Since 2016, Côte d'Ivoire has recorded at least five major wildlife-trafficking events involving seizures and arrests. The most recent was in January, when 578kg of ivory and over half a ton of pangolin scales, leopard skins and other items were seized. According to media reports, the pangolin scales were probably poached and harvested in Côte d'Ivoire, while the elephant tusks came from West, East and Central Africa.
These seizures and arrests were the result of multiple investigations aimed at dismantling networks of wildlife traffickers. The investigations are being carried out by Côte d'Ivoire's Transnational Organised Crime Unit and the Ministry of Environment, Water and Forests with assistance from the Eco Activists for Governance and Law Enforcement (EAGLE Network) - a non-governmental organisation that fights wildlife trafficking.
Unless action is taken fast against wildlife trafficking, criminal networks will widen their footprint
While the seizures show that wildlife trafficking is a major problem in the country, and that it has regional and international ramifications, they don't show the magnitude of the crime.
Based on available information, the problem in Côte d'Ivoire seems smaller in scale than in other countries in the region (such as Nigeria or Guinea) or elsewhere on the continent, such as East and southern Africa. But recent seizures may only represent the tip of the iceberg, and could provide a long-overdue glimpse into both the crime and the networks that run it. Continued investigations will undoubtedly allow a better understanding of the phenomenon.
According to reports, pangolin scales and elephant ivory are the most trafficked wildlife products in the country. These products come from Côte d'Ivoire and other countries in the region, such as Burkina Faso, Guinea, Mali, Nigeria and Liberia, and are believed to be destined for Asian markets. This makes Côte d'Ivoire both a country of origin and of transit.
Trafficking in protected species is lucrative, and the corruption it breeds undermines governance
Although poaching has long since been recorded in Côte d'Ivoire, the country has only recently been flagged for wildlife trafficking activities. A TRAFFIC report published in December 2017, which presents data on pangolin seizures and trafficking routes between 2010 and 2015, makes little reference to Côte d'Ivoire. The main states that feature in West Africa are Nigeria, Guinea and Liberia. This highlights the need for more information on the scope and scale of wildlife trafficking in Côte d'Ivoire.
The main challenge is preventing the country from becoming a trafficking hub. Several internal factors make the country particularly vulnerable.
For a long time, the government has failed to prioritise conservation and anti-wildlife trafficking measures. The forest police and other bodies tasked with managing, preserving and protecting wildlife lack human, financial and material resources. Those involved in the illegal trade of protected species receive relatively light penalties, limited to a fine of 3 000 to 300 000 CFA francs (between €4.57 and €457), and two to 12 months in jail. There is little indication that authorities are planning a tougher stance which might be a grave oversight, given that wildlife crime is likely to grow.
Wildlife trafficking is a transnational organised crime with potentially dire consequences for Côte d'Ivoire
Corruption generally enables organised crime. The EAGLE Network says some level of corruption among public officials is recorded in 85% of arrests of alleged traffickers. Trafficking in protected species is considered lucrative, and the corruption it breeds undermines the integrity of governance systems, including security and justice, and fuels the business of trafficking.
Wildlife trafficking is also related to other forms of trafficking and transnational organised crime. At the mass seizure in January, some of those arrested were found with evidence that could be linked to human trafficking, illicit arms, drug trafficking and money laundering. Unless action is taken fast against wildlife trafficking, criminal networks will widen their footprint in Côte d'Ivoire, compounding organised crime and corruption in the country and beyond.
To tackle the problem, Côte d'Ivoire's government must acknowledge that wildlife trafficking is a form of transnational organised crime with potentially dire consequences for the country. A first step should be the toughening of existing legislation. United Nations Resolution 71/326, adopted in September 2017, calls on states to make 'illicit trafficking in protected species of wild fauna and flora a serious crime'.
To prevent criminal networks from deepening their presence and impact in the country, Ivorian police and justice officials must step up investigations and increase monitoring and surveillance. This requires upskilling and raising the awareness of security forces - including water and forestry agents, police and customs. To dismantle transnational networks, cooperation between the police, intelligence and judicial authorities of affected countries must be strengthened.
Most important of all however in the fight against wildlife trafficking, is tackling corruption in the management and protection of fauna resources.
William Assanvo, ENACT Regional Coordinator West Africa, ISS
This article was first published by the ENACT project.