To end wildlife crime global responses must move with the times

Mar 18, 2020 | Commentary

By John E. Scanlon AO – Special Envoy at African Parks Network

One million species are facing extinction within decades unless we change course according to the IPBES Global Assessment on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. Can we save one species at a time or do we need to pursue more all-embracing solutions that reflect contemporary challenges?

The current mantra is a call for transformational change, which is clearly required. Doing things differently requires us to take a fresh look at historic approaches to conservation and question their ongoing efficacy in a changing world. Making bold but necessary changes will prove difficult and encounter resistance.

IPBES describes five major threats to nature, amongst them over exploitation, which is seriously impacting wildlife, including fish and timber species. This overexploitation includes the illegal, unregulated, and poorly regulated legal use of wildlife. The possible links between consuming wild animals, including the pangolin, the world’s most heavily trafficked mammal, and the spread of the corona virus has given added momentum, and a new sense of urgency, to discussions on how to end wildlife crime.

A wet (live animal) market in Wuhan, China may be the origin of the outbreak of the corona virus. Bans on wet markets, as we have recently seen in China and Vietnam, will need to be applied and enforced across all countries to stave off future outbreaks. Global cooperation, and the full and effective use of law enforcement, is essential to ensure these markets don’t just go underground.

At the UK House of Lords on 3 March, UN World Wildlife Day, ADM Capital Foundation and the Born Free Foundation hosted an event with Lord Randall on how we need to embed the fight against serious wildlife crime into the international criminal law framework, through a new agreement under the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organised Crime (UNCTOC)[i]. In doing so, it was noted that saving wildlife also requires scaling up efforts to protect wildlife at its source, by working with local communities to protect biodiverse rich places.

This article addresses the inter-linkages between fighting serious wildlife crime and supporting local communities; and seeks to elaborate on the multiple benefits of place-based community engagement to end wildlife crime.  

Community-led or enforcement-led: it’s both

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Some seek to cast the response to wildlife crime as either being community-led or enforcement-led, yet it is both, with the emphasis depending upon the place and the circumstances. The 2015 Small Arms Survey recognized that community-based initiatives to combat poaching depend on the achievement of basic levels of security. This is something I have observed for myself, both with African Parks and CITES, in visiting local communities in protected areas, community and private conservancies in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Kenya, Malawi, Rwanda and South Africa, where the first priority was security for wildlife and for people.

The past 50 years of saving biodiversity: a very brief snapshot

Global efforts to address environmental degradation, including the loss of nature, can be traced back to the 1972 Stockholm UN Conference on the Human Environment[ii], which was followed by a wave of environmental conventions in the 1970s, the 1984 UN Charter for Nature, a second wave of environmental conventions in the 1990s, and multiple summits, the most recent being the 2012 UN Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro, which led to a process that delivered the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 2015.

Biodiversity is about animals, plants, micro-organisms and their ecosystems, which can be a little overwhelming. In the 1970s we tended to break it down into bite size pieces, such as trade in species, World Heritage sites, and migratory species[iii], which had its advantages. IPBES tells us that this approach has had limited impact in halting the loss of biodiversity. By way of example, we have lost 85% of wetlands by area, yet we have had a Convention on International Wetlands of Importance (Ramsar) since 1973.

In the 1990s we took a more overarching approach, with the objectives of the 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) being the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity, namely covering all species and places, and the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising out of the utilization of genetic resources. It too has had limited success. The Biodiversity Target adopted by the CBD for 2010 was not met, and the Biodiversity Targets for 2020 will not be met. Since shortly before the CBD was adopted, we have lost over 60% of wild animals (vertebrates)[iv].

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The importance of involving local and indigenous communities in conservation and ensuring they benefit from the utilization of biodiversity, be it wild animals and plants, genetic resources or use of their traditional knowledge associated with genetic resources, is an integral part of the CBD, its Nagoya Protocol, and is reflected in the IPBES Global Assessment. Here we see a divergence in approaches between the 1973 CITES Convention and the 2010 Nagoya Protocol on prior and informed consent and equitable sharing of benefits[v]

A species or ecosystem-based approach

There is a tension between taking a species based or ecosystem-based approach to conservation. The answer probably lies somewhere in between. We clearly will not succeed if we try and save one species at a time. We must focus on ecosystems and the rich array of species they contain and services they provide. At the same time, given their perilous conservation status, some species need special measures to ensure their survival, and efforts to save flagship species can attract good political and public support and lead to the protection of habitat for many other species.

The UN’s post-2020 path to save biodiversity

We are now mid-way through a process of agreeing on a post 2020 biodiversity framework, with new goals and targets. The process this time around benefits from the UN SDGs and Paris Agreement (on climate change), which embrace biodiversity conservation. It is not easy, but the process is off to a positive start, with the Zero draft including good recognition of the need to link to climate change and nature-based solutions, protecting 30% of the planet by 2030, and linking biodiversity conservation to delivering on the UN SDGs. Ecosystems and species are both recognised. Achieving the final set of post-2020 biodiversity targets by 2030 will depend on whether the level of ambition is matched by the resourcing, and the extent to which they are embraced at the highest level of Government and by industry sectors.

Emergency room approach: waiting until a species is near extinct before offering protection

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CITES, which regulates international wildlife trade, applies to species listed in its Appendices, which currently contain 36,000 of the world’s eight million species. International trade in these species requires the necessary certificates or permits, which Customs and other officials will look for when a trade takes place. The Convention text requires the trade to be legal[vi] and sustainable, meaning that the trade does not threaten the survival of the species in the wild. It is the legal aspects of trade that this article is focused upon.

A lot of effort goes into CITES trying to distinguish between listed and non-listed species. In most countries, if a specimen of an animal or plant is not listed the trade will be allowed to pass unchecked. In some circumstances Customs find it is all too complicated and the trade will pass in any event. A milestone from the CITES CoP15 in 2013 was the listing of some commercially harvested sharks, which set the scene for additional listings in 2016 and 2019. Yet only 10 of the 400 species of sharks are listed and huge effort has gone into being able to distinguish the fin or meat of one shark from another. There have been similar issues with timber species, as well as many others.

If a wild animal or plant is taken illegally from a country, including its waters, why is it only of concern if it is one of the 36,000 species listed under CITES? Is it acceptable to the international community for organised criminals to steal wildlife from a country and import it to another provided it is not listed under CITES? Surely not, but that’s often the effect of the current system.

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A 2019 World Bank Report[vii], concludes that illegal trade in all wildlife deprives governments of between USD7-12 billion dollars a year. It also causes between USD1-2 trillion of damage to ecosystems according to the same report.

With the threat of one million species going extinct, and the implications of illegal trade for climate change, public health, government revenue and local and national economies, can this emergency ward approach to global conservation adopted in 1973 still be supported in 2020?

The world has changed dramatically since the 1970s, as has the globalised nature of wildlife crime, and the findings of the IPBES Assessment and World Bank Report demand a fundamental shift in approach. We can no longer only be concerned with legal trade in a limited number of ‘endangered’ species. Times have changed dramatically, and we must move with them.

CITES well-tested, science-based trade controls can still apply to ‘endangered’ species to ensure the sustainability of any lawful trade in them, which takes it back to its core mandate. A narrower focus on the sustainability of species in trade is sound, although the traditional narrative around such trade needs to evolve, especially as it relates to wild animals.[viii] The legal instrument for dealing with illegal trade, and wildlife crime more generally, should not, however, be led by CITES, a trade-related convention, and it now needs to be embedded in the international criminal law framework.

This shift can come though importing countries creating a legal obligation, supported by criminal sanctions, for an importer of wildlife to prove that any wildlife, animal or plant, terrestrial or marine, that it seeks to import was legally obtained under the source countries national laws. This is not unlike the approach taken in some countries, such as in the US under the Lacey Act, and what some countries have in place for certain timber imports. This idea was put forward at the recent End Wildlife Crime event at the House of Lords, which promoted a new agreement on wildlife crime, one that addresses the importation, distribution and consumption of illegally sourced wildlife.[ix]

Place-based conservation: accountability, results, achieving multiple objectives

It is local communities living with and among wildlife who should be the beneficiaries of the consumptive and non-consumptive use of wildlife, not organised criminals. But opportunities for local communities are diminished or destroyed by transnational organised criminals shifting thousands of tonnes of contraband, worth billions of dollars, and leaving death, destruction and instability in its wake. Making illegal trade riskier and less profitable by criminalising the import of illegally sourced wildlife will serve to help take some pressure off source countries, their enforcement officers, rangers and local communities.

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When they have a stake in it, local communities will be the best protectors of wildlife at its source, before it ever enters illegal trade, which is evidenced by what we have seen through the work of African Parks across 11 countries from Angola to Zambia, as well in Gorongosa, Mozambique and the Norther Rangelands Trust in Kenya. These conservation and sustainable development ‘start ups’ are carving out a fresh and new approach to conservation that is sorely needed. 

Yet for such efforts to succeed, they need long-term sustained financing. The era of fly-in fly-out conservation should come to an end, as should the thin scattering of small unconnected projects, each of which may be valuable but are not having a long-term impact at scale.

We need a simple organising principle that enables us to achieve multiple objectives, measurable results and ensure accountability for performance. We can do this by focusing our collective efforts around a long-term commitment to biodiverse-rich places that are included in protected areas or are protected through other effective area-based conservation measures. This is where:

– multiple projects, large and small, of any duration, can be part of a larger overall planned and long-term effort;

– national and international efforts targeting biodiversity, climate, and sustainable development can converge and deliver multiple benefits; and

– implementation of global conventions on biodiversity, climate change, trade in endangered species, international wetlands and World heritage, can synergise on-the-ground, along with other related sustainable development goals and obligations under human rights conventions.

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I observed how this convergence and these synergies do deliver multiple benefits for people and wildlife when visiting the Garamba National Park in DRC on Garamba Ranger Day in 2019.

Well-managed protected areas provide security for people and wildlife and create a sense of stability and law and order. This establishes the pre-conditions, or enabling environment, that can attract tourism, secure carbon, combat poaching, protect biodiversity, deliver on international commitments, create decent local jobs and provide good returns for investors, be they government, for-profit or philanthropic investors.

It is positive to see that such an approach is the focus of Germany’s proposed Legacy Landscapes Fund and the UK’s Biodiversity Landscape Fund, reflecting a recognition of the need to do things differently and at scale, as well as the success of newcomers like African Parks, Gorongosa, and the Northern Rangelands Trust, and the creative thinking of several well-established organisations. 

Keeping up with the times

Global responses to biodiversity loss must move with the times and we are seeing some positive initiatives being picked up by countries north and south. If we can blend taking a hard line against transnational organised criminals, who are stripping countries bare of their precious wildlife with serious local and global consequences, while also opening up new opportunities for local communities in and around biodiverse-rich areas, then we will not only end wildlife crime but see biodiversity, ecosystems and local communities thrive.

[i] Such an agreement would oblige countries to address serious wildlife crimes at international and domestic levels, enhance cooperative law enforcement efforts, and criminalise the importation, distribution and consumption of illegally-sourced wildlife to help countries of origin protect their wildlife from being illegally exploited by organised criminals.

[ii] And many large conservation organisations have been operating in this space for some time, including IUCN, founded in 1948, and which was instrumental in the development of conventions in the 1970s, 1990s and the UN Charter for Nature.

[iii] The approach of the conventions of the 1970’s is to focus on specific species and sites, with the 1979 Convention on Migratory Species being unique in that it seeks to protect specific species and to link their protection to their habitat.

[iv] WWF 2018 Living Planet Report

[v] The Nagoya Protocol of 2010, an agreement adopted under the CBD, aims at sharing the benefits arising from the utilization of genetic resources in a fair and equitable way. It sets up a regime to respect national laws on prior informed consent on gaining access to genetic resources. The obligations under the Protocol are not limited to genetic resources of a limited number of species, but to all species. The possible reach of the Protocol to cover ‘Digital Sequence Information’ (DSI) is a hot topic of discussion now.

[vi] But does not require prior and informed consent of local or indigenous communities or the equitable sharing of the benefits arising out of their utilization as the Nagoya Protocol on Access and Benefit-sharing does for genetic resources.

[vii] Illegal Logging, Fishing and Wildlife Trade: The Costs and How to Combat It. World Bank, 2019.

[viii] While noting that the traditional narrative of the Convention on the benefits of wildlife trade may not always well align with with several more contemporary issues, such as alien invasive species, animal welfare, and the spread of diseases to animals and humans, along with the fact that over 50% of wildlife trade now comes from captive bred or artificially propagated sources. That is another topic for another article. 

[ix] Such an agreement would oblige countries to address serious wildlife crimes at international and domestic levels, enhance cooperative law enforcement efforts, and criminalise the importation, distribution and consumption of illegally-sourced wildlife to help countries of origin protect their wildlife from being illegally exploited by organised criminals.