Reflecting on 8 years of the Wildlife Justice Commission

By Olivia Swaak-Goldman

“If you think you’re too small to have an impact, try going to bed with a mosquito in the room.” I recently came across this quote used by Body Shop founder Anita Roddick while reading Patrick Alley’s new book Very Bad People. This notion about the impact that a mosquito can have in a room is exactly how I feel about the journey of the Wildlife Justice Commission so far. We might have started out small, but we managed to create a tremendous impact in the fight against wildlife crime.  

This month marks our 8th anniversary. A good moment to reflect on how it all started in 2015: five staff members, one donor, two cases and an ambitious strategy to hold governments accountable for failing to address wildlife crime occurring in their own countries, through the mechanism of a Public Hearing in the City of Peace and Justice, The Hague.  

We have come a long way since. Our growth and development as an organisation have been phenomenal. I feel privileged to continue to receive the support of a trusted group of donors and partners and to work with a wonderful team of professionals from around the world. 

Some key features of our journey:  

  • We have grown substantially, from 5 to 104 staff members in a span of 8 years; and we now have the largest intelligence analysis team of any NGO focusing solely on wildlife crime. 
  • Our first investigations were focused on Southeast Asia. Today, we have expanded our investigations into global operations across the wildlife trafficking supply chain. 
  • We started out with one donor in 2015 (the Dutch Postcode Lottery). In 2022, over 25 donors have put their trust in us and supported our work.​ 
  • At first, our work was focused on conducting investigations to gather evidence and compile a Case File to present it in a Public Hearing. Our approach has evolved greatly since, now we conduct intelligence-led investigations jointly with law enforcement partners.  
  • While our first investigations were solely focused on wildlife crime, we have recently expanded our work to include the trafficking of vulnerable marine species.  

In 2015, the Wildlife Justice Commission was created with the idea to hold governments accountable for failing to address wildlife crime. Our initial focus was on Southeast Asia. The model was to gather actionable evidence, provide it to national authorities in the form of Case Files and if they did not take sufficient action, we could hold a Public Hearing. We did this only once in Vietnam and never needed to use this tool again. Governments, including Vietnam, have always acted upon the evidence that we have provided. This is a testament to the quality of the evidence that we bring to law enforcement: we focus on providing actionable, legally admissible evidence for national authorities to act upon to change the dynamic of wildlife crime being a low-risk, high-reward crime type. It is also a testament to an increased political will on behalf of governments and their dedication to bring these cases. 

In 2017, we extended our investigations to Africa, and we stepped up our intelligence analysis efforts and cooperation with law enforcement. Between 2017 and 2018, we also took our first steps in policy work by urging governments to address wildlife crime in various international fora. 

In 2019 and 2020, we expanded our policy work, and increasingly provided operational support to law enforcement. Years of dedication and hard work came to fruition in 2021 and 2022 with the arrests of multiple wildlife trafficking kingpins (only some of which we can mention publicly). 

Looking ahead, and as described in our Strategic Plan 2021-2026, the Wildlife Justice Commission is now putting more emphasis on strengthening the capacity of our law enforcement partners and empowering governments to effectively enforce the law, aiming to bring us one step closer to a world without wildlife crime.   

Our investigations shed light on multiple aspects of wildlife crime over the years. We have learned that criminal networks trafficking in wildlife are driven by profit, they traffic multiple types of wildlife products, and often engage in other types of organised crime – as documented in our Crime Convergence Report. To meet the ongoing demand for illegal wildlife products, criminal groups adapt swiftly to policy developments and evolving law enforcement measures and move on to other commodities or locations to continue their lucrative business. Corruption is also one of the key enablers of wildlife trafficking and one of the biggest obstacles to effective law enforcement. Lastly, we combine a bottom-up and a top-down approach to tackle wildlife crime, working with local law enforcement and building political will at the highest level. 

The results of our work have been extremely rewarding; we have helped dismantle over 40 criminal networks, preventing them from regrouping. We also facilitated the arrest of more than 195 high-level suspects, and we are proud of the 100% conviction rate for the cases that we helped build and have been prosecuted by the relevant national authorities. 
Strengthening the capacity of law enforcement agencies is also an area of our work that has grown significantly in recent years. We provide specialised intelligence and investigations training ranging from basic to advanced. We follow it with a mentoring programme, in which new skill sets are applied to real life cases. We have had outstanding success using this model, particularly in Thailand and Mozambique

In the coming years, we expect our work on fisheries crime to grow. With several investigations underway, we anticipate results in terms of the identification of major targets, arrests, and disruptions of criminal networks trafficking in vulnerable marine species.   

Finally, we will make sure that wildlife crime, and its ancillary crimes, receive the attention they deserve. We will continue to use our valuable and strategic insights to inform and influence partners and policy makers and build the political will to elevate the importance given to tackling wildlife crime. We will also continue to support law enforcement agencies on the ground by providing training and mentoring and building on their capacity to increase the effectiveness of national, regional and global responses to this form of organised crime. We will continue to work in partnership with governments, policy makers and other stakeholders to highlight the role of corruption in enabling wildlife crime, and the convergence of wildlife crime with other forms of organised crime. 

I look forward to at least another 8 years of being a mosquito in the room.