The Illicit Wildlife Trade: Developments, Responses, and Lessons Learned to Support SDG 15

By Olivia Swaak-Goldman and Louise Taylor

This year’s UN High Level Political Forum (HLPF) was held in New York but had a global reach as many participants joined side events from all over the world. The HLPF focused on Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 15: Life on Land, and with it, Target 15.7 Eliminate Poaching and Trafficking of Protected Species and Target 15.C Combat Global Poaching and Trafficking.  

The Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime (GI-TOC) joined the Wildlife Justice Commission in co-organising a session about innovative responses that target different stages in international trafficking flows. Speakers shared their experiences of the progress that has been made in disrupting the illicit wildlife trade, but also outlined key challenges that remain and provided recommendations to member states for further improvements to the global response.  

Olivia Swaak-Goldman, the Executive Director of the Wildlife Justice Commission, opened the panel contributions by welcoming the return to this topic following the 2018 HLPF discussion. Olivia Swaak-Goldman outlined the necessity for a multi-layered approach in disrupting and dismantling criminal networks, explaining how key legislative changes and increased law enforcement efforts could efficiently change the dynamics of environmental crime in terms of geographical displacement and decline in prices and demand. “The most important example that we can point to is the Chinese Ivory Ban which was enacted on the 31st of December 2017, and this had a huge impact on the crime landscape”.  

However, despite some successful examples, Olivia Swaak-Goldman stated that wildlife crime remains a serious problem, and although it has started to be taken more seriously, law enforcement authorities continue to be reactive to wildlife crime while they should become proactive. Olivia Swaak-Goldman made three key recommendations to states. Firstly, to make greater use of specialised investigation techniques, which have proven to be effective. Secondly, to increase their intelligence capacity as part of the overall disrupting strategy, as well as to share intelligence transnationally. Sharing Intelligence creates a global picture of the criminal network for authorities, and can help states make better choices with their already limited resources, ultimately achieving a bigger impact. Lastly, considering that the revenue made from wildlife crime often leaves the jurisdiction where it originated from, and locals do not profit from it, financial investigation analysis should be used consistently and systematically. Financial investigation may have the biggest impact on the profit of a syndicate and the asset recovery could help local communities to truly enjoy the benefit of law enforcement action to preserve their natural resources.  

Charity Apale Project Manager at the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) in the Philippines confirmed the important role of local communities in helping to solve wildlife trafficking and poaching. By applying community-based social marketing to change the behaviour of local consumers of Palawan pangolin meat, Charity Apale is hoping to generate active and sustainable support to protect pangolins. Key elements of this programme include supporting the creation of alternative livelihoods for the people that share the habitat of this species. 

The thematic Lead on Environmental Crime at the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, Simone Haysom, reiterated that a holistic approach is needed to tackle environmental crime, which needs to include action to diminish demand and intervention in retail markets. Over the past two decades, the Internet has revolutionised wildlife markets and the online trade in endangered species and their parts. But compared to physical markets, online e-commerce, where many products containing processed animal parts are found, is poorly regulated. The live animal trade is also embedded in social media and large “classified-ads” platforms. This normalises the consumption of these products. Simone Haysom pointed to recommendations such as the creation of clear baselines to measure the extent of illicit wildlife trade/trafficking (IWT) content online and to hold companies accountable and measure the effectiveness of regulation. She added that even slightly increased involvement of regulators would discourage the bulk of buyers and traders, who are not highly motivated.  In addition, demand-reduction campaigns which target key consumers’ motivations could be an important form of crime prevention. 

Lastly, Dr. Naomi Doak the Regional Coordinator for Counter Wildlife Trafficking for Wildlife Conservation Society underlined that despite all progress made in this field, the situation that we are facing is still serious and that increased political attention is not necessarily translating into improved law enforcement responses. Countries are still struggling to turn momentum into action and many wildlife criminals and businesses remain at large. This is due to persistent corruption and insufficient resourcing for responses. Doak also criticised the lack of evidence gathering by NGOs and governments and the effectiveness of popular modalities of response, such as taskforces. Government should prioritise wildlife trafficking considering its public health risk in the light of the latest pandemic and invest in creating meaningful training to develop effective leaders who can pursue efficient strategies to address poaching.  

A wide range of questions were submitted and the panellists shared their insights on the role and responsibility of big tech, possible amendments to CITES and barriers to international cooperation.  

The panellists successfully outlined the complexities across a global multifaceted problem. The session not only provided food for thought for participants but also some very practical ideas about how to harness the growing political attention and turning it into impact and action. 

Olivia Swaak-Goldman is the Executive Director of the Wildlife Justice Commission. Louise Taylor is the Representative for Asia and the Pacific at the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime.