From rhino horns, to pangolin scales to rosewood, the world has seen increases and decreases in the illicit trade of plants and animals during the recent five-year period, according to a new report from the United Nations Office on Drugs a Crime. The World Wildlife Crime Report found that along with threatening endangered species, wildlife crimes and exploitation of nature can promote climate change as well as negatively impact public health because of zoonotic disease transmissions.
We sat down with Arnold Kreilhuber, Acting Director of the United Nations Environment Programme's UNEP Law Division, and Susan Gardner, Director of the Ecosystems Division, to discuss the findings of the study and what can be done to stem the illegal animal trade.
Why is it important to fight wildlife crimes?
Arnold: I strongly believe that wildlife crimes deserve as much attention as other crimes. A wildlife crime is rarely an isolated act but is usually part of a criminal network that operates beyond the borders of one country and even of one continent. Wildlife crime is often associated with other crimes, such as organized crime, money laundering, tax fraud and corruption.
Do these criminal networks take advantage of local people?
Susan: Yes. They often target low-income and marginalized communities, leveraging the fact that these communities may be desperate for money. As well, significant revenue is derived from wildlife crime and results in economic losses for legitimate businesses while depriving governments of tax revenue.
What effect do wildlife crimes have on the environment?
Susan: They pose a threat to sustainable development and challenge the achievement of the sustainable development goals (SDGs), such as SDG 14, life below water, SDG 15, life on land, and SDG 16, peace, justice and strong institutions. Illegal trade in wildlife can damage the ecological integrity and functioning of ecosystems and can drive some species towards extinction. Lastly, the environmental, economic and social distress created by wildlife crime may flow into business and politics, posing a threat for peace and security.
What are some common examples of environmental crimes?
Arnold: Generally speaking, an environmental crime refers to an activity that is against the law, harms the environment, creates a benefit (often an economic one) for those who commit it, and results in criminal penalties such as a fine and/or imprisonment for the offender. Examples include smuggling of wildlife, export of hazardous waste in manner that does not respect environmental standards, illegal logging, or illegal fishing. Whether an act or an omission will result in criminal penalties is a decision made by each country.
What are the key challenges faced when combating environmental crime?
Arnold: One is the availability of data. Coordination within a country, for example between customs and the prosecutor's office, and between countries has also been challenging. Key legal challenges include weak regulatory frameworks, especially light penalties that do not deter perpetrators, and weak monitoring and enforcement frameworks.
How does UNEP fight wildlife crime?
Arnold: UNEP's collaborative action to combatting wildlife crime spans a diverse project portfolio at national, regional and global scales. We have three inter-related priorities. The first is maintaining political momentum to support international cooperation and strengthen political will to address illegal wildlife trade at the national level. The second is supporting legal, judicial and enforcement measures by strengthening legal and regulatory systems and promoting capacity development in many countries to effectively enforce wildlife and timber laws and tackle illegal wildlife trade. Finally, we help build knowledge to prevent and reduce demand for illegally sourced wildlife products.
We also galvanize action in support of the importance of ecosystem and species stewardship through the campaign Wild for Life, a partnership between UNEP, the United Nations Development Programme, UNODC with CITES.
Are there any linkages between COVID-19 and wildlife crime?
Susan: Although we should caution against jumping to conclusions until a clear link between the new coronavirus and illegally traded species is firmly established, the unregulated nature of illegal trade in wildlife and the absence of any veterinary controls makes it a threat to human health.
The link to wild animal markets for this disease have not been proven conclusively. Nonetheless, based on past experience with coronaviruses, such as SARS, the World Health Organization recommends hygiene precautions when visiting wild animal markets. Evidence indicates that there is scope for improving the sanitary conditions and veterinary monitoring along the entire wildlife trade chain to reduce transmission rates, including of captive breeding facilities.
Efforts to ensure the strict application of the law are needed to minimize the risk of future epidemics. Effective implementation of law and policy for wildlife are also needed to ensure a sustainable market in wildlife products is managed for the benefit of people and biodiversity.