Where does the fight against wildlife crime need to go next?

This week, I am speaking at the launch of North American Chapter of United for Wildlife in New York – a timely extension of their valuable work at a critical moment for our planet’s wildlife. Established by Prince William and the Royal Foundation in 2014 to help protect endangered species from the illegal wildlife trade (IWT), the mission of United for Wildlife is to foster cross-sector collaboration to make it impossible for traffickers to transport, finance, or profit from illegal wildlife products. United for Wildlife is an important ally in the wildlife justice space. I was honoured to be invited to share reflections on the fight against wildlife crime at the recent United for Wildlife Global Summit and I would like to take the opportunity to share those reflections also in this blog.

Where we started from

Since its foundation in 2015, the Wildlife Justice Commission has worked to disrupt and dismantle organised criminal networks; these networks operate in an ever-changing landscape, constantly evolving to avoid detection and arrest. Fuelled by corruption, wildlife crimes were committed openly and with impunity – illegal wildlife products were even openly sold in shops throughout the village of Nhi Khe in Vietnam, as evidenced by the Wildlife Justice Commission’s first major case in 2016.

The global approach to wildlife crime was mostly viewed through a conservation lens and was low on the priority list for law enforcement agencies.

Where we are now

While the Wildlife Justice Commission and our allies worked to prioritise and address wildlife crime as a transnational organised crime, important changes began happening around the world. Key legislation passed: China’s ban on the sale of elephant ivory came into effect on 31 December 2017, and in August of 2021, Hong Kong passed a law recognising wildlife crime as a serious organised crime, unlocking the tools used to address other forms of organised crime. Global, multilateral fora – like the United Nations General Assembly – have demonstrated an increase in political will to address this crime. Law enforcement authorities are more willing to conduct multiple investigations into wildlife crime and the high-level criminal networks involved in it (as can be seen from our work with authorities in Nigeria, Vietnam, Mozambique and Thailand, amongst others).

This progress, of course, has led to significant changes in the realm of the illegal wildlife trade as criminal networks evolve to circumvent our efforts:

–         Commodities have changed – the price of ivory has dropped, but pangolin scale trafficking has increased.

–         Criminal activity has been displaced to areas with less robust wildlife crime legislation and enforcement efforts.

–         Criminal networks have changed their modus operandi to reduce their exposure, including requiring down payments on their illegal products and having smaller quantities available.

–         Organised crime groups appear to be stepping up their involvement in this illegal trade, as seen in the increased size of seizures.

What are the impacts of IWT?

It is more urgent than ever that we, as a global community, increase our efforts to fight wildlife crime and the networks driving it. The illegal wildlife trade is a major driver of biodiversity loss, which can worsen and accelerate the climate crisis by destabilising ecosystems and vital carbon sinks. Wildlife crime both relies on and breeds further corruption, impacting the rule of law. And, as we have all recently experienced, the destruction of ecosystems brings wildlife and humans into closer contact, posing a serious threat to public health through zoonotic diseases.

Are any new threats emerging in the world of IWT?

I can clearly see that there is growing political will to investigate, arrest, prosecute, and appropriately sentence those who engage in wildlife crime. However, more needs to be done, especially with the new risks that are emerging.

For example, the Wildlife Justice Commission has identified an increased use of crypto currency by criminal networks, and an increased convergence of wildlife crime with other forms of serious organised crime like cybercrime, human and drug trafficking and money laundering. These emerging threats need to be addressed while we still have the chance to get out in front of the criminal networks.

What more can be done?

We urgently need to use the tools and techniques we have developed to address other forms of serious organised crime. Intelligence-led investigations are an important force multiplier, making the best use of limited resources. Specialised investigation techniques like controlled deliveries are still underutilised in efforts to address wildlife crime. These are essential to target the senior facilitators actually driving and benefitting from wildlife crime.

Financial investigations are also an extremely valuable tool. Following the money has proven to be an effective approach; two of the Wildlife Justice Commission’s recent reports (Bringing down the Dragon: An analysis of China’s largest ivory smuggling case and Ah Nam: Vietnam’s Wolf of Wallstreet) highlight their necessity in being able to reach the upper echelons of criminal networks.

So, while I am indeed encouraged by the progress I have seen in recent years, more can – and must – be done. We are running out of time to preserve vital ecosystems, save vulnerable species from extinction, and protect public health and the rule of law. I know the fight against wildlife crime can be won;  we just need to put our collective foot on the global accelerator and hasten our rise to the challenge!

Please, join me in this fight against wildlife crime and support the work of the Wildlife Justice Commission: stay up to date on our latest news and subscribe to our newsletter.