WWF: Criminal Gangs Have Upper Hand In Illicit Animal Trade
Illegal trade in endangered species is rapidly expanding, driven by sophisticated criminal organisations, according to a new report by environmental group WWF. The report says that governments are unable or unwilling to keep up with the activities of the criminal gangs.
Over the past five years the poaching of rhinos in South Africa has dramatically increased from about 20 a year to an expected 600 this year. Several factors have contributed to this increase but the most significant contributor is the increase in demand.
Due to its use in traditional medicines, the demand for rhino horns has spiked in Asian countries such as China and Vietnam. This has led to prices of a single horn being as high as an estimated $600,000 while the powered version is worth about $100,000 per kilo.
However, the problem is not limited to a single species. Germany’s UN Ambassador Peter Wittig noted that “2011 was the highest year on record for elephant poaching: ivory estimated to weigh more than 23 metric tons - a figure that represents 2,500 elephants - was confiscated in 2011.” Overall, the WWF report finds that illicit trade in wildlife is worth approximately $19 billion per year. This is the fourth largest form of illegal global trade, just after narcotics, counterfeiting and human trafficking.
One of the reasons this industry has managed to thrive is because of its use of the existing global narcotics network. Much of the profit is used to purchase weapons, finance civil conflicts and underwrite terrorism-related activities.
Because most governments see poaching as a conservation issue, and not a transnational criminal issue, addressing the problem is usually not high on their priority list. This has made it a low-risk high-reward industry. This realisation prompted the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to upgrade wildlife trafficking from a conservation issue into a national security threat. Secretary Clinton noted, “It is one thing to be worried about the traditional poachers who come in and kill and take a few animals, a few tusks, a few horns, or other animal parts.” She added, “It’s something else when you’ve got helicopters, night vision goggles, automatic weapons, which pose a threat to human life as well as wildlife.”
In response to this global threat, the WWF held a briefing at UN Headquarters in New York last week. The WWF, along with TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network, has called on governments to treat wildlife trafficking as a crime equal to other forms of trafficking, corruption and money laundering. They claim that this crime poses a potential threat to national sovereignty.
In addition to lobbying governments, the WWF is using new technologies to combat poaching. The WWF launched a pilot programme earlier this year that uses unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to scan large areas for poachers. This method should assist authorities with targeting poachers and it is hoped that their use will eventually act as a deterrent. The WWF hopes to expand the use of UAVs in Asia and Africa after they received a $5 million grant from Google.
ICTSD reporting: “Google Gives $5 million to Drone Program That Will Track Poachers,” THE ATLANTIC, 11 December 2012; “Clinton Calls For Tougher Fight Against Poaching,” PETS LADY, 20 November 2012; “Illegal wildlife trade ‘threatening national security’, says WWF,” THE GUARDIAN, 12 December 2012; “Rhinos ‘Hanging by a Thread:’ Vietnam and South Africa Sign Poaching Agreement”, THE EPOCH TIMES, 10 December 2012; “Illegal wildlife trade threatens national security, says WWF report”, WWF, 12 December 2012; “2011 Elephant Poaching Surged To Record Levels, WWF Report Finds”, HUFFINGTON POST, 12 December 2012.
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