The Law and the SDGs  |  A4ID Conservation and Wildlife Team

Trapping the Illegal Wildlife Traffickers

The illegal wildlife trade is a multi-billion dollar business that threatens our biodiversity, endangered species and local livelihoods. At the heart of its combat strategy has to be the legal sector with a joint effort to strengthen weak criminal justice systems and connect the global law enforcement.

The scenic drive from hectic Accra, Ghana’s bustling capital, along the coast leads through tropical, lush vegetation and is one of the nicest coastal routes in Western Africa. Dotted with palm trees, the beach road gives fantastic views onto sandy beaches and local fishing barges. Street vendors occasionally pop up along the road with their most random display: toilet paper, smart phone accessories and sachet water. Fried yam, grilled tilapia or meat are sold to feed the locals and the . A guidebook would praise this to be a picture perfect scene with some local colour thrown in. Except that it is not, nor here in Ghana, nor elsewhere in Africa. The grilled meat often turns out to be grasscutters, bushbuck and civet, universally known as bushmeat. Bushmeat is a vital source of protein across Africa and its consumption is rising among the growing population despite findings showing it to be a source of some zoonotic diseases and a threat to Africa’s wildlife.

Trading in illegal wildlife: Big business and low risk

A particular delicacy on the bushmeat platter across Asia and increasingly Africa is the endangered species of pangolins, although their meat is widely consumed for local subsistence too. Pangolins are the most trafficked mammal on earth with an estimated 1 million pangolins taken from the wild in the past ten years. The most valuable part of the pangolin is its scales, which are used in traditional medicines and for jewellery. Besides pangolin scales, other animal parts like elephant ivory, rhino horn, bear bile and tiger bone are highly sought after as medicinal products, which drives demand, especially in Vietnam and China. As a result, 500 African rhinos and 20,000 elephants are killed every year by poachers and their horns and tusks are being trafficked in the illegal wildlife trade from Africa to Asia.

Environment crime in its broader sense, includes wildlife and timber trafficking as well as illegal fishing. The 2019 World Bank Report has estimated its costs to be as high as US$ 1 trillion- US$ 2 trillion per year and it has emerged as the fourth most profitable illegal crime after drugs, arms and human trafficking. Criminals along the supply chain are attracted by the low-risk and high-value nature of the trade. The poachers in Africa and their immediate tradesmen only make 5-10% of the value, which can still be an attractive income but they are at risk of getting caught by rangers or while tracking dangerous wildlife in the bush.

Wildlife crime’s huge impact on biodiversity and local livelihoods

The consequences of the illegal wildlife trade on the planet are enormous. The ecosystem is permanently tipped out of balance and endangered species such as pangolins, black rhinos, amur leopards and forest elephants are threatened with extinction. Since 1970 the planet has already lost 68% of its biodiversity, according to the “The Living Planet Report 2020” (WWF). With a rapidly growing population and greater prosperity worldwide, we exploit our natural resources in an unsustainable way and put too much pressure on our planet’s wildlife. Wildlife trafficking leads to species loss, which can cause a cascade of effects on other dependant species and species from other regions might invade and possibly carry diseases. Habitat loss removes important buffer zones between humans and wildlife, causing human wildlife conflicts, but it is also more likely that animal pathogens come into contact with people, spreading diseases. The impact of illegal wildlife trade is reaching further than the environment itself, as it affects the economic development of some of the poorest countries by robbing communities of future revenues and poses a threat to the people who live and work alongside the wildlife. A sad example is the death of Anton Mzimba, a ranger who worked in the Timbavati Private Nature Reserve in South Africa. Last year he was brutally murdered in his home, in front of his family. It was his life’s passion to conserve nature and protect rhinos. Every day courageous wildlife rangers protect wildlife and risk their lives. More than half of all rangers across Africa do not have access to insurance if they are seriously injured or killed while on duty. It does not only put themselves at considerable risk, but also their families, who depend on the ranger’s income.

The local communities around national parks and game reserves mostly do not benefit from the tourism that the wildlife attracts as much as they should. Although rangers or wildlife guardians can be recruited locally, most members of those communities do not have access to higher education or better paid jobs. Poverty, and the opportunity to escape poverty, makes the offenders victims of their situation and circumstances. For the high-level criminal networks who orchestrate this crime, victims of poverty constitute a big recruitment pool of poachers. 

Corruption and impunity are the key drivers

Illicit wildlife goods are sourced in jurisdictions with low risk of detection and punishment. Until recent years the main sourcing countries were situated in Southern and East Africa, but noticeably there has been a shift to West and Central Africa. Nigeria has evolved into a main transit hub for trafficking in illicit wildlife products from Eastern and Central Africa. From the Nigerian ports the illegal freight is shipped in containers to East and Southeast Asia. In 2021 alone, the Nigerian Customs seized nearly 17 tonnes of ivory and pangolin scales, from two separate large-scale seizures. That the illegal wildlife trade and in particular the transiting of those goods is flourishing in Nigeria is not a coincidence. Impunity and corruption are the key drivers of wildlife and forest crimes in the country, and this is the case in many African jurisdictions.

For more details, please see the complete background research available here.

The Legal sector’s task: Strengthening the criminal justice response

This trade is largely run by highly organised networks who make it difficult for law enforcement detection as they use sophisticated financial systems or transport logistics to facilitate wildlife crime. For nine years the private sectors have been involved in the fight against illegal wildlife trade through the implementation of the Financial and Transport Taskforce at united for wildlife (Royal Foundation), which includes global shipping, ports, airlines, banks and financial institutions. These taskforces use their resources and networks to prevent illegal wildlife trade products from being trafficked across borders and to detect and prevent money laundering, which is associated with the trade.

After incorporating the private sector, it is important to step up the efforts within the legal sector to take on the battle against traffickers. The current criminal justice response in wildlife cases across Africa is too weak: Earlier and stronger prosecutions, speedier trials and more proportionate and consistent sentencing need to be implemented. To fully implement these changes requires the political will of the countries where the products are sourced, to make it a priority. Arrest and seizure need to lead to an immediate and strong prosecution that will end up in a conviction, with an outcome that can be predicted.

Across the continent there is a huge variation in sentencing. In Nigeria a trafficker was sentenced to three months’ imprisonment for possession of 200 kg of pangolin scales. Last year a South African was sentenced to 5 years in prison, after being caught transporting two freshly extracted rhino horns in his home country, whereas a perpetrator in Uganda was given a life sentence for the possession of 10 kg of ivory. The example from Nigeria in particular is typical of the lenient sentencing and almost implies impunity. Wildlife cases like these are often dealt at a lower magistrates’ court, where they are not handled on a daily basis and not considered urgent or important enough to be dealt with swiftly. The specialised wildlife crime court in Uganda is an exception to this, the magistrates there manage the cases efficiently and are proficient in these particular crimes, also backed up by recently updated wildlife law. Many jurisdictions are in dire need of an update on their domestic laws, which would facilitate better prosecution and courts.

Connect the law enforcement: KAZA IWT Network project

When fighting transboundary serious organised crime, international collaboration of law enforcement agencies is absolutely key. Disconnected global law enforcement is a big enabler of the illegal wildlife trade in the jurisdictions where products are either sourced, trafficked or consumed. In theory, mutual legal assistance and extradition are difficult, in practice, it can be a lot more straightforward: Communication across borders and across departments or agencies is easiest done, when people know each other. When prosecutors just pick up the phone and ring each other to resolve issues. Secured, digital communication for exchange of information and provision of important documents such as Rapid Reference Guides in a digital tool for the prosecutors will improve the work across Africa for many.

Training of prosecutors, magistrates and judges is needed, particularly in more general aspects such as trial without delay, active case management, handling of evidence, preliminary hearings and prescriptive sentencing guidelines. Networks of legal and judicial professionals are necessary to gain trust and learn from each other.

To facilitate networking and training of legal and judicial professionals, A4ID’s ROLE UK Programme is implementing the KAZA IWT Network project in Southern Africa. The KAZA TFCA (Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area) encompasses parts of Angola, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Through transboundary network groups, investigators, prosecutors and magistrates get to know their colleagues, exchange information on their work structure, and receive joint training to overall improve their collaboration in wildlife crime.

A4ID is committed to the Sustainable Development Goals. Our Conservation and Wildlife Theme focuses on SDGs 14 (Life below water), 15 (Life on land), 16 (Peace, Justice and strong institutions) and 17 (Partnerships for goals). Through our vast network of pro bono experts we can facilitate review of legislations, training of legal and judicial professionals and many additional services through partnerships in the field of rule of law.

To know more about A4ID’s KAZA IWT Network project and other work in the area of biodiversity and conservation, please get in touch with Jasmin Megert, Conservation and Wildlife Project Officer.