Illicit wildlife trafficking is a major political crisis

Illicit wildlife trafficking is a major political crisis
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Wildlife trafficking and poaching are fueling instability, as state authority is undermined, criminal and terrorists funded and corruption entrenched.

After China announced last week that it plans to end all commerce in ivory by the end of 2017, illegal poaching is firmly back in the international public consciousness. Illicit wildlife trafficking, such as the infamous ivory and rhino horn trade between Africa and Asia, is not only symptomatic of an environmental crisis (i.e. the extinction of endangered species); it is also indicative of a political crisis raging worldwide, namely corruption. Despite its identification as “an insidious plague that has a wide range of corrosive effects on societies” by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan in 2004, corruption remains the key enabler of wildlife trafficking. The nexus between illegal wildlife trade and corruption remains the elephant in the room, and the fight against environmental crime will not make headway unless it is addressed as a political issue.

Environmental crime, the world’s fourth largest crime sector

Environmental crime, which comprises illegal trade in wildlife but also illegal exploitation and sale of minerals, and trafficking of hazardous waste comprises the world’s fourth largest crime sector, after drug smuggling, counterfeiting, and human trafficking. This new area of criminality has been surging in the past decade, growing at two to three times the pace of the global economy, according to a 2016 UNEP-INTERPOL rapid response assessment.

The money lost to environmental crime equals ten times the sum spent on combatting it – merely $20 to 30 million. The illegal wildlife trade alone is estimated at between $7-23 billion per year, dwarfing small arms trafficking, which experienced an annual loss of $1.5-3 billion in 2016. In Tanzania, an average of 3,000 elephants have been killed each year in the past decade, with an annual street market value for ivory at $10.5 million. This is five times the national budget for wildlife conservation.

Taking a toll on sub-Saharan African economies

Depriving countries of future revenues and development opportunities, environmental crime, and especially illicit wildlife trafficking in Eastern and Southern Africa, is taking a heavy toll on sub-Saharan African economies. Wildlife tourism represents 80% of total annual travel sales to Africa. Leisure tourism generated $2.33 billion for the Kenyan economy in 2014, and employed about half a million people.

Rhinos for instance, part of the ‘Big Five’ live mainly in South Africa and are a popular tourism draw for national parks. They contribute not only to national economic growth via tourism, but also provide benefits for local communities living alongside them; however, they are critically endangered In 2009, 122 rhinos were poached in South Africa.

This figure skyrocketed to 1,215 in 2014, rhino horn having become more valuable than gold or cocaine in the past decade.

Fueling instability on the continent

Illegal wildlife trade not only damages local economies, but contributes to the erosion of the state across the continent. Enabled by corruption, the illicit wildlife trade contributes to instability on the continent. Despite the alleged absence of an ivory-terrorism connection – a widely accepted but incorrect belief – poaching benefits organized crime and regional militias such as the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda and Janjaweed in Sudan. These criminal networks challenge the state’s monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force over its territory, and corruption undermines the population’s confidence in its government. Through the creation of several anti-poaching units, the number of arrests of alleged poachers is increasing. However these poachers remain only the first level in the chain of illegal wildlife trade, as high-level members of poaching syndicates, sometimes government officials, are very rarely convicted, which in turn fuels resentment in the population.

The corruption-wildlife trafficking nexus

Addressing the corruption-wildlife trafficking nexus still has a long way to go, but some major steps were taken in the past few months. During the 17th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to CITES (CoP17) in September 2016, 152 governments agreed upon the first ever resolution on prohibiting, preventing and countering corruption linked to wildlife crime. Earlier in 2016, Kenya also orchestrated the burning of the biggest ever stockpile of ivory, 105 tons of elephants ivory and 1.5 tons of rhino horn. Beyond the symbolic image aimed at raising awareness of wildlife crime issues, burning ivory stockpiles is also a way to make sure corrupt officials will not get their hands on it and fuel illicit trafficking. This is especially important as Kenya is ranked 139th on 167th according to Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index 2015.

Conservation strategies aimed at saving endangered species targeted by poachers also provide hope. According to the CITES 2016 Report on Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants (MIKE), the number of elephants killed for their ivory has been declining steadily since 2013 in Africa. China announced in late 2016 that it plans to end all ivory commerce by the end of 2017, a move that would deal a major blow to elephant poaching as China is the biggest ivory market in the world.

These trends are encouraging, yet poaching remains at an unacceptable and unsustainable high level, especially in Eastern and Southern Africa, while trends also remain worrisome in Central and Western Africa. The next step must be political, as tackling corruption is the only way to deliver the coup de grace to illegal wildlife trafficking.

About Author

Constance Hubert

Constance Hubert is a research assistant for the NATO Parliamentary Assembly. Her areas of interest include international political economy, the security-development nexus in sub-Saharan Africa and investment on emerging markets. She holds a M.A. from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in International Affairs and Economics and a masters degree from Sciences Po in Strategy and Risk Management.