By John E Scanlon
Illegal trade in wildlife has now reached a scale that poses an immediate risk to wildlife and to people. Over the past five years, we have seen a dramatic spike in the poaching and illegal trade in elephants and rhinos. In 2011 an estimated 25,000 elephants were poached across Africa and in South Africa alone 668 rhinos were lost to poachers in 2012.
The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) was born 40 years ago on 3 March, 1973 in Washington DC. It sets the global controls for trade in wildlife, and the 177 countries that have joined CITES will meet from Monday in Bangkok, Thailand to take stock of of the situation, step up enforcement efforts and send clear political signals on putting a stop to illegal wildlife trade.
Today's wildlife crime increasing involves organised crime syndicates, and in some cases rebel militia. These criminals operate across national borders and through international shipment routes; have significant financial support; understand and utilise new technologies, and are often well-armed. They do not hesitate to use violence or threats of violence against those who try to stand in their way, and constantly adapt their tactics to avoid detection and prosecution.
In doing so, they exploit people in some of the poorest countries of the world, corrupt officials and kill and injure wildlife officers.
This poses a serious threat to the stability and economy of these countries, robs them of their natural resources and cultural heritage, and undermines good governance and the rule of law. These criminals are laundering their ill-gotten gains and in some instances, use them to finance armed conflicts and other criminal activities, with the UN Security Council recently linking the Lord's Resistance Army to the illicit trade in ivory in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. They must be stopped.
Wildlife crime can be attractive to criminal gangs due to the lower risk of detection and prosecution, and it often carries relatively low penalties. Wildlife officers serving in the frontline are being outgunned and they need support from police, and sometimes the military, as well as the international community.
It is time to treat wildlife crime as serious crime and to deploy the techniques used to combat illicit trade in narcotics, such as undercover operations and "controlled deliveries" – meaning contraband is not seized but tracked to its destination. More....