Panel discussion on corruption and illegal wildlife trade at the London IWT Conference

Illegal Wildlife Trade Conference, London

Corruption and illegal wildlife trade: How to tackle it

Panel Discussion at the Illegal Wildlife Trade Conference, London

On 11 October 2018, during the Illegal Wildlife Trade Conference held at London’s Battersea Evolution, we convened a panel discussion on corruption and illegal wildlife trade (IWT). Corruption is not tangential to IWT but is a key facilitator of this transnational organised crime, enabling it to be a high-reward-low-risk crime. Corruption guarantees the impunity of criminal networks and it has a very high cost, as it undermines the rule of law and the faith of citizens in the legal system. The objective of this event was to concretely expose how corruption facilitates transnational, organised wildlife crime and to suggest practical ways to effectively tackle it.

We were honoured to welcome a diverse panel of highly-regarded experts, who shared their expertise on the role of corruption in wildlife crime to a standing room only audience.

Olivia Swaak-Goldman, Wildlife Justice Commission Executive Director, opened the session and facilitated the discussion. She remarked how corruption enables crime along the supply chain in source, transit and destination countries and exposed how the Wildlife Justice Commission’s undercover operatives gather evidence of corruption during the organisation’s field investigations.

Cathy Haenlein, Senior Research Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), explained the importance of not treating corruption as a side issue to illegal wildlife trade, and the need for increased proactive measures by the countries effected as currently there is low prioritisation and the legal frameworks are weak. Ms Haenlein explained how RUSI has been looking into the financial dimensions of wildlife trafficking, noting that corruption “is it is not an add on subject around illegal wildlife crime: it is indeed the air that wildlife trafficking breathes,” and highlighting that “if we arrest poachers but leave corruption systems in place, nothing will change.”

Tim Steele, Global Anti-Corruption Adviser at the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) reinforced the need for cooperation to tackle corruption effectively and start looking at it as a major economic crime, following the finances and understanding the specifics as well as what is driving corruption on the ground. Mr Steele remarked on the need to strengthen cooperation to address corruption; asserting, “we need to start organising ourselves so that we do not trip over each other; if we do not work together, we are finished, and the bad guys win.”

Jack Radisch, Policy Analyst, Illicit and Counterfeit Trade, at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) highlighted the importance of understanding the globalised context we are operating in. The OECD has researched the massive uptake in transnational consignment and how the value accumulates along the chain, placing poaching at the lowest level. As such, there is a need to not only look into the supply chain but also to unwind these networks and go after the people at the commercial level. Mr Radisch made a call to governments to both reinforce their legal frameworks to tackle corruption and provide more resouces and training to their law enforcement officers. He also called on donor agencies to support non-for-profit entities tacking wildlife crime and gathering intelligence and evidence.

Wildlife Justice Commission’s Chief of Investigations remarked that illegal wildlife trade is a transnational, organised criminal activity and to tackle it we need political will to drive change and donor governments to support agencies to address corruption. He remarked that law enforcement “does very well at making arrests on cases around wildlife trafficking when they are given the resources,” but in order to effectively tackle wildlife crime and corruption, investigations must happen at both ends: “we hear a lot about the need to follow the money but we rarely see this happening.” Follow-up financial investigations are critical, as the criminals “only care about their money being taken away from them, and the impact on their life style, not about the seizure of the commodities they traffic.”

We would like to thank the panel members for their time and for their invaluable contributions, and the audience for their proactive contribution to the discussion. We are extremely grateful to the organisers of the IWT Conference for their invitation to organise a panel on this important topic and their assistance.

Illegal Wildlife Trade Conference, London
Olivia Swaak-Goldman facilitating panel discussion at the IWT Conference, London, 11 October 2018.