Doha: UN conference stresses grave need to combat wildlife crime

An elephant in Ghana. World Bank/Arne Hoel

Doha, 13 April 2015 – With wildlife and forest crimes on the rise, yielding enormous profits for criminal networks, United Nations high-level officials at a major anti-crime meeting under way in Doha, Qatar, stressed the gravity of the scourge, saying that it fuels violence, corrupts supply chains and undermines the rule of law.

“Wildlife and forest crime…has the potential, not only to devastate the environment, but also to undermine the social, political and economic well-being of societies, while generating billions of dollars for criminal gangs and sustaining their illicit activities,” General Assembly President Sam Kutesa told a high-level event held as part of the 13th UN Congress on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice.

Wildlife and forest crime includes the taking, trading, importing, exporting, processing, possessing, obtaining and consumption of flora and fauna (animals, birds, fish, plants and trees) in contravention to national and international law.

The impact of the crime is global, but wildlife and forest crime is particular acute in developing countries as under-resourced governments often lack the capacity to regulate the exploitation of their natural resources.

In 2013 alone, some 20,000 African elephants were slaughtered. In the same year, more than 1,000 rhinos were killed on the continent.

The total value of the illegal trade in wood-based products, usually from and within East Asia and the Pacific, is worth an estimated $17 billion.

“We now, for the first time, have the opportunity to draw the attention of this Congress in its 60th year to the need to treat wildlife crime as a serious crime,” said the Secretary-General of the Convention on international trade in endangered species of wild fauna and flora (CITES), John Scanlon, also at the event.

“It is because the scale and nature of illegal wildlife trade have changed over recent years and so must the global response. And it is responding but more clearly needs to be done,” he added.

Mr. Scanlon said that illegal wildlife trade is not about local subsistence poaching. Today, the world is confronted by transnational organized criminal gangs, and in some cases, rebel militia and rogue elements of the military. They are driving industrial scale poaching and illegal trade for illicit offshore markets.

“This has changed the dynamic of combating this highly destructive criminal activity in particular as it relates to some mega fauna, such as the African elephant and high value flora such as rosewood. But it also threatens many lesser known species, such as the pangolin”, he added.

The Executive Director of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Yury Fedotov, said inadequate legislative frameworks remain “far too commonplace.”

Simply bringing wildlife crime cases to court is a challenge, he said, and this hard work is too easily undone when cases files are poorly prepared and investigations weak.

“Even when criminal traffickers are successfully prosecuted, the sentences imposed are often inadequate – small fines, a few months’ imprisonment or conditional sentencing”, he stressed.

All countries “must treat wildlife and forest crime as a serious criminal offence,” he added. “By guaranteeing a four-year sentence or more severe penalty, we can ensure that penalties are commensurate and can serve as a deterrent.”

He said that there is a need to apply the techniques that are known to be effective in fighting organized crime networks generally: intelligence sharing and undercover operations, addressing corruption risks, going after the money and tracking illegal goods to their destinations.

“Finally, we must make the development of alternative livelihoods a priority, to support the communities, in some countries, hurt most by this crime. In brief, a balanced approach, addressing supply and demand, in a spirit of shared responsibility, is needed”, he added.

The UN Crime Congress opened Sunday and is expected to conclude on 19 April.