered.
At the source level there are innovations in anti-poaching strategies, such as new horseback patrols, use of drone technology, dogs and community policing. Local guardians and crime prevention techniques are also being used to prevent crime and not target criminals. At the transit level, there is growing capacity for monitoring and detection from training for transport sector employees, use of big data and machine learning, scanning technology and regulatory changes. These changes have been particularly dramatic in the air and sea transport sectors. In destination locations there are renewed demand-reduction campaigns, deployment of social marketing efforts and regulatory changes to commercial wildlife product markets such as ivory.
Across all these source, transit and destination geographies there are partnerships among policy makers, scientists like myself, private corporations, donors, prosecutors and law enforcement officials. There is innovation in technology such as satellite imagery and wildlife DNA forensics. I see efforts to standardise data across boundaries — geographic, institutional, and disciplinary — and harmonise policies and practices of law enforcement.
I’m impressed with how community-based natural resource management models are being rethought and advanced to best reflect community needs and prevent crime.
As a scientist with expertise on the science of conservation crime I recognise there is an opportunity to further enhance the knowledge base on crime prevention and crime response. My approach has been to use conservation criminology to generate new insights and move evidence to action.
An interdisciplinary approach, conservation criminology considers human behaviour, conservation and ecology and also criminology. It offers one way of thinking about and responding to conservation crimes such as wildlife trafficking. There is much to be gained in practice from evidence generated by interdisciplinary sciences such as conservation criminology. It has been an honour to collaborate with, for example, computer scientists, supply chain management experts and conservation biologists. New science for action!
I am sometimes asked for success stories, best practices, or answers to resolving risks associated with illegal wildlife trade. I never have a satisfying answer. What I do know is that this is a complicated issue and amazingly smart people are working on it; if the answer was simple we would have had it by now.
What I know is from my own lens of experiences and expertise. My bona fides helped avail me of the opportunity to visit South Africa in October as part of the US Department of State’s Speakers Programme. I was able to talk with rangers on the front lines of protected areas who are at great risk from rhino poaching — statistically, some 1.5 animals continue to be killed every day.
I learnt from community members in KwaZulu-Natal, rangers at the Southern African Wildlife College, hunters from the Professional Hunters Association of South Africa and discussed techniques of situational crime prevention with Project Rhino partners.
Poaching is incredibly dangerous for animals, rangers, poachers, conservationists and communities. Empowered communities do exist and we can draw on their knowledge. Empowered rangers exist and we can draw on their efforts to prevent crime from occurring in the first place through deterrence and crime prevention. It is these small individual efforts and stories that can accumulate into a groundswell. I draw positivity from people.
I see connections, partnerships, sharing, community, friends giving friends support in this space that at times can be really hard emotionally and physically.
I have met and collaborated with rangers, donors, researchers, community members, religious leaders, conservationists, teachers, politicians, thought leaders, artists, engineers. I know so many amazing people working very hard on this problem set. Many people say the problem of illegal wildlife trade is impossible to resolve; I say it always seems impossible until it is done. DM