Poachers killed almost 230 rhinoceroses in South Africa between January and October of last year. Over the past decade, they’ve killed countless tigers, too, for trading rings that deal in wildlife skins and body parts. Today, fewer than 3,500 of these big cats remain in the wild.
These are just two of many examples WCS conservationist Elizabeth Bennett highlights in a recent paper. In the journal Oryx, Bennett addresses how organized crime has become more sophisticated in smuggling wildlife and wildlife products and adept at eluding authorities.
“We are failing to conserve some of the world’s most beloved and charismatic species,” said Bennett. “We are rapidly losing big, spectacular animals to an entirely new type of trade driven by criminalized syndicates. It is deeply alarming, and the world is not yet taking it seriously. When these criminal networks wipe out wildlife, conservation loses, and local people lose the wildlife on which their livelihoods often depend.”
Previously secure wildlife populations are now under threat as poachers and smugglers step up their game. Some new tactics include using hidden compartments in shipping containers, rapidly changing trading routes, and switching to e-commerce, which makes their operating locations difficult to detect.
As advanced smuggling strategies hasten local extinctions of wildlife species, better law enforcement is needed immediately. Bennett suggests various strategies to counter organized wildlife crime activities. These include increasing numbers of highly trained and well-equipped enforcement staff at all points along the trade chain, using more sniffer dogs, conducting DNA tests to search for wildlife products, and employing smart-phone apps with species identification programs.
The bottom line, Bennett says, is that wildlife crime must be taken more seriously by law enforcement agencies. Along those lines, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime in Asia recently listed wildlife crime as one of their core focuses. The recent establishment of the International Consortium on Combating Wildlife Crime (comprised of CITES Secretariat, INTERPOL, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the World Bank, and the World Customs Organization) also offers hope that enforcement will get the edge on smugglers worldwide.
“Unless we start taking wildlife crime seriously and allocating the commitment of resources appropriate to tackling sophisticated, well-funded, globally-linked criminal operations,” said Bennett, “populations of some of the most beloved but economically prized, charismatic species will continue to wink out across their range, and, appallingly, altogether.”