Africa: Stronger Law Enforcement Needed to Stop Wildlife Crime

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Washington — Improving law enforcement cooperation to protect endangered species is on the agenda for an upcoming international meeting.

The 16th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) will be held March 3-14 in Bangkok. The meeting marks the 40th anniversary of the convention, which was adopted in response to findings that the lives of exotic species were being sacrificed in a completely unregulated marketplace.

One study conducted prior to the passage of the agreement in 1973 showed that 99 million live fish were imported into the United States in one year alone.

The International Consortium on Combating Wildlife Crime (ICCWC) is bringing together law enforcement from many countries to discuss the need for a global system of enforcement coordination and ideas on how it might be organized.

"Illegal trade in wildlife is escalating, is transnational and is increasingly well-organized," CITES Secretary-General John Scanlon said in a press statement announcing the upcoming discussion of the wildlife crime consortium. "Our collective response needs to be commensurate with the nature of the risk at both the political and operational levels."

The announcement said the session will allow law enforcement personnel from various states and regions to share their experiences in combating this criminal activity and identify what further actions might be taken.

The discussions will also emphasize the importance of high-level political commitment to fighting this grisly form of illegal activity, in which animals such as elephants and rhinoceros are killed and mutilated as poachers extract body parts with market value.

The elephant's ivory tusks have long been desired for use in decorative objects. In some cultures, rhinoceros horn is thought to promote good health or virility, despite the lack of medical evidence. In some regions, poachers target rare plants with desirable properties and market value.

The ICCWC, a partnership formed to advance this one issue, reports that illegal trade in wildlife is a growing global problem and an enterprise pursued by transnational criminal organizations.

"Responses to wildlife crimes have often been poorly structured, uncoordinated and delivered in a sporadic or short-term manner," says an ICCWC statement. The CITES Secretariat, the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, INTERPOL, the World Bank and the World Customs Organization are the partners in the ICCWC.

The U.S. Department of State is working with these agencies to combat the illegal trade in wildlife through diplomatic outreach, public diplomacy, training and partnerships.

The United States and the ICCWC are working to establish a global system of regional wildlife enforcement networks (WENs). Southeast Asia, South Asia and Central America have already entered regional partnerships of this nature, and the United States is engaged in the effort to support the creation of new WENs in Central Africa, the Horn of Africa, and Central and West Asia.

Wildlife law enforcement agencies on the national level can encounter an array of problems in attempting to fulfill their mission, ICCWC reports. Insufficient legal authority, equipment, training and resources are typical problems.

In some countries, they attempt to operate in political and judicial systems that don't have a full grasp of the severity of the problem. To be fully effective, ICCWC says, these agencies need the best tools in law enforcement - forensic science and sophisticated investigatory and communication methods and equipment - and often don't have them.

One success story in this arena was dubbed Operation Cobra, a multinational law enforcement investigation conducted through January and early February 2013.

Police, customs and wildlife officers from Botswana, Cambodia, Cameroon, China, the Republic of the Congo, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Gabon, India, Indonesia, Kenya, Laos, Malaysia, Mozambique, Nepal, Singapore, South Africa, Tanzania, Thailand, Uganda, the United States, Vietnam and Zambia all contributed to the operation, which resulted in a large number of arrests and confiscation of a horde of wildlife products.

The upcoming CITES meeting will bring together representatives from 177 nations that are parties to the treaty. CITES regulates international trade in close to 35,000 species of plants and animals.

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