We Must Ratchet Up the Fight Against Illicit Wildlife Trafficking

Nov 26, 2020 | Commentary

By Robert Zoellick and John Scanlon

Ten years ago we founded the International Consortium on Combating Wildlife Crime. What has been achieved and still needs to be done? We have made progress, but to end these highly destructive crimes and prevent future pandemics, it is imperative that we now rachet up the fight and transform our international laws.

Why We Created ICCWC

Launched at the Global Tiger Summit in Saint Petersburg, Russia on 23 November 2010, the International Consortium on Combating Wildlife Crime (ICCWC) was a collective response to a disturbing surge in the illicit trafficking of wildlife driven by transnational criminal groups.[1] It was also a recognition of the inadequacy of the global response to these highly destructive crimes.

United under the banner of ICCWC, the executive heads of the CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) Secretariat, INTERPOL, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), The World Bank and the World Customs Organisation (WCO) agreed to usher in a new era in wildlife law enforcement, one where wildlife criminals would face a determined and coordinated opposition, rather than the prevailing low level of risk and penalty for their crimes.[2]

What Has Changed Since 2010

As two of the original signatories to the Consortium, we can say that ICCWC has done a good job, starting as it did with no resources or dedicated staff. It has raised the profile of these highly destructive crimes across all its partner organizations and within the UN more broadly. It has provided invaluable assistance to countries through direct advisory support, guidelines and toolkits, and by supporting coordinated cross-regional enforcement operations. With UNODC, it launched the first-ever UN World Wildlife Crime Report in 2016, and it has attracted more resourcing for the issue.

By 2020, we see that tigers are rebounding, and the disturbing levels of poaching of elephants and rhinos and the smuggling of their ivory and horns seen in the first half of the last decade are steadily declining. This is positive and ICCWC has contributed to these successes.

However, we are also witnessing record levels of poaching of pangolins for their meat and scales. The trafficking of many other species also continues to surge, including fish and timber species.

Over the past decade, our knowledge of the scale, nature, and consequences of wildlife crimes has continued to improve. In 2019, The World Bank assessed the value of these crimes. It arrived at a figure of USD1-2 trillion a year when factoring in the species’ ability to sequester carbon, other impacts on ecosystems, loss of government revenues, and the value of the contraband itself.  

Today we are also feeling the full brunt of a global pandemic, which most likely had its origins in wildlife. We have clear scientific advice on the risks of even more destructive viruses spilling over from wild animals to people. This spillover can occur in legal, illegal, or unregulated trade, markets and consumption, and through humans’ intrusion into wild places. The recent ‘Pandemics Report’ from IPBES (Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services) vividly describes the links between wildlife trade, disease emergence, and biosecurity.

As a result of these linkages, more restrictions are being placed on wildlife trade, markets, and consumption that could pose a risk to public health. To ensure high-risk wildlife trade and consumption does not simply move underground, we will need to scale up our enforcement efforts.

In addition to posing a risk to public and animal health, wildlife crimes deprive governments of revenue, degrade ecosystems and their ability to sequester carbon, and exacerbate corruption, insecurity, and poverty.

Yet remarkably there is still no global agreement on tackling wildlife crime, as there is for example on human trafficking. Left as it is, our system is not going to prevent the next pandemic or end these serious crimes.

CITES has been heavily relied upon to date, but as a trade-related convention it was not designed to deal with wildlife crime. It covers just 36,000 of the world’s eight million species and considers trade from a conservation perspective alone. In the absence of any other instrument, and when confronted with a surge in trafficking in CITES-listed species, we made the best possible use of it. But CITES’ mandate has now been stretched to the limit.

What is Needed in a Post COVID-19 World?

We clearly need to do more if we are to win this fight, by scaling  up our enforcement, financing, and laws. We recommend that:

  • ICCWC should continue to strengthen its collaborative enforcement work. It should draw upon the IPBES Pandemics Report and enhance efforts to combat illicit trafficking in species that pose a high risk of disease emergence, as well as on disease hot spots.
  • Development banks must further invest in tackling these highly destructive crimes. They can build capacity, create supportive networks, and help chase down illicit financial flows. It is now an imperative, given how the tourism economy, natural wealth, and biosecurity, are all intertwined.
  • States should seize the moment by acting collectively to transform our international laws. They should embed preventing and combating wildlife crimes into the international criminal law framework, thereby giving us our best shot at reigning in these heinous crimes and preventing future pandemics.

States can do this by developing a fourth Protocol on wildlife crime under the UN Convention Against Transnational Organised Crime (UNTOC). A Protocol could commit countries to cooperate in both preventing and combating illicit trafficking in wildlife. States would commit to criminalise breaches of international, domestic, or foreign laws, thereby entrenching a commitment to mutually respect each other’s laws, including the laws of source countries on the protection and use of their wildlife, their valuable timber and fish species included.

The Fight is Far from Over

ICCWC can rightly claim successes and it has achieved much of what we had hoped for when we signed up a decade ago. We are in a better position today than in 2010 to combat wildlife crimes because of its collective efforts. However, the fight is far from over. In many senses it has just begun.

We cannot in 2020 stand by and watch wildlife crimes continue to escalate without also scaling up our international response. Now is the time to further rachet up the global effort. We urge businesses and banks, including those involved with trade finance, to champion the issue.

A Protocol on wildlife crime, such as is proposed, would be the first time a crime that has a significant effect on the environment is specifically embedded into international criminal law, reflecting the level of international cooperation that is required to combat wildlife crimes in a post COVID-19 world. The Global Initiative to End Wildlife Crime was created to advance this proposal and the reform of wildlife trade laws.

The youth of this world is taking a massive hit from this pandemic. We owe it to them to scale up our collective efforts and to pass on a legal framework that is fit for purpose and that gives us the best chance of avoiding future wildlife-related pandemics and all the misery that comes with it.

John E. Scanlon AO, was CITES Secretary General, 2010-2018, and Robert B. Zoellick was the World Bank President, 2007-2012.

[1] By 2010, poaching and illicit trafficking had brought wild tigers close to the point of no return, and the poaching of African elephants and rhino for their ivory and horn had reached levels not seen in decades. An estimated 100,000 elephants were killed for their ivory between 2010 and 2012.

[2] The ICCWC Letter of Understanding was signed in Lyon by Secretary-General of CITES, John Scanlon, and Ronald K. Noble, Secretary-General of INTERPOL, and in Brussels by Kunio Mikuriya, Secretary General of the WCO. Two more signatures were placed on the Letter at the Global Tiger Summit in Saint Petersburg, those of Yury Fedotov, Executive Director of the UNODC, and Robert B. Zoellick, President of the World Bank.